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Water Crisis Is Turning Into a Water Bomb

Mario Soares is a former prime minister of Portugal.

By Mario Soares

LISBON -- The "water crisis" has been statistically documented: 1.5 billion people without access to potable water; 2.4 billion live without proper sanitaryservices; 3 billion have no wastewater treatment facilities. As a result, 30,000deaths are caused each day by the absence of clean water, and 18 million girls under 14 have no idea what it is like to go to school because they are forced to spend their days carrying water, often over the distances greater than five kilometers.

Water is one of the most vital sources of life, and securing its universal accessibility has turned into a major political battle for the 21st century. Increasing shortages boost its price, and it is already commonly referred to as "blue gold."

Eighty percent of rivers in France are polluted due to excessive water use. Many rivers fail to carry their waters all the way to the sea (the Colorado is a typical example). Ground waters are being depleted and contaminated, water quality is deteriorating, and it now has to be extracted from deeper and remoter locations, which invariably increases the costs. In the countries of Africa, Asia, Central and South America, and some former Soviet Union states, governments lack the necessary financial resources to make the essential investments to build wells, maintain public water facilities, update water supply pipelines and provide sanitary services in densely populated or remote rural areas.

Thus, many countries have decided to partly "sell" their water-supply servicesto major multinational enterprises.

The transfer of control over the world's water resources to such "water kings" as Suez, Thames Water, RWE, Vivendi and Bechtel through the privatization-of-service provision and Nestle, Coca-Cola and Danone through merchandizing is becoming the order of the day.

Expensive and in short supply, water has turned into an attractive commodity, which is instrumental for the economic and food security of any state. That is why it is now so often the origin of serious conflicts of interests between social groups and territorial units within one country that compete for alternative and sometimes mutually exclusive water usage (irrigation at the cost of water needs of households, industries or power engineering).

If nothing is done at the basic structural level, then by 2020-25 the "water crisis" will have turned into a "water bomb": 60 percent of the world population (4.8 billion people) will be living in areas with an acute shortage of potable water. And that does not even take into account the negative consequences of climate changes.

Yet the problem is resolvable, and the solutions are well known. The chief obstacle is the absence of political will to make necessary decisions: recognize access to clean potable water as a universal inalienable right of all people; recognize that water is the common property of all living beings on Earth, not an economic commodity that can be merchandized and privatized; promote alternative agriculture (designed to accommodate local needs through less soil-destructive and water-consuming technologies); reorient water-supply technologies to accommodate the needs of the poorest (e.g. through reintroduction of rainwater utilization); involving citizens in water resource democratic institutes; directing public access to democratic decision-making).

The oligarchy of financiers, technocrats and tycoons should never be allowed to decide the destiny of life -- for that is exactly what water is.

In 1998, at the initiative of the Group of Lisbon, concerned citizens and parliamentarians gathered to sign the Water Manifesto, proposing that measures to address the world water crisis be taken and implemented in a citizens' Global Water Contract including three main axes: the creation of a Network of Parliaments for Water; the promotion of an information campaign, awareness raising and mobilization on Water for All; the establishment of a World observatory for Water Rights.

The Global Water Contract has since made good progress, and its networks can now be found on all continents. In Rome last year members of both European and national parliaments formally adopted the Water Manifesto. The manifesto proclaims water to be an inalienable human right.

I hope that men and women of good conscience understand the need to fight to make water a universally recognized human right. Mankind cannot survive without free access to water.

(c) 2004, Optimist/Nobel Laureates Plus. Distributed by Tribune Media Services International.
For immediate release (Distributed 7/8/04)