Saturday, September 25, 2010

Water water everywhere..

We are a lucky bunch of folk here in Aotearoa.  Of course, things aren't perfect but there are a lot of things we take for granted.  That if we get hurt, we can go to Accident and Emergency and recieve treatment.  That when we go to the supermarket the foods we eat from week to week will be on the shelves, and at pretty much the same price as when we last bought them. 

That - large earthquakes notwithstanding - when we turn on the tap fresh drinkable water will come out.

But we can't afford to be complacent.  Drinkable water may very well be the new crude oil.  From the storylines of comic books such as Tank Girl, a global hegemony and world wars based on control of fresh water is now being talked at in academic circles.

Control of water, especially for agriculture, is increasingly falling into the hands of large corporate entities at the expense of the local people.  And despite their claims of working to develop more efficient water use for the betterment of humankind, it makes sense that if a company's prerogative is to turn a profit then it is going to want to sell more of its product, not less.

The connections aren't always direct, the capitalist idealogues are well practised in painting a shiny veneer on bullshit and blurring the lines between 'need' and 'want'.  The invisible hand of the market belongs to the croupier of Big Business, and the house always wins.

Take, for example, the Ica Valley in Peru - a desert area in the Andes and one of the driest places on earth.  In the late 1990s the World Bank loaned millions of dollars to create asparagus beds in the Valley - expanding to cover almost 100sq km in just 10 years. Peru is now the largest exporter of asparagus in the world, with 95% grown on reclaimed desert in the Ica Valley.  The industry has created 10,000 new jobs in this poor area.

Sounds good right?  New jobs using land that was otherwise not being used?  But here's the thing.  The asparagus beds require constant irrigation.  And in 2002 - that's eight years ago - the region started using more water than was being replenished by rain and the suchlike and the watertable began to drop.  Drastically.  Up to two metres a year.  Two wells in the area, supplying life-giving water to up to 18,500 people, have already dried up.  But that's not all.  Water rights in the area are now owned by the large producers.  Small and medium scale farmers have to pay out for irrigation water from the main canals.  As the land gets dryer, the less productive it becomes and the less water retention it has.  When smaller-scale farmers fail through lack of access to water, for irrigation and for living, the large producers buy up their land for cheap.

Here's what really gets me.  The market for fresh asparagus barely existed before the late 1990s.  It's a created market, sold as a luxury item to overseas markets like the UK. Yet it is killing the land, livelihoods - and lives - of real people across the other side of the world.  The supermarket chains and investors won't be sticking around to help them when the water runs out.  And it will.

This is by no means an isolated case.  Type 'water privatisation' into any search engine and a myriad of similar cases around the world will come up.  It's a huge issue in many developing countries right now as pushing for water privatisation is high on the list of the World Bank, IMF and cronies.

And it's here in Aotearoa.

A subsidiary of Veolia, the biggest water company in the world, is already has seven contracts in a PPP (Public-Private Partnership) to provide water services in Aotearoa.  These contracts could last up to 35 years.

To put some perspective on things, in just 20 years our close neighbour Sydney could be facing a very serious water shortage.  Further afield water is already running out.  Aotearoa, with its low population-density, reliance on foreign trade, and virtually non-existent militarisation - but abundance of clean water and arable land - is going to start looking pretty damned attractive to a lot of powerful people.  People who don't play nice with the kids already in the playground.  People who will screw this country for all they can get and then walk away. 

If we let them.

Veolia already has a toehold, but nothing that can't be dislodged.  And not all threats are foreign.  Federated Farmers want to abstain from responsibility when it comes to livestock effluent in our waterways - but they too can be held accountable if we work together.

Aotearoa is a beautiful country.  But it's time to stop being complacent, to appreciate what we have, and to look after and protect it!

[Inspiration and information in this post comes from The Guardian online ]


  1. And then there's always the issue of water and Tangata Whenua. Its one of those things normally forgotten about, but very important to consider. Under Te Tiriti o Waitangi there is no distinction between land and water and yet very little public dialogue. Probably pretty contentious.

  2. Good point, good point.. Somehow I doubt Rodney Hide was thinking about that when pushing through amendments to the Local Government Act last year extending PPP water supply contracts to 35 years (although on the ACT website they say they support including Treaty of Waitangi in th Local Government Act..)

    I suppose, speculatively - and please correct me if I've got it wrong, still a student here - that contention would come over intent. In other words, if right of development, as understood by many as included in the Treaty, applied to water as well which would leave water as open to privatisation in tribal hands as it would under Crown.

    On the other hand, you are right, and Tangata Whenua need to be brought into this equation.

    It would be great to see a general constitutional overhaul in Aotearoa, involving some form of entrenched Bill of Rights covering things like access to water, and renewed dialogue about the Treaty and Aotearoa's history and what that all means today (because I think a lot of young people don't really get it..)