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Go Back: Home > Earth Island Journal > Issues > Autumn 2008 > Conversation

Conversation

Tara Lohan

close photo of a young womanIn the US, we have had the good fortune, mostly, to take for granted that water is a human right. Aside from summer drought warnings asking us to take shorter showers, very few states have felt the limits of this seemingly unlimited resource. Popular images of water – the billboards for bottled water or the brochures for lakeside suburban developments – imply a boundless supply that flows through our lives for little to no cost and with little consequence. But according to Tara Lohan, editor of Alternet.org’s new book, Water Consciousness: Everything You Need to Know to Protect the World’s Most Precious Resource, a battle is underway locally and globally to protect the right to water. The book brings together the world’s top water experts to help us realize the depths of the water crisis, outlines simple solutions such as water conservation and appropriate and affordable technology, and introduces some basic watershed literacy. We are awakening to the reality that the resource we depend on most for our survival is limited – a limit that, as the contributors to Lohan’s book suggest, is dictated by our consumption, our management, and our stewardship.

Working at Alternet, you are engrossed in many of the most critical issues of the day. Why focus on water?

Water is all of a sudden hitting the popular spectrum. People in the US are realizing that there is a big water crisis. I think the drought in Atlanta last year really brought that home to people. As we started to do more stories on water, we realized there was a lot of interest and a lot more that we needed to address.

From droughts and agriculture to water privatization and pollution, what are biggest problems we face when we it comes to water?

One of the things about the water crisis is that it is really regional or local, and so for different places, there are really different issues. Globally, access is probably the most important issue. Over a billion people don’t have access to clean water and that ties into several things – one of those is privatization. We are seeing water privatization in this country increase, and it’s something people in other countries have been dealing with for decades. Cochabamba, Bolivia is the most well known example of that.

The main thing for people to understand in the US is that water should be a human right and it should be provided by governments. In this country, there has been a shortfall of water funding by 66 percent since 1991 and that’s because the federal government is cutting off money to the state revolving fund that gives communities access to clean water. So there is more and more impetus for private companies to come in and say they want to buy municipal systems because our municipal systems are starting to fail; the infrastructure is failing. That’s one of the hughest issues in the US.

What does access to water look like for the US?

Most people in this country have great access to water. Most public water systems are safe to drink. In the developing world, it is a huge problem. A lot of it is not a lack of water but a lack of water infrastructure; many people are forced to drink water that’s unclean because they don’t have sanitation services. In the US, it’s more of an issue that private water companies will come in and rates will go up.

How many cities have already privatized their water systems?

Less than 15 percent. It’s becoming a bit more of a trend, but as more companies come in to buy water systems – like in Stockton, CA and Atlanta, GA – companies have faced a lot of resistance. It hasn’t gone swimmingly for them at all.

Would you say we are we already in a water crisis?

Yes. Over a billion without clean drinking water, 2.5 billion that don’t have access to proper sanitation – I think that qualifies as a crisis. I think taken in context with global warming, we are seeing more and more water shortages and droughts across areas like Australia, here in the US, and in India and parts of China. Water scarcity is going to become a real issue for people. A lack of water is something we have never seen in this country; we have always seemingly had enough. Like all resources that we use in this country, we haven’t really thought about our consumption of water too much.

Speaking of running out of resources, is water the next oil?

In terms of the way corporations are maneuvering to get behind it, it definitely seems like water is the next oil. It’s all of a sudden becoming recognized as a finite resource when it was always seen as an infinite resource. [Globally] companies are trying to position themselves to buy more water systems. [They are] working with groups like the World Bank and the IMF to give debt relief to countries in order to privatize water services in return. They have actually said that this is blue gold. This is the next oil, with great profit behind it.

With more realization that water is a finite resource and that climate change is having an impact on water access, are we seeing an upward trend to protecting water as a human right?

I think there is a lot of movement. I know people have been working on this issue for a long time, but it seems like they have just really started to get the wheel rolling faster in the last year. There are a whole bunch of cities that are getting behind this initiative to cut their bottled water contracts, San Francisco among them. It seems like there is also a lot more awareness in terms of consumer purchasing. The Park Slope Co-op in Brooklyn just decided not to carry bottled water at all. There is a growing awareness as far as that goes, but a lot of that is just concerned with saving cities money, saying, ‘Why are we going to spend money on something that we already have for free or near free?’

In terms of translating that to a greater awareness, I don’t think people are quite there yet. I think the bottled water issue for a lot of people is a separate issue. Some people are connecting it to rural communities that are being exploited. Like Nestlé mining in areas where communities don’t want them to be, taking groundwater without giving a full environmental impact. Some people see that as a justice issue. But a lot of consumers will recognize that bottled water is bad for the environment because of the plastic bottles that everyone is throwing away. I don’t know how many of those folks are connecting that with a global water crisis and also to drought and scarcity and consumption in this country.

You say money is being pulled out of our municipal water systems right now. What is the state of municipal water?

I think most people who drink bottled water in this country don’t really do it because they are that scared of their tap water. For the most part, the state of our municipal system is pretty good. There are areas of this country where water is a concern, where there are chemicals in the water and there are pharmaceuticals in the water that we are just coming to grips with. The water is pretty good and could be better if more resources were put into funding clean water, instead of privatizing it like so many other things, like highways and schools and everything else.

The focus of the second part of your book is on solutions. You mention funding municipalities for cleaner water. What are the other solutions that came out of writing this book that seem viable both in the US and across the globe?

One of the main things is conservation, using less water, and also using the technology we have available now to help make that easier. In the book, Peter Gleick gives the example of when there is a drought somewhere, public officials get on the radio and TV and say, ‘Take shorter showers.’ What they should be doing instead is giving people free low-flow showerheads and fixtures, and all those things that are going to cut use all the time and not just when there is an emergency. That goes across the board not just for people, but agriculture, which is the biggest water-user in this country, and for industry as well.

I think using appropriate technology is really good. A lot of what can be done is decentralizing some of the systems we have. Instead of having giant wastewater treatment plants, it can be done on a more small-scale basis to reuse a lot of water. I think that we need to match use with the quality of water: We don’t need to be flushing our toilets with potable water.

My brother and I wrote a chapter in the book about the idea of becoming water neutral. He works building living machines, which are systems of plants and bacteria that treat wastewater naturally. They’re doing them in homes and schools and businesses. It’s helping people to save a lot of water, and helping to reuse a lot of water that goes down the drain normally.photo of a book jacket, words: Water Consciousness: Everything You Need to Know to Protect the World’s Most Precious Resource

What about desalinization? Is that an appropriate technology?

There are a lot of reasons to be concerned about desalinization. It is super expensive, for one thing. It is also super energy-intensive, and if we are talking about a water crisis, we should be thinking about it in tandem with a climate crisis. There is also the issue of the brine waste that is left over afterwards. I think that the technology doesn’t seem to be there, and there is a lot of reason to be wary of it and how it is being developed so far. It also gets back to privatizing water as well. It seems like the people who are able to invest in desalinization are part of big companies and not municipalities.

The Pacific Institute and Peter Gleick did a big report about California and its water issues, and found that the amount of water actually needed over the next 20 years doesn’t require all the desalinization plants or the new dams [Governor Arnold] Schwarzenegger is proposing. They could actually find all the water they needed just by conservation – and that’s not very glamorous.

One of the things Peter Gleick also talks about in the book, which I think is really important, is that money needs to be spent in smaller amounts and in many more places. He talks about how the World Bank will fund huge billion-dollar projects, but what’s needed is a couple million here and a couple million there to develop systems that are more local, because water issues are really something that are watershed based.

What do you think it would take to implement conservation and appropriate technology on a city-scale, like low-flow toilets and showerheads, for an entire city?

It seems like it would take a huge investment in money. In Las Vegas, they are trying to pipe water in from further out, from ranching communities. They spend 14 times more money trying to get alternate sources of water than they spend trying to get people in Las Vegas to use less water. I think the money is there; it is just being spent in the wrong places.

They are developing a community in Portland, OR that they hope will be water neutral by 2050. Basically, what they are doing is building to reuse water and building to conserve water. There can be a lot done with retrofitting what already exists. Also, in terms of new development, things can be built a lot better with green roofs that catch water, and using rainwater for heating, cooling, ventilation, and all the systems in buildings that we don’t really think about that use up a ton of water.

What you’re talking about seems like it would be pretty expensive.

Yeah, but dams are pretty expensive as well.

You spoke about the role the drought in Atlanta played in raising consciousness about the water crisis. Do you think we’re going to see more Atlantas?

Yeah, I do think we are going to see a lot more of that. One of the things that’s interesting, and Tom Engelhardt has a chapter in our book about this, is the ‘and then’ question. The federal government and state governments aren’t really saying, ‘OK, what happens if we do run out of water? What’s the plan?’ Talking to Maude Barlow about this, she says, ‘Well, the plan looks like getting water from other places like Canada.’ Most Canadians aren’t really happy about the idea of that.

Are there any other unusual suggestions or stories that came out in the book that you think are really critical for people to know about?

Brock Dolman wrote a chapter in the book about watershed literacy. One of the most important things people can do is to get to know water in their community. I think most people probably don’t even know where their water comes from; we don’t really know where it goes. So that is an important thing: understanding where your water is coming from, what’s the source. Are there things that can be done to improve it or protect it, and who controls it, who sits on the boards controlling the utilities? People are starting to pick up on that with food and local food economies, but with water and with energy, people aren’t as aware.

Actually, one of the other interesting things that came out in the book that most people don’t know about is that in New Mexico, they have a really neat system for using water called ‘acequias.’ Acequias are systems for diverting water through canals for irrigation that’ve been used for thousands of years. People in New Mexico were doing it long before it was New Mexico, when it was old Mexico. The water is shared communally and the right to water is tied to the land; you can’t sell a water right the way you can sell property. They’ve developed this system of sharing water as a community and making sure everyone has enough. It’s a democratic system of water management, and I think that it’s a good model for people in this country to look at in terms of how to use water to grow food and have enough for everyone in the community.

So what water do you drink?

Hetch Hetchy.

– Interview conducted and condensed by Nell Greenberg

   

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