Map of life expectancy at birth from Global Education Project.

Monday, July 13, 2009

Water, water, not everywhere?

The editors of PLoS Medicine want to declare a basic human right to clean water. I buy this as a rhetorical strategy and in particular as an implicit critique of the neoliberal approach to global development which has caused such devastation in the world. Yes, yes, those neoconservatives were just awful weren't they, but they share a lot more with neoliberals than just the prefix.

Specifically, we have had a consensus in the capitalist capitals since the time of Ronald Reagan (and not, by the way, including Nixon) that the path out of poverty for the great mass of humanity went through shriveling of government investment in social welfare and human development, and turning loose the magic of private enterprise and free markets. You can read all about it here, thanks to Global Issues.

In the case of water, specifically, this meant alienation of the public domain -- handing over what had been provided freely by nature to private ownership -- and requiring people to pay money which hundreds of millions of them did not have to acquire one of life's most basic necessities. According to the WHO, providing clean water to everyone would prevent 6.3% of all deaths worldwide. As I have said here many times, "preventing deaths" is, in itself, a nonsensical metric because, well, we're all going to die, we're all going to die! Yes we are. However, deaths from contaminated water largely affect the young, in particular the very young. They are also the tip of the iceberg of an immense burden of disease -- 9.1% of the global burden, sayeth the WHO, including parastic diseases that destroy the productive potential of young adults.

But simply declaring water to be a "basic human right" doesn't accomplish anything. Rights are only effective when they place enforceable obligations on others. Institutions with the power to deliver clean water must actually be made to do so. This creates immensely complex problems including international conflicts over watercourses and lakes, and demands for infrastructure that poor nations cannot meet. Climate change, with accompanying drought and more rapid evaporation, just makes it harder.

So make sure this very big challenge is also on your list. Petroleum, phosphate, topsoil, water, seafood -- all going, going, gone because of the tragedy of privatizing the commons. We got it horribly wrong.


kevin said...

You provide a nice frame for both the last two comments, but your endings aren't positive. I appreciate your assessments of our ontology and our water. Perhaps you can provide response posts with something that intimates possible solutions. I work for, a user-generated website that features health care videos, and watch many health-issue specific videos. I like your wide scope of focus, global orientation. Have you considered health vloging? At any rate, check us out at icyou with health concerns and comments!

Cervantes said...

Well Kevin, I dont actually make any videos, so vlogging isn't really within my current technical capabilities. As for being positive -- I try to be realistic.

C. Corax said...

A book about Bolivia and globalization, that I read recently, had a chapter on water, Bechtel and the Cochabamba Water Wars:

Even though the poor of Bolivia sent Bechtel fleeing from the country, there is still a problem with water delivery, as SEMAPA cannot get the financing it needs to upgrade the water infrastructure.

So "make clean water available to everyone" sounds simple and good, but the reality is that it isn't simple, and it never will be.