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Public Citizen Calls for Water Conservation, Responsible Management on World Water Day

March 21, 2002

Public Citizen Calls for Water Conservation, Responsible Management on World Water Day

Water Should Not Be Treated as Commodity, Traded for Profit

WASHINGTON, D.C. ? In recognition of the United Nations? World Day for Water 2002, Public Citizen urges people and governments to conserve more water, better curb pollution and employ prudent development practices. In addition, Public Citizen calls for an end to efforts to treat water as a tradable commodity rather than a resource necessary for human life.

Increasingly, communities have been dealing with water shortages and deteriorating water infrastructure ? the pipes through which water and wastewater run. This has rekindled interest in water resources, the availability of clean water for consumption and the adequate treatment of wastewater to curb contamination of waterways.

“We expect an ample supply of clean water when we open our taps,” said Wenonah Hauter, director of Public Citizen?s Critical Mass Energy and Environment Program, “However, we need to ask what it takes to bring that water into our homes and what consequences our consumptive habits have on water resources.”

The United Nations in 1992 established March 22 as “World Day for Water” to promote public awareness of water conservation and the development of water resources.

The ominous reality is that the world?s available fresh water supply is dwindling. Even though there is an abundance of water on the planet, less than one-half of one percent of it is available for human uses. Meanwhile, global consumption is surging at a rate higher than the population growth. More than one billion people around the globe lack access to safe drinking water; 2.5 billion people lack access to proper sanitation; and more than 5 million die annually from water-borne diseases, according to the United Nations. The United Nations projects that by 2025, two-thirds of the world population will face water shortages or a lack of clean water. The World Bank?s vice president predicts that wars of this century will be over this resource.

The International Monetary Fund and the World Bank have promoted the commodification and privatization of water by pushing governments to raise consumer rates and privatize water utilities. In Ghana, where the majority of the population earns less than a dollar a day, World Bank loan conditions required a doubling of water fees last May. According to a report by Christian Aid, this meant that the urban poor were paying as much as 70 percent of the daily minimum wage to buy 50 litres of water. In the Philippines, the Asian Labor Network on International Financial Institutions condemned a recent increase in water rates by the privatized water companies and stated that “to poor families who can only afford instant noodles, the rate increase might mean that they will not eat for two days.”

Many regions in the United States are currently facing water problems that are likely to get worse. In Texas, the shortages are expected to increase from 782 billion gallons per year today to 2.5 trillion gallons per year in 2050. In California, shortages could be as high as 2 trillion gallons per year by the year 2020. In South Florida, recent lack of precipitation necessitated significant restrictions on water use.

Some view the looming water crisis as a chance to profit. Private companies and individuals have aggressively entered into the water business.

In California, the water development company Cadiz, Inc. wants to sell groundwater to the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, making a high profit while overdrawing an aquifer that also lies under federal lands. In Texas, oil investor T. Boone Pickens is shopping for a municipal buyer for 65 billion gallons of water per year to which he has rights. And at a March 2002 water investor conference, the CEO of a Los Angeles water resource development company touted water rights as a low-risk investment offering high returns.

Facing mounting costs to repair aging pipes, a number of local governments have hired private companies to operate their water systems, and some are even selling their entire systems to private enterprises. However, companies are out to make high profits, pay high executive salaries and provide shareholders with dividends ? goals at odds with serving the public. Some cities where water systems have been privatized have seen higher water rates and less-than-adequate performance by the company.

In addition to urging an end to the commodification of water, Public Citizen calls for water conservation measures, which often can eliminate the need for expensive and environmentally damaging water infrastructure such as dams, reservoirs and canals. More efficient irrigation and reuse of municipal water also carry a great conservation potential.

Further, replacing aging pipes and upgrading water and wastewater treatment systems would prevent a significant amount of water from being lost due to leakage. A lack of adequate public subsidies, as well as unreasonably low water rates in some communities prevent municipal water departments from making necessary capital improvements and implementing conservation programs.