Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Water: An Endangered Species?

by Madeleine Kando

I am visiting Kauai, also known as the Garden island, the oldest and most beautiful of the Hawaiian islands. Like a tiny speck of dirt, it sits in the middle of 64 million square miles of ocean, with the closest land mass 2400 miles away. Looking out the window of my rented condo on the cliffs of northern Kauai, it feels like I am on the bow of a ship. In all directions there is only water, water and more water.

Kauai owes its beauty to water. It is the wettest place on earth with Mount Waiʻaleʻale averaging more than 452 inches of rain a year. Kauai's red soil, volcanic in origin, has had millions of years' time to rust and gives the lush green tones of the vegetation a perfect background. The towering jagged cliffs so typical of Kauai, have been sculpted by the power of the ocean. Rainbows dance on the water as a cluster of clouds moves in. Soon the sky will explode into an orgy of colors, orange, yellow and ochre as the sun slowly sinks into the ocean.

The availability of water worldwide is unequally distributed. On my way back home to the East Coast, I will fly over one of the driest places on earth, Death Valley, which only gets 2 inches of rain a year. I will also fly over Los Angeles, a mega city built like a space station in a uninhabitable desert. Its water is being imported from somewhere else, from somewhere that will more than likely suffer because of LA's ever expanding thirst for water. Unlike Kauai, Los Angeles has to fight tooth and nail for its water. It has to compete for this limited resource and its water history is fraught with corruption, greed and profiteering. Anyone who has seen the movie 'Chinatown', knows about the California 'Water Wars' of the early 1900's, when the rapidly growing city diverted so much water from Owens Valley that it left that part of the state dying of thirst.

Water is both a friend and a foe. Seventy-one percent of the earth's surface is covered with water and as a species we spend a lot of our time trying to protect ourselves from water disasters. Floods, tsunamis, hurricanes, cyclones and storms all have devastating effects on humanity. Water can be the deadliest substance on earth but life would not be possible without it. Water IS life.

Even though water is abundant on earth, only 1% of the earth's water is available as a water resource and this one percent has to be divided amongst the different uses for it, like agriculture, industry, household, recreation and the environment.

Luckily, mother nature was generous when it gave us water as a 'renewable' resource, which means that it can replenish itself. Unlike petroleum, water will always be with us. But industrial development and population growth has had an enormous impact on the supply of usable water. We are slowly and very successfully turning it into a non-renewable resource, just like oil or coal.

In 1968 the ecologist Garrett Hardin wrote a paper called "The Tragedy of the Commons", which basically says that if a resource is held in common for use by all, then ultimately that resource will be destroyed. Cattle farmers who share a common pasture, for example, will increase their herds one by one until they destroy the pasture by overgrazing. The rational pursuit of individual self-interest leads to collective ruin.

A hundred years ago it seemed absurd to propose rationing water, just like it is absurd today to propose rationing the air we breathe. But things have changed. Water has become an object of conflict related either to how it is divided up among its different uses (agriculture, energy, domestic use) or between states.

The biggest threat to the supply and availability of water and as such to life on earth, is the trend towards privatization of water resources. Water is a common good, not a commodity. It has to be managed, conserved and distributed fairly. When the likes of Nestle (under the name Poland Springs) is allowed to sell bottled water that they get from a municipal source for $1 per 750 gallons for about $1.50 for a 16.9-ounce bottle, when the Governor of Georgia, instead of implementing sound water policies asks people to prey for rain during a drought, then one is left to wonder who should be in charge of our water?

Ultimately it is water itself that is in charge, not us. We just don't know it. We are but temporary visitors on this watery planet. If we don't do right by Mother Water, conserve and impose limits on ourselves, she will let us know in no uncertain terms. Like Hardin said: 'the problem can only be solved by a change in human values or ideas of morality'. leave comment here