Fresh, drinkable water is not accessible to everyone and its availability is literally evaporating by the year. The Earth is experiencing a water shortage crisis. Freshwater sources worldwide, lakes, rivers and aquifers are rapidly drying up. Air pollutants causing global climate change is making a bad situation progressively worse while industrial waste, crop fertilizers and household chemicals are polluting what little freshwater sources that remain. The situation is not gloom and doom for all, however. Multinational corporations are happy to make a profit from the misery of others. Several U.S. cities, for example, are attracted to the idea of privatizing the delivery of water to its citizens. Water is in danger of becoming a commodity, available only to those who can pay whatever price the local company sets. Many rightfully question the morality in something as fundamental to survival as water being considered a luxury.
The Ogallala Aquifer, largest water source in the U.S., is disappearing along with other of earth’s systems of water storage including glaciers which are melting, not into rivers and lakes but oceans, making it too salty to be usable. “I think people don’t really understand a lot about how (climate change) works. They say, ‘Oh, the glaciers are melting so we’ll have more water.’ But the problem is that water is just rushing into the ocean.” (Interlandi, 2010). An aquifer in India has already been depleted, a grim forecaster for Ogallala which lies under America’s Midwest, also known as America’s “bread basket.” India’s population is experiencing widespread poisoning due to pollutants and minerals that have settled at the bottom of that aquifer over time. About 20 percent of the Earth’s people cannot access clean water, a startling reality. Also, about 20 percent make less than the equivalent of one U.S. dollar per day. Those two sad statistics are related. The country and the world has seen a growing divide in the “have’s” and “have not’s” the past few decades. The water crisis threatens to increase that preventable income chasm but in a more appalling way than a mere financial gap. Lack of water on this enormous scale is, in itself, a concerning humanitarian issue and the resulting social unrest a concern for many more. (Interlandi, 2010).
Competition to supply water will provide an incentive for companies to lower prices and increase supply according to those who suggest allowing the free market system to flourish unregulated will ease the water crises. However, when privatizing the water supply was tried in the U.S. it resulted in outbreaks of Cholera around the turn of the 20th Century. It was made a public utility to safeguard public health. More recently, the bankrupt City of Detroit raised water rates to make it financially attracted for a private company to take over. The rates became so high tens of thousands of residents had their water shut off yet there still wasn’t enough revenue collected to entice a private company. U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Steven Rhodes made a sobering statement in his ruling on a case brought against the city to force it to turn water back on. “It cannot be doubted that water is a necessary ingredient to sustaining life,” Rhodes admitted. “Yet there is not an enforceable right to free and affordable water.” Water, in the opinion of the law, is a luxury. (Abrams, 2014) Other cities such as Chicago, Pittsburgh and Santa Fe, NM are currently discussing the option to privatize.
Much of the infrastructure to transport freshwater to homes and businesses was built about the time of that cholera outbreak, or not much later. It’s out-of-date, crumbling and estimated to need more than $300 billion in repairs. Currently six billion gallons of precious freshwater is lost through leaks in antiquated piping every year. Privatization is sold to the public as a viable alternative to public funding. City officials could use the money saved on constant repairs and water expansion projects to fund education or hiring more police officers, for example. Citizens would save money on taxes that would not have to be raised to cover losses. On the other hand, privately owned companies are not compelled to act in the public’s interest like the government and will charge customers whatever the market dictates while keeping expenses such as repairs and payroll as low as possible. Environmental concerns would motivated solely by bottom line concerns. “The profit motive and basic human need for water are just inherently in conflict.” (Clayton, 2008)
Most of the U.S. operates the supply of water by means of a hybrid system. The government; whether city, local or county bears the cost of building and maintaining water systems. Still, people will be cut off if the bill isn’t paid. Today, water is not fully considered a basic human right regardless of ability to pay. If privatized, taxes may not be raised as quickly or as much but more people in the U.S. will be without water. So far, the Obama administration has been able to commit just $6 billion of the $300 billion needed for water infrastructure repair and upgrades. Congress has been no help. If the federal government allocated the needed funds jobs by the thousands would be created, financial pressures on municipalities would be eased and, most importantly, fresh, clean water would be available at reasonable prices. The private sector can play a role too by establishing profit making devices and systems that would ease the shortage. For example, investors could fund the development more advanced water-desalinization equipment. Unless both government and private companies work together to mitigate pollution, climate change and the dire water shortage the consequences could be catastrophic.
- Abrams, Lindsay. (October, 2014). “Water is the new oil: How corporations took over a basic human right.” Salon. Web April 24, 2015. http://www.salon.com
- Clayton, Mark. (2008). “Is water becoming ‘the new oil’?” Christian Science Monitor. Web April 24, 2015. http://www.csmonitor.com/Environment/Global-Warming/2008/0529/is-water-becoming-the-new-oil
- Interlandi, Jeneen. (October, 2010). “The Race to Buy Up the World’s Water.” Newsweek. Web April 24, 2015. http://www.newsweek.com/race-buy-worlds-water-73893