Monday, August 18, 2008

Water wars

"Big dams are obsolete. They're uncool. They're undemocratic. They're a government's way of accumulating authority (deciding who will get how much water and who will grow what where). They're a guaranteed way of taking a farmer's wisdom away from him. They're a brazen means of taking water, land, and irrigation away from the poor and gifting it to the rich. Their resrvoirs displace huge populations of people, leaving them homeless and destitute. Ecologically, too, they're in the doghouse. They lay the earth to waste. They cause floods, waterlogging, salinity; they spread disease. There is mounting evidence that links Big Dams to earthquakes."

--Arundhati Roy, The Cost of Living

I started reading this book because I read The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy, and it fundamentally changed the way I see literature. The sorrow contained within those pages was somehow made sweet and beautiful with words. I knew this book to be a polemic based upon very tragic events in India (which are nothing more than mirrors of tragedies occurring in our very own backyards, though perhaps a little fuzzier and out of focus). I ran across this paragraph pretty early on in the book, and was snagged.

This book was copyrighted 1999. Recently (as in, within the last month), I have heard numerous reports that water will be the oil of the 21st century. Water will become a serious property. Water rights will be fought over, perhaps in court between somewhat civil parties, perhaps by war. But are we not already a part of the water wars? How many of us, in the "first" world cannot find clean water? How many of us do not have at least one faucet from which cool, clear water will run bountifully? And even with concerns about chlorination, heavy metals, and even prescription drugs, are we losing most of our children to disease or poisoning? There is much talk about food shortages and the rising cost of food prices. But the fact is, we can do without as much food or even without food altogether for a little while. A few days without water? Without clean water?

We are responsible for the squandering and manhandling of a precious resource. If not by the sheer waste of water alone, then by the ways in which we have poisoned, are poisoning, our waters, destroying the life within them and disrupting the civilizations that have thrived upon them. Take the Chesapeake Bay. Polluted so heavily by fertilizers that the entire ecosystem is in danger of collapsing. In case you don't know what rivers, tributaries, wetlands, and marshes do for us, allow me: they serve as storm buffers. They absorb much of the shock of strong storms. They purify water naturally. They are nurseries for thousands upon thousands of life forms, serving as a safe haven for animal offspring. And, as if I should mention this, marshes are wonderful places for human recreation, provided it is cautious and respectful. If you've never gone kayaking in a marsh, you have not yet seen one of the natural wonders of the world.

The Everglades, the Colorado River, the Salton Sea, the many rivers are there? As many as there are water rights abuses.

Indeed, "a government's way of accumulating authority." That about sums it up. It is, perhaps, a government's way of playing god. We will flood your town, your village so that some may prosper. We will dictate the course of your life just as we will dictate the course of this river. Dams have been suggested as a means of fighting global warming. Of course, hydroelectric power. But then is this not just another farce? How many resources would a dam gobble up before it produced the first watt of electricity? Would it ever be worth the trouble? Oh yes, I have no doubt that it is worth the trouble for shareholders. Governments love big projects like dams. It looks substantial, organized, progressive, masculine. Out with the old, in with the motherfucker.

And yet, this is something we never hear about, think about, talk about. Of course, there seems to be no shortage of horrifying things to talk about, but even so it does seem odd that the commodity we need the most for survival can go largely unmentioned. The southern US is experiencing a devastating drought. I think it has been for the past ten years. This flashes across the news headlines now and again. Cities talk about water restrictions. Don't wash your car, don't water your lawn. Here's an interesting tidbit for you: Wake Forest University, a rather expensive private college in North Carolina, continues to water its lush quad in spite of these restrictions. Apparently, the fine charged is the equivalent of one student's tuition for one day of the year. I received this information from someone attending the college who was not a little disgruntled at this wretched display of wealth and arrogance. So, one student's tuition goes towards watering the quad. That's useful. Why don't we all just leave our showers running this morning? I tire of human stupidity.

Here's the disclaimer: I am not innocent of wasting water. Having grown up in a society where nothing seems to be sacred except for our precious Christianity, I was not taught to respect my right to use water. I have learned this on my own by digging up the sad stories of people who have no clean water. Or people who are displaced by water projects. Or small farmers who go bust because their wells dry up. This is simply another chapter in the have/have-not battle for control of the world's resources. We can only hope that governments will begin to value the human right to resources instead of the right of the wealthy over the right of the poor.

"Who knows, perhaps that's what the twenty-first century has in store for us. The dismantling of the Big. Big bombs, big dams, big ideologies, big contradictions, big countries, big wars, big heroes, big mistakes. Perhaps it will be the Century of the Small."

1 comment:

Theresa said...

Yes, water issues are making me particularly sad right now. My municipal government is allowing drainage of wetlands and retroactively providing 'permits' for them to do so. I am also tired of humanity's seemingly boundless stupidity.