Louis Proyect lnp3 at SPAMpanix.com
Thu Jan 25 12:27:21 MST 2001

Scientific American, February 2001

"Making Every Drop Count"

by Peter H. Gleick

The history of human civilization is entwined with the history of the ways
we have learned to manipulate water resources. The earliest agricultural
communities emerged where crops could be cultivated with dependable
rainfall and perennial rivers. Simple irrigation canals permitted greater
crop production and longer growing seasons in dry areas. Five thousand
years ago settlements in the Indus Valley were built with pipes for water
supply and ditches for wastewater. Athens and Pompeii, like most
Greco-Roman towns of their time, maintained elaborate systems for water
supply and drainage.

As towns gradually expanded, water was brought from increasingly remote
sources, leading to sophisticated engineering efforts, such as dams and
aqueducts. At the height of the Roman Empire, nine major systems, with an
innovative layout of pipes and well-built sewers, supplied the occupants of
Rome with as much water per person as is provided in many parts of the
industrial world today.

During the industrial revolution and population explosion of the 19th and
20th centuries, the demand for water rose dramatically. Unprecedented
construction of tens of thousands of monumental engineering projects
designed to control floods, protect clean water supplies, and provide water
for irrigation and hydropower brought great benefits to hundreds of
millions of people. Thanks to improved sewer systems, water-related
diseases such as cholera and typhoid, once endemic throughout the world,
have largely been conquered in the more industrial nations. Vast cities,
incapable of surviving on their local resources, have bloomed in the desert
with water brought from hundreds and even thousands of miles away. Food
production has kept pace with soaring populations mainly because of the
expansion of artificial irrigation systems that make possible the growth of
40 percent of the world's food. Nearly one fifth of all the electricity
generated worldwide is produced by turbines spun by the power of falling

Yet there is a dark side to this picture: despite our progress, half of the
world's population still suffers with water services inferior to those
available to the ancient Greeks and Romans. As the latest United Nations
report on access to water reiterated in November of last year, more than
one billion people lack access to clean drinking water; some two and a half
billion do not have adequate sanitation services. Preventable water-related
diseases kill an estimated 10,000 to 20,000 children every day, and the
latest evidence suggests that we are falling behind in efforts to solve
these problems. Massive cholera outbreaks appeared in the mid-1990s in
Latin America, Africa and Asia. Millions of people in Bangladesh and India
drink water contaminated with arsenic. And the surging populations
throughout the developing world are intensifying the pressures on limited
water supplies.

The effects of our water policies extend beyond jeopardizing human health.
Tens of millions of people have been forced to move from their homes--often
with little warning or compensation--to make way for the reservoirs behind
dams. More than 20 percent of all freshwater fish species are now
threatened or endangered because dams and water withdrawals have destroyed
the free-flowing river ecosystems where they thrive. Certain irrigation
practices degrade soil quality and reduce agricultural productivity,
heralding a premature end to the green revolution. Groundwater aquifers are
being pumped down faster than they are naturally replenished in parts of
India, China, the U.S. and elsewhere. And disputes over shared water
resources have led to violence and continue to raise local, national and
even international tensions.

At the outset of the new millennium, however, the way resource planners
think about water is beginning to change. The focus is slowly shifting back
to the provision of basic human and environmental needs as the top
priority--ensuring "some for all, instead of more for some," as put by
Kader Asmal, former minister for water affairs and forestry in South
Africa. To accomplish these goals and meet the demands of booming
populations, some water experts now call for using existing infrastructure
in smarter ways rather than building new facilities, which is increasingly
considered the option of last, not first, resort. The challenges we face
are to use the water we have more efficiently, to rethink our priorities
for water use and to identify alternative supplies of this precious resource.

This shift in philosophy has not been universally accepted, and it comes
with strong opposition from some established water organizations.
Nevertheless, it may be the only way to address successfully the pressing
problems of providing everyone with clean water to drink, adequate water to
grow food and a life free from preventable water-related illness. History
shows that although access to clean drinking water and sanitation services
cannot guarantee the survival of a civilization, civilizations most
certainly cannot prosper without them.

Full article at: http://www.sciam.com/2001/0201issue/0201gleick.html

Louis Proyect
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