Not a drop to drink

Forget oil -- an expert on the world's water supply talks about the vital substance we will hoard, ration and probably go to war for in the near future.

Published August 28, 2002 6:52PM (EDT)

At the 10-day United Nations development and environmental summit in Johannesburg, South Africa, this week, one of the most pressing issues will be the world's dwindling water supply. More than 1 billion people have limited access to clean water, a number that could triple in 15 years. The U.N., World Bank and National Security Council all have warned that water, not oil, will bring nations to blows in the future. This week, the New York Times launched a four-part series on the world's water woes; one article focused on the simmering tensions between Turkey and Syria over the Euphrates River, another on how such multinationals as Vivendi have driven Argentines' water bills through the roof. Imagine the tangled plot of "Chinatown" on a global scale: political corruption, corporate interests, the manipulation of water from distant lands, a drought-stricken populace and even, in some cases, murder.

The water-rich United States faces an increasing number of water problems as well. Although Environmental Protection Agency administrator Christine Todd Whitman has called water the biggest environmental concern of the 20th century, the Bush administration seems content to ignore such warnings. (President Bush declined to join the 100 world leaders at the Johannesburg summit.) A prudent handful of Americans take shorter showers and turn off their air conditioners; individual conservation helps. But Diane Raines Ward, author of "Water Wars," stresses that it is up to political leaders to protect our water and conserve for the future, and many of them are dropping the ball. Pollution and wasteful industries are just some of the factors likely to lead us into a future of widespread water rationing. As Ward explains, surreal but serious battles already erupt over things like the ownership of clouds.

Humanity has been gathering and controlling water from time immemorial, says Ward, but the effects of global warming -- rising seas and unpredictable weather conditions -- will make managing water even more difficult. In "Water Wars," Ward takes us from India to the American West, detailing the roots of some of the world's most worrisome water conflicts and most inspiring success stories. Salon spoke to Ward from her home in New York.

Are we in a water crisis now?

There are 1.4 billion people in the world, a fifth of us, that do not have enough clean water to drink. The United Nations has said that that figure is likely to double in the next 25 years. That's 2.5 billion people without water? I think that is a crisis. For us Americans, because we have seemingly so much of it, we haven't felt that. But now it's starting to affect us too. I think about water the most when I'm washing my dishes. I can wash those dishes until they're clean, but all over the world I have seen women who don't have water to wash their dishes. They wash them with dirty rags or they wash them with dirt. Every time I turn on my faucet, I think of the things I've seen and I feel luxuriously wasteful. I try to conserve and reuse my rinse water to water plants and things like that. But the fingertips of the crisis are on us. And we can do so much about it now if we really pay attention. There is enough water for us, but we have to plan for it.

A few weeks ago I was in North Carolina, an hour outside of Raleigh, where there's a drought. Cops were knocking on people's doors and telling them to turn off their sprinklers. Bars and restaurants were using plastic cups and paper plates. Should we expect to see more of this in the future?

I'm afraid so. We can't take water for granted anymore. Like you, I come from the East Coast and I've always had enough of it. We're Americans, so we get it delivered to us through the pipes. It's quite wonderful. When I started traveling around the rest of the world, I was absolutely appalled to find out that a very large part of the world's population doesn't have water in their homes. Forty percent of people have to travel, have to walk to wells, have to walk to pumps, sometimes miles, to get water.

Your passage about Las Vegas, where the limited water supply is being used on golf courses and silly fountains, was startling. What problems will Las Vegas and the surrounding areas see because of what they've done there?

Las Vegas uses incredible amounts of water. There's a housing development with a lake in which there are boats sailing on the lake. These hotels with their water displays are phenomenal. I was in Las Vegas three months ago, and in front of the Bellagio is this series of hundreds of fountains that dance in time to popular music. You really can't quite believe it unless you see it. I walked out of my hotel, and Celine Dion music was being piped, and the fountains were dancing back and forth and spiraling into the air. These kinds of displays are up and down the strip.

Las Vegas brings in so much money. There's a saying in the West that water flows uphill toward money. When there's that kind of money involved it's hard to see how people are going to let it go. But Las Vegas is shopping all around for water and like any water-short place, it's very savvy about how to do that. It's actually drying up springs in Nevada and in the reaches around there.

I have a friend in Wyoming who is involved in water politics -- she's a farmer -- and she said that a representative came from Las Vegas and said, "Look I've got my checkbook, we want to buy water. You can almost name your figure." Now, Wyoming is on the side of the Rockies, so Las Vegas is going a long way away. What's almost as alarming is the outgrowth around Las Vegas because that's really the desert. It's bone dry. And when you see towns around Vegas with people growing grass, it's mighty scary. Grass is about as bad a use of water in the desert as you can imagine because it uses a lot of water.

Do you think we'll see restrictions imposed on places like Las Vegas?

I don't know how soon it's going to happen in Las Vegas just because of the political nature of it. But we're seeing restrictions everywhere. There are places in Arizona where development is tied to water; in other words, you cannot get permits for development unless you can identify where that water is going to come from. That's the wave of the future: Do not zone for a golf course in the desert unless you have an assured supply of water. A lot of that water in the American West is coming from very far away. There was a big piece in one of our New York papers yesterday about all the fines that have been levied against people who have been watering lawns and washing off their sidewalks.

Since the big decisions about water are political, my big point that I try to make over and over again, every one of us needs to know where our water comes from. We need to make sure that our politicians keep it clean. Frankly, this administration is not doing a very good job of that. There have been incursions on the Clean Water Act already.

Did you see the cover of U.S. News and World Report a few weeks ago? The "future of water" was the headline, but the article was mostly about the privatization of water. How do you feel about that?

This is such a serious issue. The privatization of water is very, very complicated. Basically, I will say this: It is our government's job to get us clean water. We can't live without it. A human being has to have it to exist, to stay alive, to grow a potato, to make a microchip. You must have water for everything you do. It's the government's responsibility to keep it clean. You can't let mining tailings be dumped into streams anymore -- which the Bush administration has made a move to do. There are a lot of complications about paying for water. Water delivery systems need to be paid for. In all of this, somebody's going to pay for the water delivery systems.

It strains the divide between the haves and have nots. I read that 75 percent of Californians rely on bottled or filtered water. Christine Todd Whitman has said that water is the biggest environmental issue of the 21st century. But why is it such an unacknowledged problem? Do we have a false sense of security?

We do. I think it's being shaken because the headlines increasingly are concerning water. At least every other day there's a water story in my paper. When I first started working on my book, I went to Pakistan. The shortages have hit there first. There were little boys in jail for killings in feuds over water. Water was in the paper every day in Southeast Asia. In the United States, that certainly was not true 10 years ago, but now you're seeing the equation change.

A lot of your book concerns wars over water. Can you explain what happened in Pakistan? How much does it affect their relationship with India?

There's a lot of tension between India and Pakistan, but water is one of the things that has not caused too many problems. That's because of the Indus Water Treaty, one of the world's most successful negotiations of water conflict. If that conflict had not been settled through a treaty, there's no doubt that they would have been at war long ago.

When Britain left India and India gained independence, Pakistan became a separate country. At that time, there was something called the Radcliffe Line, which was drawn across the north of India and separated India from Pakistan. It was one of the stupidest things that has ever been done. Radcliffe, who drew the line, had never actually visited those areas. The British had built huge canals going across Pakistan to take water out of Himalayan rivers -- that's the Indus water system -- across the land. All the food that's grown there is irrigated by virtue of those canals. The Radcliffe Line put the headwaters and the control works of the canal in Indian territory. All of Pakistan's water, save the main stem of the Indus, came out of India. And it was a horrifying situation: India really had the ability to shut off the water into Pakistan just through those canal works and by building dams on the headwaters in the mountains. But the World Bank is actually a really good guy here because they negotiated the Indus Water Treaty, led by David Lilienthal who was the former head of the Tennessee Valley Authority.

What conflicts do you think we will see around the world?

Let me just say this: The lawsuits in America are enormous now over water. And there are conflicts all around the world; no continent doesn't have some kind of conflict. The worst case of water problems you're going to find are along the Nile, the Jordan River and the Tigris and Euphrates in Turkey. Those are the most treacherous ones because so many countries depend on one source of water. In the case of Iraq, it's two because Iraq gets all of its water from the Tigris and Euphrates, which come out of Turkey. And Syria's major water source is the Euphrates. Meanwhile, Turkey is building 22 dams along those two rivers. Twenty-two dams give you the ability to hold back a lot of water and shovel it onto your own farmlands. That's quite a dangerous situation, although so far it hasn't erupted.

For Israel and its neighbors, there have been more difficulties. Israel gets all of its water out of the Jordan River, which it has sent into the national water carrier and the aquifers underneath the West Bank. There's an aquifer in Gaza too, but it's in really, really bad shape -- so technology is going to matter here a lot. Israel is now talking about desalination. I don't think they can wait any longer and I'm very relieved to hear that they're talking about it.

Will we see more and more countries using desalination -- the removal of salt and other minerals from salt water -- or is it too costly?

It has been tremendously costly and it's been too costly for anybody other than California and the Arab states to do it until now. It's been petroleum money that's inspired the growth of most desalination plants. But the price is coming down. New technologies are improving it enormously. Tampa, Fla., is now building a huge desalination plant. It's absolutely stunning; the price is coming down to $2 for 1,000 gallons. That's about half of what it used to be. And, well, the fact is, when there is no water, what are you going to do? When the water sources are dirtied or nonexistent, it's really the only possibility and you're going to do it.

You write that half of the world's rivers are --

Either polluted or drying up. Rivers like the Yellow River or the Colorado don't make it to the end anymore. And the Yellow River is a very ferocious river. To understand that that river dries up before it reaches its end is almost unfathomable.

Pollution really matters. All of us need to understand that the weed killer that we put on our lawns, the chemicals we use on our crops, dry cleaners' chemicals, deicing that we do on the interstates -- it's all going to make it into our groundwater.

And then there are the weirder disputes. I'd never heard of this before -- the ownership of clouds? How exactly does that work?

Isn't that unbelievable? Yes, there were farmers in eastern Montana who said that North Dakota farmers who had been cloud seeding were taking their rain. So Montana refused to give North Dakota a cloud-seeding permit; that went to court. There was a settlement but North Dakota had to fund a study to prove that it wasn't using Montana's clouds. We can laugh about this, but in a place where there's no rain, when you think that your rain is falling in the next state because of cloud seeding, it's a real issue. Just a really tough one to prove.

You spent a lot of time with one farmer in particular, Beryl Churchill. You characterize her as a responsible small farmer. Why?

Absolutely. One of the stories that hasn't been told in the American West is about the smaller to midsize farmer. There's been a lot of noise about the big dams and a lot of it's right, but there are also the small irrigation communities behind small dams -- in Churchill's case, the Buffalo Bill dam -- who work really hard. They watch out for every drop of water that goes onto their land, they use very few pesticides, they're very responsible farmers. They also grow one crop a year on that land, which the land can really sustain. In other places, like Pakistan, year-round farming has been put in place because of irrigation canals and that takes a heavy toll on the land. But the Churchills are sort of the best of the West and there are a lot of them out there.

And what are the little things that people can do? Or is it not about the little things? Did writing this book affect how you use water?

I'm more politically aware. I was just working on a piece for a magazine and the editor said, "Come on, put in a sentence about what people can actually do to conserve water." OK, individual conservation is important; if everybody conserves, you can prevent the building of some dams and big waterworks. But the serious use of water is in industry and agriculture. Also, so much water is lost in aging systems. We have to fix leaks. We shouldn't be growing grass where it's really dry and you have to water it every day and put weed killer on it. Desalination plants are going to be important. Cleanup technologies are going to be tremendously important. Smart regulation is really important; we have to protect watersheds, aquifers.

One of the best things I have seen happen while I've been working on this are the coalitions of groups working together. All kinds of people are coming together to protect water sources -- the Army Corps of Engineers in some instances has worked with conservation groups, rotary clubs. I have a friend who's worked on the saving of the Everglades in Florida, and he says this is not a save-a-bird, hug-a-tree issue. His name is Joe Podger, a marvelous environmentalist. He says, "Do you like coffee in the morning? Do you want to be able to take a shower? Or would you like industrial waste coming from your faucet?" Find out where the water that you drink comes from and you keep it clean, it's that simple. Marjory Stoneman Douglas once said that the Earth is as tough as an old shoe and restoration can do a lot to undo damage that has already been done.

Climate warming, which is going to affect all of our water sources, is perhaps the most serious issue of all. We have to make ourselves felt with politicians, particularly this administration.

Have they talked about water at all?

No. As I mentioned, the Bush administration not long ago moved to allow mine tailings to be put into streams in wetlands. I don't think water is high on their agenda and they have not been very good about energy or the Kyoto treaty or acknowledging climate change.

What's happening is that private corporations that do have water technology are being hired by countries to come in and put in water systems. That gets back again to the corporatization of water. Is water a commodity or a human right? That's up to the government. There was a very famous instance in Cochabamba in Bolivia where the people marched in the street and drove out International Water, which was putting in water systems that were upping the charges of water. The people felt that they were losing control of their own water.

However, next door in Chile -- which has a stronger government with a very strong system of water rights -- they've allowed outside technology to come in so that all its people could have clean water. And it uses billing to protect the poor; it provides a voucher system so that the poor are guaranteed. So, again, it's government. How are you going to do it? You're going to make your government be responsible. It makes me very nervous to think of water being in the hands of these multinationals -- Vivendi and the Suez Lyonnaise -- but the technology exists.

In addition to water shortages, there's the disaster of too much water -- the floods we're seeing now in Europe and the rising of sea levels due to global warming.

The climate is really changing and that's going to profoundly affect water supply. Rain is falling in places where it has not fallen so heavily before. About 100 people have died in Europe, but that's a small figure compared to those who have died in floods in Asia. [More than 900 are dead in South Asia, and over 900 in China over the last three months.] At the same time, there are drought conditions in Central America, Africa, all over Central Asia, in India and in 40 of our states. So the weather isn't going to correlate to water supply. That's very frightening, especially when you think about food supply. Irrigation systems and reservoirs have always counted on certain amounts of rain. It's going to be much chancier.

In the last 10 years, what can we already see that global warming has done in terms of droughts and floods?

Droughts have increased in frequency, and also in intensity. You're seeing the worst droughts that you've seen in a very long time. At the same time, the incidence of intense storm and heavy rainfall is increasing. Rain comes now in shorter, more intense spurts, and really, you don't know when it's going to happen. Weather used to be much more predictable. It's hard to tell with weather because any specific instance could be an aberrant occasion. You have to look at the long-term patterns. The last 10 years have been the warmest on record. It's a different world that we're living in than we have lived in. I have to say, I find it quite frightening.

Take the European floods for example. Is the extent of the devastation due to them being totally unprepared?

There have been some floods there, but how can you be prepared for that? This is really very unexpected. Flood control is a very mixed bag as we've seen along the Mississippi. A recent report found that all of the flood-control structures that have been put in place along the Mississippi have actually intensified flooding rather than helped it. Some protection works pretty well -- New Orleans has been spared any real disaster. However, along the Mississippi, the levees -- in Europe they call them dikes -- actually intensify the floods when they come. Sometimes it really is just better to get out of the way, and a lot of American towns have been doing that. But when you've got a city with the great beauty of Prague, I think you're going to want to protect it. I live in New York City and I've started to think about the rising sea more than I ever thought about it before.

By Suzy Hansen

Suzy Hansen, a former editor at Salon, is an editor at the New York Observer.

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