Man’s Waterloo?

Alex Angara is a volunteer for Action for Economic Reforms (www.aer.ph) , whose interests lie in development and inequality, as well as population, migration, and the environment. Just a few of her New Year’s resolutions include walking to/from work, sleeping without the air-conditioning, and spending less time in the shower. This article was published in the Opinion Section, Yellow Pad Column of BusinessWorld, January 7, 2008 edition, pages S1/4 and S1/5.

It has been predicted that the wars of this century will be about water. Amidst disorder in the Middle East, extreme poverty in Africa, rising oil prices, and proliferation of nuclear weapons (to name but a few of the concerns more dominant during—though certainly not limited to—this decade), the topic of water may seem somewhat mundane, too ordinary for the world to be up in arms over the issue…. For those who have access to it, at least.

We seem to be faced with another battle in the War of Haves vs. Have-nots. For the lucky ones, there’s water coming out from the taps with which to bathe and clean. There’s water in the rivers and lakes in which to swim, kayak, wakeboard, what have you. There’s a whole smorgasbord of bottled water varieties – mineral water, distilled water, flavored water, isotonic water, take your pick. Looking closer though, those typically seen as part of these lucky ones may not necessarily be as fortunate as expected. Part of the insidiousness of this battle is that it is being fought on different fronts. Not limited to the North-South or First-Third divide, we see even the likes of the United States – touted as Land of the Plenty – experiencing drought, illustrated by the state of Georgia governor, Sonny Perdue, leading hundreds in prayers for rain just two months ago.

Before crediting Fortune or Mother Nature for providing equalizing forces of sorts (which would be a rather sadistic thing to do, anyway), we remember that those in developed countries generally do not have to walk long distances to get water, use “flying toilets” (i.e. excrete in plastic bags and chuck these away), or be subject to prevalent disease and malnutrition due to lack of safe water and sanitation. Deciding which brand of snazzy, bottled, non-carbonated, high-mineral, fruit-flavored water to consume is really not high on the priority list of those who do face such conditions. In the Philippines, while approximately 85% of our population reportedly have access (albeit of varying extents) to safe drinking water, at least twelve million other Filipinos do not. They form just a part of the one billion (and counting) people worldwide living under these circumstances.

Though there are efforts to improve this water situation – such as the Millennium Development Goal target to halve by 2015 the proportion of people without sustainable access to safe drinking water and basic sanitation – access is but a part of the problem. A fairly recent Asian Development Bank report, for example, shows the Philippines’ water resources deteriorating and predicts a water crisis before 2025. While it is certainly just that everyone gets a share of the cake, surely justice also means there are enough slices to go around? Allow me to indulge in some Malthusian scaremongering of sorts:

First, That water is necessary to the existence of man. Secondly, That the passion between the sexes is necessary and will remain nearly in its present state.. Assuming then my postulates as granted, I say, that the power of population is indefinitely greater than the power in the earth to produce subsistence for man.

While fertility in itself is unlikely to be the cause of water resource depletion, it does seem that fertility coupled with lack of education and/or apathy could pose such threat.  I mentioned in the beginning how the “ordinariness” of it all – of water that is—may  seem relatively weak as a rallying point for war. A recent Christmas anecdote may help illustrate my message:

At my office, one of colleagues had asked her Secret Santa for five hundred pesos worth of distilled water, nothing else. With everyone else enumerating books, CDs, clothing, and/or the like on their wish lists (myself guilty as charged, I hate to admit), this person’s request was viewed as a tad strange, somewhat amusing. In hindsight, her simple Christmas wish—in all its seeming eccentricity—trumped any of ours in the office.

While fertility can and does put stress on our resources–water  being just one of them—our demands exacerbate the situation even more. As we want more goods, producers supply them, but to do that they have to make them first, and their production processes may not only eat up our natural resources but also add to pollution. But that’s just the extremely simplified version; try and imagine the full-scale effects and all the externalities of all our consumer wants.

Amidst the Christmas flurry of gift-shopping, present-wrapping, party-going and so on just the past month, there were a few notable environment-related events in the news: the fairly damning release of the ADB report on water (already mentioned earlier), the Bali conference on climate change, Nobel Week showing the Peace Prize given to Al Gore and the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. As we try to keep the significance of these and the like in mind—squeezing it in somewhere amongst the Christmas aftermath of gifts, post-holiday sales, and the extra inches around the waistline—we could also remember to learn from the one who asked for nothing more than safe drinking water for Christmas.

If, like me, you forgot to ask Santa for a better environment—let alone clean water—last year, no point beating yourself up over it. Our environment and climate they are a-changin’ indeed, but with 2008 just starting, we still have our New Year’s resolutions to try and make a difference.

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