Why is Water Such a Big Deal? Global Water Challenge Pres. Paul Faeth Sets Us Straight (Part 2)

China's Li River normally fills the entire area to the trees. Photo: Andrew Turner via flickr

In the first part of my interview with Paul Faeth of Global Water Challenge, we discovered how both top down and bottom up approaches are needed to deal with the water crisis. In the second part, we cover some serious subjects: What areas of the world will have their water supplies worst hit by climate change, water privatization, water intensity of biofuels. As well as the lighter, if no less important subject of what GWC is doing this year at Bonnaroo:If you had to say, in the next 30 years where are we going to see the worst water-related impacts of climate change?
If I had to say, my guess would have to be India—India and probably parts of China.

The reason is this: Number one, I mentioned this issue of the glaciers [receding because of climate change] so the water cycle is out of whack—the Ganges as it is could dry.

The second issue, which we haven't really talked about very much is Indian and Chinese agriculture runs on groundwater. About a meter every year, the water table is going down, and down and down. So there's more competition for water, more wells being dug.

There will come a point where irrigation will no longer be viable for agriculture and at that point all the technologies that the depends on will zero out and no longer be effective, because there isn't enough water. We'll have to shift out crops: They can't grow rice anymore. That is a very plausible outcome in the next 30 years.

Climate change impacts on the water cycle, water being lost in groundwater, and then much higher demand from an economically aspiring and successfully aspiring population means many more people in the middle classes...I think there's a train wreck coming.

A small example of the chaos and unreliability of India's electricity distribution. People stealing electricity by plugging into lines where they shouldn't. Photo: Matthieu Aubry via flickr
How much of that could've been avoided if the Green Revolution wasn't the chemically green revolution?
The single biggest factor going on there is that the electricity grid doesn't work and that the electricity grid is subsidized. So if you're a farmer, you've got an electric pump, and you get water for two or three hours a day, what do you do? You run that pump like mad. Because you don't know when you're going to get water again. Typically you'd water enough just to keep the ground moist, but what you do—they have what they call bunds—they run it up to the top and keep it up to the top all the time.

So the subsidy situation: The have to cut the grid off to move the power around, and it's cheap, the price of electricity is negligible...if they had reasonable subsidies that actually could pay for a decent grid, farmers would use water more efficiently and you wouldn't see the same level of groundwater decline. You could at least slow the decline of groundwater loss.

Yes, it's the technology, no doubt about it. But fundamentally it's because water is unpriced, electricity is unpriced. So it's misused. You see it over and over again. It's the tragedy of the commons more or less, where everyone's misusing a common resource base, because it isn't appropriately priced. Of course, that's coming from an economist.

So I think it is the technology, because it does depend on water. But, you know, it saved them from famine. When that stuff came along, people were dying from famine. And it stopped famine. That's saying a lot, especially in a place experiencing famine on a very regular basis. Of course...they had the technology and used it inappropriately. In the technology of wells, irrigation and electricity were all misused.

photo: Cindy via flickr
We've been increasingly hearing about the water intensity of some biofuels. Can you talk a little bit about your experience with that?
There are a couple of things...in my past, about seven years ago we did some studies about the environmental impact of US agriculture under different policy scenarios. We looked at a variety of things, and the one thing that is very clear is that monoculture corn is really bad. Soil erosion is bad, fertilizer use. What you see is fertilizer goes right down the Mississippi.

What we've seen is that when energy prices went up, we went from rotation—say corn, soybeans, wheat—to corn, corn, corn. What had been undone, the move away from monoculture corn, it went almost immediately back. Land came out of conservation reserve programs, farmers broke their contracts, to put land back under corn.

The energy balance mostly doesn't work. So if you're doing something else besides corn, there are things that can really work. Especially with new types of enzymes being used for digestion of cellulosic materials, it can be favorable, but not monoculture corn. And that's where all the subsidies are going. $7 billion a year for ethanol. It doesn't make any sense.

photo: Keith Kristoffer Bacongco via flickr
A serious subject: How do you feel about water privatization?
First of all, we believe that everybody has a right to water. Everybody should have access. Period. Full stop.

One time actually, I heard an Episcopal bishop speak on the issue... he said water is beyond a right. It's a human necessity. It's not strong enough to call it a right. Because you can't live three days without it. You can live without justice, which is a human right. But water, you know, three days, you're checking out. I thought that was very powerful.

I think a lot of the examples that are used, we see the same reactions we see around privatization in other areas. For example, the IMF comes in and you've got to change out your subsidies, and it's not just on water...there were food riots in Haiti last year. When energy prices went up there were riots around fuel.

I think the real key is an issue of access and governance. The people that are being impacted have no voice. So when the government comes in and makes a change, or does a deal with a private corporation to come in and do something, it's really that the people don't have a say it what that contract looks like or what price they're going to pay for water, or what access they're going to have.

There are examples in the United States where this has happened and it's gone wrong. The people voted the city council out, undone the contract, and that's the way I think it ought to be. People ought to have that say. And the problem in many places is really that people don't have a voice in how they're governed.

That's the fundamental question, that really is the problem in privatization. It's not privatization per se. Because in many places, it's OK in my opinion for a private company to come in as long as the people agree with it, the contract is public, the people know what's going to happen and there's a say in how that contract is going to be run. But it's the question when they don't have that say when you run into all these problems.

photo: Patricia H via flickr
Something a bit lighter: Can you talk about your involvement in Bonnaroo this year?
We are really looking forward to this. We've been invited by Bonnaroo to be the designated charity this year. They're very interested in conserving water and being ecologically friendly to the extent that they can.

We have a big tent right near the main stage. We have volunteers going to try to get people to sign up to sign the UN right to water for people—which is a UN-designated right now, falling under the 1948 rights declaration. We're trying to raise awareness about the issues.

One of the things we feel about this, is it's such an obvious thing but there just isn't the level of awareness out there that we think this merits. Dirty water is the number two killer of children, after pneumonia and flu, yet hardly anybody knows that.

So we want to raise awareness; it fits in nicely with Bonnaroo, as they are trying to conserve water. I think it will be something that will resonate. We printed a couple thousand T-shirts. We're going to be giving them aware, to encourage people to sign up, get in touch with their Congressman, to express support. We're very excited about the opportunity. And it's a great place to spend four days.

Sweta Daga (Global Water Challenge Communications Director): Don't forget about our jerry can races...

You're going to have jerry can races?
We're going to have a jerry can walk to engage people. There's about 10 feet where we're going to have people carry these 40 pound jerry cans. The idea is to be able to say, great, now do that another 19,000 times and you will have walked the three miles...

...To give the message that the average woman in the developing world walks to fetch water about three and a half miles. And half of that way she walks with 40 pounds of water on her back, every single day...

...plus a child, plus whatever...

...and it's a bitch, you know. Girls in many places, when they're old enough to carry water, the boys go to school and they have to go start fetching water. The educational impacts are huge on girls.

The other thing, which is one of the most important indicators of child survivability between 0-5, is the number of years of education of the mother. If a girl stays in school, just takes another three years of schooling, there will be a one-third greater chance that her child will live to age five. Every year it's between a 5-10% greater chance. Education is the first thing to help empower women, to help development and help kids.

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Tags: Agriculture | Drinking Water | Global Climate Change | Pollution | Renewable Energy | Water Conservation | Water Crisis


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