[Marxism] Why the Water Running Out

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Mon Oct 12 06:32:46 MDT 2015

NY Review of Books, Oct. 22 2015
Why the Water Running Out
Norman Gall

The Fabric of Space: Water, Modernity, and the Urban Imagination
by Matthew Gandy
MIT Press, 351 pp., $30.00

Water 4.0: The Past, Present, and Future of the World’s Most Vital Resource
by David Sedlak
Yale University Press, 332 pp., $18.00 (paper)

Children carrying bottled drinking water during China’s worst drought in 
a century, Qinglong, Yunnan province, April 2010
Greater São Paulo, a city of 21 million people, is experiencing its 
worst drought since the 1870s; the city’s water supply is in danger. 
Sewage, pesticide, and trash pollute São Paulo’s rivers and reservoirs. 
Rain falling on the vast paved surface of the metropolis drains quickly 
into its polluted rivers. Brazil’s ample natural resources include 13 
percent of the global supply of freshwater for only 3 percent of the 
world’s population. Yet as of August 25 South America’s largest city had 
only enough water in its reservoirs to supply its residents for 
ninety-three days.

Many of the world’s other thirty-six megacities, each with more than 10 
million inhabitants, also struggle with limited local water supplies. As 
recently as 1950, New York was the only city of this size. Half of 
today’s giant cities face mounting difficulties in securing and managing 
water resources for their growing populations. As in ancient times, 
water supply is emerging as a challenge to civilizations both rich and poor.

The Fabric of Space, by Matthew Gandy, contains six loosely connected 
essays with much on historic and current water problems in Paris, 
Berlin, Lagos, Mumbai, Los Angeles, and London. A geographer at 
University College London, Gandy blames the lack of water on “a mix of 
technical disagreements, political expediency, administrative inertia, 
and economic uncertainty [that] produces a common pattern of extended 
delay” in taking action. He warns that the accelerated rate of climate 
change “could overwhelm the capacity of many cities to respond” to 
environmental crises. This is what may well be happening in giant urban 
agglomerations such as Los Angeles, São Paulo, Mexico City, Mumbai, and 
Beijing, all of which consume water wastefully while neglecting the need 
for long-term supplies.

Most conspicuously in danger are the growing number of supergiant 
cities, with populations of at least 20 million. They are heavily 
concentrated in poor countries that lack the wealth and institutional 
strength to manage droughts, floods, and other water emergencies on this 
scale. Among these supergiants are Delhi (25 million), Shanghai (23 
million), Mexico City, São Paulo, and Mumbai (21 million each), and 
Beijing (20 million). United Nations demographers expect that by 2030 
Delhi’s population will rise to 36 million and that Tokyo will remain 
the world’s most populous city with 37 million. According to A.K. Biswas 
of the Third World Center for Water Management in Singapore:

 From Istanbul to Johannesburg, and Jakarta to Mexico City, there are 
simply no new sources of water that could be harnessed economically and 
in a socially and environmentally acceptable manner which can quench the 
continually increasing urban-industrial thirst.

The growth of megacities is just one part of global urbanization. 
According to the United Nations, while the number of megacities has 
nearly tripled since 1990, the number of cities with at least one 
million people has nearly doubled. In Brazil, where I have lived and 
worked for the past four decades, there now are twenty cities with more 
than a million people each; in 1950, Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo were 
the only two. In São Paulo, living standards started rising in the 1990s 
with the end of decades of high inflation. Welfare benefits and salaries 
rose and nutrition improved. Muddy alleys became paved streets. São 
Paulo is now a sprawling metropolis in the style of Atlanta or Los 
Angeles, sprouting fancy office towers, hotels, and apartment blocks in 
new neighborhoods as if to celebrate its leading role in finance and 
corporate management.

At the same time, São Paulo has come to have many of the water problems 
of other large cities around the world. Consumers pay for only a small 
fraction of the operating costs of the water distribution system and 
many consume water wastefully. There are constant leaks from water and 
sewage pipes that have deteriorated for lack of maintenance during 
decades of use. Large volumes of untreated sewage pollute rivers, 
streams, groundwater, and drinking water. Land surfaces and groundwater 
levels sink because of excessive pumping. Large-scale theft of piped 
water deprives these systems of financial resources needed to run and 
repair them, and to develop future supplies. And governments and 
utilities are unable to finance and construct projects to bring new 
water supplies from ever-greater distances.

In his book Water 4.0, David Sedlak, a professor of sanitary engineering 
and codirector of the Berkeley Water Center at the University of 
California, traces the development of large-scale water and sewage 
systems from Roman times to the nineteenth century, when sanitation 
improved in response to cholera and typhoid epidemics in Europe and 
North America. He goes on to describe the chemical and biological 
treatment of water and sewage in the twentieth century. Ever since the 
Romans, “the big idea behind urban water systems” has, Sedlak observes, 
been “centralization,” getting water to flow from reservoirs to 
treatment plants and piping systems to final consumers. “In fact, this 
original design principle has been so potent that each of the subsequent 
upgrades was built on this foundation.” He adds:

Starting with the addition of filtration and chlorine disinfection on 
the front end of water distribution systems…, and continuing to the 
installation of biological wastewater treatment on the sewer end…, 
modern water infrastructure is still guided by its original blueprint of 
ancient Roman-style aqueducts and cloacae.
What Sedlak envisions for the future is decentralized use of new 
technologies for communities or even neighborhoods. The technical fixes 
that Sedlak proposes—from desalination of seawater, to purification and 
reuse of sewage, to adopting flush toilets, showers, and washing 
machines that use less water—may be useful individually, but they won’t 
achieve the scale that megacities need to deal with shortages.

Focusing mainly on the United States, he discusses the current four-year 
drought in California, which recently led the state government to order 
a 25 percent cut in water use. Sedlak stresses the need for changes in 
“public attitudes about the value of water” and for overcoming 
conflicting interests in a long-standing situation in which “fights over 
water rights among farmers, cities, and environmentalists periodically 
created manmade droughts.” Such changes in attitudes and policy, he writes,

tend to be unpopular with politically powerful constituencies such as 
real estate developers, libertarians, and members of anti-tax groups, 
who bristle at the idea of regulations that restrict personal liberties 
and increase the costs of home ownership.
In Mumbai, Gandy writes, the provision of water is subject to frequent 
interruption, leaving millions of poor families dependent on private 
tank trucks whose owners make deals with corrupt local officials and 
charge high prices. Gandy writes, moreover, that the municipal water 
system suffers from periodic contamination…from corrosion and 
dilapidation of the water distribution system itself that fosters the 
spread of bacteria within pipes and enables dirty water to enter the 
network through cracks and fissures.

São Paulo was founded five centuries ago as a Jesuit mission at the 
headwaters of rivers and creeks flowing into the heartland of South 
America. In 1554, the Jesuits built a chapel between two streams on a 
small hill, which became a provincial capital. São Paulo then stagnated 
for three centuries until an export boom of coffee grown on the rich 
soils of the interior. The city grew from a population of only 31,000 in 
1870 to 21 million today, one of the fastest long-term rates of urban 
expansion in world history. Now engineers struggle to sustain a water 
supply that is often too scarce for the needs of the population while 
during the rainy season—from October to March—water becomes too abundant 
for a city vulnerable to floods. The cupidity and negligence of 
politicians aggravate the effects of droughts and floods. São Paulo’s 
governor, Geraldo Alckmin, a former small-town mayor, denies the 
importance of water shortages while failing to educate voters about the 
need to invest in water supplies in order to guarantee living standards 
and survival. Alckmin plans to run for president of Brazil in 2018.

The metropolis has proved insatiable. Water consumption has grown about 
one third faster than population since 1990, owing both to better living 
standards and to the widespread waste of water. One of the most 
appalling examples of this waste is the pollution caused by the 
untreated sewage of two million squatters who occupy the shores of São 
Paulo’s two oldest reservoirs in violation of environmental protection 
legislation. The main source of water used by the city comes from a 
cluster of reservoirs called the Cantareira, which is sixty miles away. 
Completed in the 1980s, it sends water through a series of canals, 
tunnels, and pumping stations to a huge treatment plant on a mountain 
overlooking the city.

Brazil depends heavily on hydropower to produce electricity, which is in 
turn used to pump water from its dams and reservoirs into the cities. So 
São Paulo faces both power and water shortages in the dry months as 
drought spreads to other heavily populated regions. The same relation 
between water and electricity is also a global problem. Even before the 
current drought, one fifth of the electricity used in California, for 
example, went to moving and treating water. Worldwide, water supply 
networks and treatment plants consume 10 percent to 15 percent of all 
electricity produced. According to a group of specialists at the 
Brazilian Academy of Sciences:

The water crisis, influenced by changes in climate and hydrology, is 
aggravated by changes in soil use, by intense urbanization, by 
deforestation around sources of water and, mainly, by the lack of basic 
sanitation and treatment of sewage.

These difficulties became clear when I talked to people in former 
squatter settlements in some of the newer parts of São Paulo, where 
living standards have risen dramatically over the past two decades. Fear 
is spreading in these communities. Because of rationing that was not 
announced by the city authorities, water supplies are cut for several 
hours each day. In the suburban municipality of Osasco (population 
700,000), poor people rise at 3:30 AM to collect water in buckets from 
faucets that flow for only three hours daily. Pollution and interruption 
of water supplies have led to epidemics of diarrhea and other intestinal 
diseases. Some schools close for lack of water in their toilets and 
kitchens. Luncheonettes, beauty parlors, and factories curtail their 
working hours. Hospital administrators are anxious about water supplies, 
especially for the 12,000 diabetics in São Paulo needing hemodialysis 
three times weekly with specially treated water.

Some people talk of going home to remote communities in Amazonia and the 
Northeast until the crisis passes. São Paulo authorities ignored years 
of warnings by federal and state officials of impending water shortages; 
officials at the state water utility were forbidden to discuss the 
possibility of rationing as engineers struggled to redistribute the 
remaining water among local reservoirs to make supplies last through the 
dry season. It took until August 18 for the São Paulo state government 
to publicly acknowledge the severity of the crisis.

The Itaipú Dam, one of the world’s largest hydroelectric projects, on 
the Paraná River at the border of Brazil and Paraguay, 1983
Many emergency projects are currently running behind schedule because of 
red tape in the bidding for construction contracts and delays in 
approvals by many government agencies. Paulo Massato, who manages the 
water and sewage system for Greater São Paulo, warned of “drastic 
rotation” (rodizio) of water supplies among neighborhoods that could 
remain without water five days each week. “We’ll give vacations,” he 
said ironically. “Get out of São Paulo because there’s no water. Those 
who can will buy mineral water. Those who can’t, go take a bath in your 
mother’s house.”

In the current drought, Greater São Paulo is receiving one third less 
water than it usually consumes. The government-owned water and sewage 
utility, Sabesp, is reducing consumption by lowering pressure in water 
mains and appealing to the public for conservation; it has ordered its 
workers in the streets to mechanically cut off supplies to some outlying 
communities for hours at a time.

But the threat of more severe shortages persists. Sabesp announced that, 
in an emergency, it could continue to send water to the 1,152 hospitals 
scattered throughout the metropolis, as well as to 116 hemodialysis 
clinics and to three hundred prisons and juvenile detention centers. But 
it could not supply 4,562 schools and other public buildings. To 
dramatize the scale of the challenge, Sabesp dismissed suggestions that 
deliveries by tank trucks could overcome shortages in piped water. To 
supply the 2,200-bed Hospital das Clinicas, Latin America’s biggest, 
with the nearly 800,000 gallons it consumes daily, Sabesp said that 
three hundred tank trucks each carrying over 2,500 gallons of water 
would have to rush to unload every five minutes on a twenty-four-hour 
schedule. Desperate local residents also could interrupt these journeys, 
hijacking and draining water from the tank trucks.

While São Paulo relies on surface water supplies from a large network of 
reservoirs, Mexico City depends on diminishing groundwater resources as 
it tries to deal with a perpetual threat that the supply will collapse. 
Mexico City expanded outward from the dried basin of an ancient highland 
lake, on a plateau settled by pre-Colombian peoples. Since 1980, Mexico 
City’s population has grown from 14 million to 21 million. The city’s 
water supply depends on aquifers, or underground layers of water-bearing 
rock into which wells are drilled. Overexploitation of these aquifers, 
at more than twice the rate of natural replenishment, led to the sinking 
of land in several parts of the city and the lowering by about one meter 
annually of the groundwater table (the boundary between higher ground 
without water and lower ground with water). Losses from leaks in mains 
and pipes drain the distribution network of one fourth of its water intake.

The quality of Mexico City’s water is so bad that it is now one of the 
world’s biggest markets for bottled water. Poor families not connected 
to the distribution system must get their water from tank trucks at a 
cost fourteen times greater than the official price for piped water. The 
overall cost to the population in adapting to failures of the system 
including improvising with tank trucks, backyard pumps, and bottled 
water is more than the cost of operating the official system. In its 
desperate effort to supply the metropolis, the government pumps water 
1,100 meters uphill from the basin of the Cutzmala River 110 miles away, 
consuming as much electricity as is needed to supply power to the nearby 
city of Puebla, with four million people.

Most great cities—among them New York, London, Paris, Cairo, Vienna, 
Shanghai, and Mumbai—arose along coasts or the principal rivers of their 
region. Supergiant cities such as São Paulo, Mexico City, and Beijing 
are exceptions, and must bring water over great distances in complex and 
costly engineering projects.

Beijing is at the core of an array of megacities on the North China 
Plain, where some 260 million people live. In China today there are six 
megacities of at least ten million people each, with another two 
expected to join this group over the next decade. Some three hundred of 
China’s 657 biggest cities may well face severe water shortages during 
the next few years.

Beijing emerged three thousand years ago as a walled city on a dusty 
plain, where Chinese rulers delivered tributes of silk and silver to 
placate Mongol invaders, long before Kublai Khan conquered China in the 
thirteenth century and made Beijing the seat of his own Mongol dynasty. 
Early in the twentieth century, Beijing maintained low population 
density with about a million people. By the time the Communists came to 
power in 1949, its population had grown to four million; since then, it 
has multiplied fivefold in sudden bursts.

Over the past half-century, the government has built eighty-five dams 
and reservoirs for Beijing and drilled 40,000 wells in its expanding 
suburbs. These wells supply two thirds of all Beijing’s water, and 
excessive pumping both of groundwater and underground water has caused 
the land to sink and gas pipes to fracture. The China Geology Survey 
reported: “Land subsidence due to excessive groundwater exploitation is 
a type of regional geological hazard that develops slowly and progresses 
to a disaster…that is difficult to control.” After thirteen years of 
drought, Beijing’s per capita water supply fell to 65,000 gallons 
annually, far below the threshold of 264,000 gallons that UNESCO uses to 
determine whether or not a country’s supply is adequate.

China’s rulers seek to meet this challenge with the South–North Water 
Transfer Project, the most costly and complex hydraulic engineering 
effort in mankind’s history, which is beginning to send some 12.7 
trillion gallons of water yearly from the Yangtze River basin in the 
southeast to Beijing and other cities in the North China Plain. This 
volume of water, contained in roughly six hundred miles of canals, 
mountain tunnels, and pumping stations, is some thirty times greater 
than the volume carried in normal years by the Colorado River Aqueduct 
into California and 174 times greater than the water transferred into 
the Los Angeles aqueduct system each year.

Despite these challenges, Beijing’s planners are taking another leap. 
They are planning the construction of a giant airport, an 
“aerotropolis,” as the hub of yet another satellite city at Beijing’s 
southern outskirts. China has been able to mobilize its financial 
strength—some $4 trillion in central bank reserves—as well as expertise 
in hydraulic engineering dating back millennia to carry out audacious 
undertakings such as the South–North Water Transfer Project and the 
Three Gorges Dam, the world’s largest. But these ventures can provide 
only short-term relief from growing pressure on water resources that are 
being depleted.

Sedlak argues that such huge water supply problems pose a serious threat 
to the continued existence of megacities. “There are few places where 
there is enough water in the local rivers and aquifers to support the 
current water demands of a city,” he writes in Water 4.0. “Perhaps the 
best long-term solution to our water problems will be to abandon 
centralized water systems altogether.” This is a bold proposition, but 
not a realistic option. Water has been so important to the growth of 
cities that decentralization of water systems may mean, in effect, the 
dismembering of urban agglomerations; but how this might be done is a 
question that is not addressed. Proposals to decentralize the water 
systems ignore the scale of the demands of megacities and the 
concentration of financial resources, skills, and political power needed 
to manage these complexities.

Many megacities have been living dangerously, allowing the risks of 
their water supply to accumulate even while they threaten to overwhelm 
the capacity of local institutions. Politicians are notoriously 
reluctant to discuss these dangers. However, the challenge of survival 
may create new priorities as water supplies become more precarious. We 
can hope that the need to safeguard the volume and quality of water for 
large urban populations may lead to both improved efficiency of public 
institutions to conserve supplies and also modernized distribution 
systems, reducing the scandalous levels of waste in many of them. Such 
civic mobilization may also require raising the price of water and 
regulating consumption in order to pay for costly investments. So far, 
in too many megacities, the water crises are growing just slowly enough 
to allow their citizens and leaders to avoid confronting the large-scale 
changes that are needed. What is lacking in policies toward water 
supplies is a clear sense of purpose.

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