Running Dry: From the Editor

Several months after finishing author Maude Barlow’s fine book Blue Covenant, there’s a line I can’t get out of my head: “Farms, cities, and industries all over the world are … drilling deep into the Earth to pull up ancient aquifer waters for daily use.”

The same could be said for the way we use so many of the planet’s resources. We are relentlessly pushing into the forests to chop down ancient trees to make paper we’ll soon scrap. We are charging into secluded valleys to tear down ancient mountains for coal that will soon be burned up. We are plugging the earth full of holes to get at the ancient sunlight stored in the oil we consume each day. The conveniences of our consumer lifestyle are dependent upon the fast spending of assets that were long in the making.

Any one of those resource overdrafts – the ecological equivalent of a double mortgage and four credit cards – is folly. The overuse of water seems especially so, if only for the obvious reason that fresh water is a biological prerequisite. The task of managing our limited freshwater resources will undoubtedly be one of the top enviro-political challenges of the 21st century.

There are few places where this is clearer than the American Southwest. Fifty years ago, the region was a sparsely populated desert. Today, metropolises such as Las Vegas and Phoenix are booming. The difficulty of balancing limited water resources and soaring populations is not limited to such arid areas. The same problems are confounding Atlanta and Beijing and Melbourne. As with so many other environmental issues, climate change will only make a bad situation worse (see “Mirage”), forcing hard decisions about the limits of growth.

Even as demand for water threatens to stretch past supply, we contaminate our drinking supply. As Holly Pyhtila reports (“Pink Water”), the photodegradation of plastics, the hormones we pump into livestock, and the myriad medications we flush through our bodies are creating chemical and hormonal residue in our water.

Industry is responsible for much of this water pollution. At the same time, some industries are themselves massive guzzlers of water. For example, billions of gallons of water pass through US power plants daily, Kari Lydersen writes (“Manufacturing Thirst”), putting additional stress on supplies.

Not surprisingly, the competing claims on water supplies have prompted global corporations to try to make money off the vital resource. The controversy over water privatization gained international attention in 2000, when citizen-activists in Cochabamba, Bolivia fought against US multinational Bechtel’s takeover of the local water system. When Bechtel retreated from Bolivia, global justice organizations hailed the event as a victory. But eight years later, the story is more complicated, as Jean Friedman-Rudovsky reports (“Return to Cochabamba”). Cochabamba’s communities have struggled to ensure quality water access for all. In one important respect, though, the win over Bechtel was unambiguous: In Cochabamba, no one doubts that equal use of this resource is a basic human right.

“We believe that water is life,” Eduardo Yssa, who runs one of Cochabamba’s community water cooperatives, told Rudovsky. “It has to be for everyone and it can’t be used for profit or personal gain. This is our vision.”

graphic of Jason Mark's signature

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