July 2008

Arts & Letters

Pipe dreams

By Michael Cathcart
Maude Barlow’s ‘Blue Covenant’ & Åsa Wahlquist’s ‘Thirsty Country’

According to Maude Barlow, the human race is facing a threat more lethal than global warming. Barlow is a Canadian writer who crusades against corporate control of natural resources. She is also a co-founder of the Blue Planet Project, a network of activists who are fighting the commodification of the world's water. Her world is divided into two ideologically opposed camps. On one side is "Big Water": a global syndicate of water corporations whose interests are promoted - and imposed on the rest of us - by the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, the World Trade Organization and the World Water Council. "For these forces," she writes, "water is a commodity to be sold and traded on the open market." On the opposing side is Barlow's coalition of environmentalists and human-rights groups committed to the principle of "global water justice". They believe that water is "the common heritage of all human and other species, as well as a public trust that must not be appropriated for personal profit or denied to anyone because of an inability to pay".

Blue Covenant: The Global Water Crisis and the Coming Battle for the Right to Water (Black Inc., 196pp; $29.95) plunges us back into mindset of the 1970s, when people of goodwill were defiantly opposed to ‘multinational corporations' and when the ‘profit motive' was synonymous with greed and social irresponsibility. In the way of environmentalist polemics, Blue Covenant is a litany of depressing facts. (Over half of China's 1.3 billion people do not have access to safe drinking water, Barlow tells us. The glaciers of Tibet are melting so fast that they are washing the topsoil off the plateaus below, leading to desertification. Every eight seconds, somewhere in the world, a child dies from drinking dirty water.)

The world is running out of fresh water, both because we waste it and because our sewers and toxic industries poison it. At the same time, millions of people are crying out for water that is affordable and clean. Barlow argues that global water corporations are contributing to this crisis. As the competition for water becomes more ruthless, the corporations will take what little water belongs to the poor and sell it to those who can afford to pay - a deadly strategy which Big Water is already touting as the ‘efficiency' of a free market. Essentially, Barlow's argument is that we should concentrate on restoring the natural sources of clean water and ensure, through government investment and international aid, that everyone has access to them.

As she points out, this is not a strategy which suits the corporations. Big Water wants water to become more expensive. It even brags about this objective: expensive water, it says, is water we will use more responsibly. For the same reason, Barlow says, Big Water is busy devising ways and means to treat water. Sure, a corporation can make money out of delivering clean dam water to people's homes. But it can make a lot more money if it delivers water which has been treated or processed first. As a result, the companies promote expensive technologies: principally recycling and desalination. They have no financial interest in maintaining clean rivers or securing our supplies of safe ground water.

It's easy to tire of Barlow's statistics of inequity and disaster. (The average person needs 50 litres of water per day, she tells us. North Americans use 12 times that amount, while the average African survives on just six litres a day.) After a while, I confess, I did start to wonder how she arrived at all these figures - and whether her relentless pessimism left any room for hope.

One of the cities which Barlow uses to exemplify her claims is Jakarta. Her account of a place where the poor languish in squalor perpetuated by corporate greed may strike some readers as implausibly conspiratorial. But it is an account which tallies with research being undertaken at the University of Melbourne by the Indonesian journalist Heni Kurniasih. Kurniasih explains that years of government neglect left the poor areas of the city without running water, while the middle classes and the rich had to content themselves with tap water which was unsafe to drink without vigorous boiling. In 1998, the operations of Jakarta's plumbing were handed over to two of the world's largest water companies, Thames Water and the French giant Suez - companies in which the Soeharto family held a substantial interest. They promised to transform the ramshackle system, providing 70% of the population with water by 2002 and making the water safe to drink by 2010.

This has not happened, nor is it likely to happen. Since privatisation, Kurniasih says, the cost of tap water has increased by 350%. Supply to the middle classes has improved. But, apart from a small showpiece benefiting just a few thousand poor people, the system is still a shambles and around 40% of Jakartans still have no running water. The reason is simple. The expense of building a water system is prohibitive for private companies with a short-term interest in that system, especially when so many of the end users are poor and therefore unable to pay. The companies' imperative to return handsome dividends to their shareholders ensures that the investment in water for everyone will never be made, and the poor will continue to suffer. Barlow sees this as a worldwide pattern. But, she says, people are fighting back. She paints a picture of South America in which governments and people are taking direct action against the foreign corporations and demanding the right to resume control of their water and their environment.

Meanwhile, the World Trade Organization's General Agreement of Trade in Services aims to privatise all government services, and provides that any government which has contracted out the provision of a service cannot now reclaim responsibility for it. To Barlow, this assault on democratic sovereignty could allow a company to drain a country of its water. To illustrate her point, she offers the following hypothetical case. In the name of efficiency, Country A surrenders its water to a private company. That company then decides to pipe the water across the border to irrigate cotton crops in Country B. When Country A tries to resume control, it finds that it can't, because the WTO insists that this would constitute "a restraint on trade".

This book will not convince any readers who have already been won over by the language of the free market or who bask in the glories of public-private partnerships. Such people will recognise Barlow's left-wing pessimism as outdated and irrelevant. But if you are one of the dwindling number of social democrats who stubbornly continues to doubt whether ‘market forces' and ‘competition' are the panacea to all the ills that flesh is heir to, then Barlow will be both a provocation and a source of hope.

In 1991, Australia's longest river, the Darling, was suddenly overrun by a sludge of toxic blue-green algae which extended a thousand kilometres. In the history of Australian ecology, this calamity has become a signpost of change. It is as significant as the Victorian bushfires on Black Thursday, 1951, or the election of the Hawke government, in 1983, on the promise to save the Franklin River. Before the sludge, only environmentalists talked of Australia's rivers as if they were ‘dying'. But the algae convinced most people - even the most blinkered irrigators - that the rivers of the Murray-Darling Basin were in trouble, and that radical changes were required if irrigation and the rivers were to survive.

This was also the year that Åsa Wahlquist began reporting on water for the Sydney Morning Herald. Thirsty Country: Options for Australia (Allen & Unwin, 216pp; $27.95) is exactly the book you would expect her to write. Unlike Barlow's work of advocacy, Wahlquist's book is a forum for ideas. She has spoken to anyone who counts: irrigators, water ecologists, corporate executives, statutory officials and CSIRO scientists. Thirsty Country is a crash course in Australian water dynamics and policy. It explains how our climate works and leaves no doubt that global warming is causing most of the continent to dry out. For irrigation, this poses a sobering challenge. The infrastructure that was built on the Murrumbidgee after World War II was predicated on the wet conditions which prevailed through what we now know was more than a decade of abnormally high rainfall. Even by the norms of the previous hundred years, the irrigation on the Murrumbidgee was certain to suck the river dry. The glory days of irrigation are over, and a great many more producers will have to leave their farms before the equilibrium between the industry and the river system is restored.

The book is a sponge of information and insights which must be taken into account as we debate this enormous problem. For example, we hear the argument that the water shortage will not be solved by building dams. Australia has 500 big dams, and they have the capacity to sustain every Australian through four years without rain. The problem is that these dams are emptying out. What we need is not more storage capacity, but more rain. Or else, we need to find ways of using water more economically.

Unlike Maude Barlow, Wahlquist expresses no hostility to corporate water. In her account, governments have been equally guilty of focusing on profits rather than on the social and environmental good. She understands the quirks and contradictions which make water policy so difficult to get right. She points out, for example, that the relationship between ground water and the water in adjoining rivers is imperfectly studied. In Perth, it is clear that a good deal of the rainwater that once ended up in the Swan River no longer makes it that far. Instead, it is drawn into the thirsty aquifers beneath the city, which have been depleted by decades of unregulated extraction. In the jargon, the relationship between rain, the river and ground water in Perth has been ‘disconnected'. And the levels of rainfall which are required to refill the aquifer and mend the break may never occur again.

On the controversial question of big water pipelines, Wahlquist finds these are expensive and impractical. Because water is heavy (just think how heavy a bucket of it is) and because water flowing through a pipe is impeded by friction, it takes prohibitive amounts of energy to pipe it over great distances. We hear from experts who tell us that if water has to be pumped more than 200 kilometres it is cheaper (and more greenhouse friendly) to desalinate. On these figures, the famous O'Connor pipeline, which carries water from Perth to Kalgoorlie, uses six times the power which would be required to desalinate the same volume of water. (Of course, desal is not an option in Kalgoorlie, because it isn't by the sea.) Energy cost is also a factor when we consider plans to replace irrigation channels with pipes. Most people imagine that pipes are worth the investment because, unlike channels, they don't leak (at least, not as much) and they prevent evaporation. But, as Wahlquist says, an open irrigation channel runs by gravity, while an equivalent pipe may still require pumping - so, even allowing for evaporation, an efficient, well-maintained channel may actually be more cost-effective than a pipe.

Some readers will be surprised to learn that Wahlquist seems not to share the common view that rice and cotton are placing unsustainable demands on our rivers. She highlights the experts who argue that the greatest problem is those farmers who use flood irrigation to grow pasture. Indeed, cotton and rice growers claim that their massive, computer-regulated farms are actually more efficient than many of the more traditional operations.

This is a challenging and bracing book. Åsa Wahlquist does not provide us with answers; instead, her lucid and well-researched writing plunges us into the complexities of the water crisis and leaves us better equipped to join the debate.

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