Saving Mother Earth
Scarcity of water becoming a worldwide problem
15 May 2005
By Eileen FitzGerald
Reprinted with the permission of THE NEWS-TIMES, Danbury, CT, USA
Famous primatologist and environmentalist Jane Goodall talked last week during a discussion at WestConn about the worlds diminishing fresh water supply.
Photo courtesy of AP/Wide World Photos
Environmental advocate Jane Goodall speaks out about the threat to the earth's water supply
Water is threatened, it's diminishing around the world and some believe it will be the heart of most wars in this century.
Should it be treated as an economic good or a human right?
As students and professors at Western Connecticut State University argued the issue this week, legendary primatologist and environmental advocate Jane Goodall grounded the discussion with an international perspective.
" Water is getting scarcer and scarcer and scarcer," Goodall said. "It's very tough."
WestConn political science assistant professor Christopher Kukk, led the discussion.
"In the real world, one side does take control, so what should take the lead in managing water—the government, the market or an active citizenry?" Kukk said. "In Connecticut, towns are suing each other and states in New England are suing each other over water."
Those who wanted water preserved as a human right argued that if it were treated as an economic good, then poor people could not afford it.
The economists argued water should be a commodity.
"The problem now exists that water is not being paid for by the people using water, like the agriculture industry," said senior economics major Michael Cohen. "They are not paying the true costs. If they had to internalize the costs they would use it more efficiently."
For example, Cohen said, if U.S. farmers were not subsidized by the government to provide cotton, then African farmers could produce it naturally and not compete with subsidized products.
Public utilities are a good example of managing resources fairly, added economics professor Steven Skinner.
"If the market assigned some type of value on water, like a meter on homes, there would be more conservation of water," Skinner said. "I think there is a role for government and letting markets function."
But Victoria Medford, a senior from Bethel, argued that non-governmental agencies could preserve water rights.
"NGAs operate outside government and the market but have a relationship with both," Medford said. "They can bring to bear public ethics, hold the politicians accountable and shine a light on polices that are not good."
Christine Olsen, a senior at the University of Vermont, asked how to put a commercial value on something that has moral and spiritual value.
"Money is the common denominator but not everyone has the same moral or spiritual indicators," Olsen said. "Privatizing allows people with money to take advantage. How do you have balance and not exploit it?"
George Kroubelos, 22, a senior at WestConn, said it was time to rethink the problem outside of its part in the economy.
Goodall told the students water is a complex problem that presents different issues in different countries, and said every country must make its own plans to do what is right.
"We have to pay for it. When it is scarce, we pay more. It's a fascinating subject that gets more and more urgent," Goodall said. "We have to get more and more people educated to protect the water. I don't want anyone to make a profit on something we can't live without."
Some people are confusing two separate issues, she said.
"America and Europe use pipes and pumps and we pay for what it takes to bring water to us and maintain it. That is very different from a private company coming in to make some shareholder rich, "Goodall said.
She described how the house she owns in Tanzania is on the seashore and drinking water has always been piped in from a river. She has paid for the water. Over the years, more and more people have become dependent on the river.
"Now there are days that there is no water. The river is drying up. The situation has gotten so bad that private companies come in and take water around by big tankers," Goodall said. The question remains though, "where do they get their water?"
She said water is a commodity in many parts of the world.
Two French companies produce 50 percent of the bottled water in the United States. She's learned that the amount of water used to make the plastic bottles is more than the amount that is bottled.
In Costa Rica, the government was afraid of the quality of water around the capitol because farmers were cutting trees to make money and affecting the water conditions. The residents agreed to pay a little more for their water so the farmers could be paid not to cut their trees and that resolved the problem.
Melinda Tarsi, 21, a senior from Bethel, said her class with Kukk, called Environmental Issues and International Relations, debated the issue before.
"This is causing me to think about things ,"Tarsi said. "Having Goodall here is so outstanding. Seeing her and hearing her talk makes us do a better job. I think it's important that we have knowledge and compassion and then take action. You put what you know into practice."
She has been part of an internship with the Candlewood Lake Authority, discussing how the power company should manage the lake, including how it is used recreationally.
"Hearing the talk about water is very pertinent to what we've been talking about," Tarsi said.
Kukk said there are several issues causing a scarcity of water.
There is the same amount of fresh water every year but there are more people in the world so there is less water per person. There's more water pollution from fertilizers and chemicals, which means there is less drinkable water.
And the world is over-consuming fresh water resources by, for instance, drawing water from aquifers too fast, Kukk said.
"These kinds of discussions make people think," Goodall said. "At least half the people here didn't think about the problem of water before. Now they'll share it and spread it."