5 May 2008

God's Water

MP forwarded an email from the faith and social justice group at his church:
Dear Friends,

Is water a commodity to be bought and sold to the highest bidder, or is it part of the commons to be shared by all?

Scripture tells us that water is God’s provision for creation. The prophets Isaiah, Jeremiah and Ezekiel scold the people for defiling the land, fouling the water and forsaking God. The Gospel of John proclaims that Christ came that the world might be saved and restored to right relationship to God.

The fact is that water has become a currency that the moneyed and privileged control. It is being privatized in developing countries at the insistence of the World Bank.[1] This often leaves the poor without water.[2]


"Green revolution," high-yield crops have replaced locally developed drought-resistant crops around the world. In addition to needing pesticides and fertilizers, they need lots of water.[3] So groundwater is pumped, and aquifers are being depleted worldwide. The deep aquifers are not a renewable resource.

Dams are the other source of water for thirsty crops. When a dam is built an ecosystem is destroyed, and people are displaced from their fertile farmland.[4] One dam, The Three Gorges Dam in China, is displacing 10,000,000 people. The World Bank has financed the building of approximately 50,000 large dams.[5] When these dams are completed, the water is privately owned,[6] so the poor and the displaced lose access to it.

Is this what God had in mind when he made us stewards of creation?
She goes on to claim that "One toilet flush uses as much water as the average person in a developing country uses for the whole day’s drinking, cooking, washing and cleaning." [7] and "50% of the water used in the U.S. is for meat production" [8]. She ends by encouraging group members to lobby Congress in favor of the Clean Water Restoration Act (future post).

Besides the laudable goals of the protecting the environment and poor,[9] let's look at a few of these claims:
  1. The Bank backs privitization for two reasons: "market fundamentalism," i.e., a notion that markets can fix anything; and trying to replace inefficient, inequitable state-owned enterprises. I'd say that the mix is 20/80 percent, but critics of privitization tend to reverse those numbers. As I discuss here (and in my dissertation), privitization solves nothing if it replaces an incompetent public monopoly with a greedy private one.
  2. The poor are often underserved by government-run systems.
  3. Completely true. Mining resources (like groundwater) to increase current consumption is not sustainable.
  4. Dams can cause great harm. The worst are government subsidized.
  5. Note that the Bank does not fund many dams. Ironically, China is now exporting dams to poor countries. On human rights, the Bank is positively angelic compared to China.
  6. This is certainly not true. Most dams are built and controlled by governments. In the US, the dam resources are allocated by political tussles, e.g., irrigation versus fish. In developing countries, the resources are allocated by money and power -- a situation that's less likely to help the poor. I would favor privitization of those dams because the poor could at least buy some of that water. (I think she's forgetting corruption in this letter.)
  7. According to this UN site, domestic water use in Africa is 31 cubic meters/year (0.025 acre-feet). That's the equivalent of 22 gallons/day, which means a BIG toilet.
  8. 50 percent for meat is hard for me to believe, but not crazy. 80 percent of the water used in California goes to agriculture and producing meat requires 2,500 gallons/water/pound. Vegetarians use less water, but not 10 percent of the water meat eaters use; see water calculator.
  9. Some Christians interpret the bible to say that the earth is theirs to exploit as they please. They were a majority but now appear to be a minority (more).
Bottom Line: Mostly right. Mainly wrong in favoring government over private enterprise. Governments can screw up. When they do, they screw up big, e.g., Iraq.

1 comment:

  1. Two things:
    1. Most recent data from USGS indicates that water withdrawals by livestock industry accounted for less than 1% of total withdrawals.
    "During 2000, withdrawals were an estimated 1,760 Mgal/d, or 1,980 thousand acre-feet per year. Livestock withdrawals were less than 1 percent of total freshwater withdrawals and nearly 1 percent of total freshwater withdrawals for all categories excluding thermoelectric power." (http://pubs.usgs.gov/circ/2004/circ1268/htdocs/text-lv.html)

    2. She seems to be ignoring the famous "people respond to incentives" idea. Governments may too but take too long to prevent depletion of natural resources, and they often respond to bribes faster...


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