The problem of water in times of health- and environmental crisis

Which are the answer to this problem from the official institutions?

On March 23 of each year, the World Meteorological Organization, a specialized agency of the UN, commemorates the World Meteorological Day, which this year has climate and water as its central theme.

Different international, governmental and non-governmental organizations are working on making the problem of responsible and sustainable use and management of water resources more visible, the world water forums are an example of these efforts.

In the media, activists like Greta Thunberg have achieved notoriety and opened up the debate on environmental problems and specifically, the importance of water for human development and how its untidy management has accelerated the consequences of climate change.

However, the vast majority of initiatives are focused on individual actions. Questioning the time it takes us to brush our teeth, take a shower or wash our clothes is certainly important, but unfortunately, it is far to be among the essential factor in terms to stop the immediate and brutal consequences of water scarcity.

On the other hand, institutional or non-governmental actions have little impact on political practices or legal matters which should prioritize the human right to water, over large-scale industrial-, mining- and other “productive” uses. Decades of international forums on climate change and responsible action on water use seems to have done little for the planet.

In other words, most of the world by action, inaction or lack of means continues to allocate a large part of its freshwater reserves to extractive industries and massive exploitation of natural resources. A path that is destroying our environment, making life unfeasible in large areas of the planet and for the first time in history, knocking on the door of the most important cities in the world.

What do we use water for?

It seems paradoxical that, living on a planet which is covered by 3 quarters with water, we could have such a level of a shortage of this resource with which we have to deal today. The answer is quite simple, the vast majority of the world’s water is in the oceans, salty water, non-potable and can only be of use for us after going through an expensive process of purification or desalination.

Globally agriculture accounts for 70% of the world´s water consumption, 20% is for industrial- and just 10% for domestic use. In industrialized countries, though, industries might end up consuming around 50% of all the water which is fit for human consumption.

All industrial, productive, commercial and eminently human processes need drinking water for their operation.

For example, to produce 1Kg of meat it is estimated that 15,000 liters of water are needed. The food industry and particularly the meat industry is responsible for the enormous consumption of freshwater, while the process of growth, feeding, and slaughter of animals is strongly linked to the use of this resource.

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How we are using water, on a global level, mostly for big-scale industrial processes, is therefore, one of the main reasons for a big part of the population lacking basic access to this essential resource. There are enough examples of cities and towns, which had originally a good source of water and ended up completely dried out because the water available was taken for industrial processes.

The impact on the health system

The Coronavirus pandemic has now spread worldwide. Hygiene is one of the core strategies that has been raised to fight against this virus. However, this task becomes very complex when access to drinking water and sanitary services is seriously conditioned by where we live.

The UNO itself has highlighted the importance of access to water as a sanitary requirement in terms of controlling the pandemic.

“For the most privileged people, washing hands with soap and clean water is a simple gesture. But for some groups around the world it is a luxury that they cannot afford ”, and they add “ the global fight against the pandemic has little chance of success if personal hygiene is not within the reach of the 2.2 billion people who do not have yet access to drinking water services. ”

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The consequence of a pandemic in places, which lack any access to clean water is terrible. In sub-Saharan Africa, for example, droughts have already caused great famines, and the most affected countries are precisely the poorest.

What are countries like Zimbabwe, Somalia or Zambia, where it has not rained in over eight months going to do to face this crisis? What chance do they have of successfully facing a pandemic when they already face so many other crisises?

According to the WHO, 80% of diseases in developing areas are related to the lack of access to clean water. Among these diseases are dengue, malaria, salmonella, and many others.

A UNICEF report states that 1.7 billion people lack access to clean water and 3.3 billion do not have adequate sanitation services. For these hundreds of millions of human beings, the Coronavirus is just another daily threat to their lives as a result of the lack of access to water.

It is evident that the problem with water is not only reduced to the geographic, climatic or demographic situation of the countries, the lack of economic resources also generates inequalities when facing this issue. For example, according to the World Water Commission, industrialized countries (OECD) have developed 70% of their water storage capacity in reservoirs, while most Developing Countries (PVD) have hardly developed their capacity up to 20%. For the developed countries this means that their sanitary systems have a backup and the possibility of accessing water during a critical situation is much easier.

Climate apartheid is raising today

The production system itself is not the problem, while production is necessary for subsistence. The problem lies in the production model and its logic, which is based merely on economic concerns. When productivity is seen as the only factor, sooner or later we end up with these huge environmental disasters.

Water is a milestone in the problem outlined here.

If there is a water shortage as a result of agricultural monoculture, this affects neighboring subsistence agriculture and the availability of drinking water for the neighboring population, it is necessary to make these conflicts visible. So far, the organization of the communities has proven to be one of the main factors in the successful experience of improvement zones of environmental risk.

If the production of electrical energy involves the flooding of vast areas of the fertile land of often indigenous communities and limits the access to the necessary amount of drinking water for their lives and their animals, it is mandatory to make this situation visible and find alternatives. This should be a requirement for the installation of all kinds of industries however the reality looks very different and many indigenous activists fighting for the rights of their people and the well-being of their ecosystems face a very high cost like forced migration, imprisonment and murder. Faces of Ecocide(, the work of an Austrian Artist-Johannes Wiener, has shown this reality.

The access to all sorts of tropical fruits all year long in the rich countries means that somewhere in the third world the water resources are being diminished and hundreds of millions lose access to clean water. This situation is a harmful privilege that must be problematized and questioned. Do we need to have access to avocados, mangos, and pineapple all year long in Europe? Are we aware of the real cost of it?

The poorest half of the world’s population, 3.5 billion people, is responsible for only 10 percent of carbon emissions, while the richest 10 percent is responsible for the entire half. A person in the richest 1% uses 175 times more carbon than one in the bottom 10 percent, according to figures provided by Philip Alston, an independent UN consultant.

Migration due to the lack of access to water and with it to crops and/or basic food is something that the world is facing today, on a huge scale.

There are many moral and human dilemmas regarding these issues. Who is going to solve the problem of employment that a farmer, who has worked for decades in agriculture and probably his family has been doing so for generations, will be facing when he loses his source of income? Is it perhaps the State that will take charge of this situation? Or should it be the companies, which destroyed their land in the first place?

A humanitarian crisis will generate forced displacement throughout the world. Decades ago, these humanitarian crises were caused by wars or revolutions of constant intensity and cruel consequences.

However, today it is happening and in the coming years and decades to come these displacements will be produced mostly because of climate change and its consequences.

Produce to subsist, humanize to live, socialize to resist.

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