Published in Parliament Magazine June 2006
Some years ago I read a scientific article on mountains. It started by saying that we consider mountains to be something very robust, something to last forever, at least in human time scale. But in fact mountains belong to most vulnerable ecosystems in the world, because mountain glaciers are melting rapidly.
Half of all people are depending on rivers starting from mountain glaciers as their freshwater source. Himalayan glaciers feed 7 great Asian rivers, Ganges, Indus, Brahmaputra, Salween, Mekong, Yangtze and Huang He, and ensure a year-round water supply for 2 billion people.
But the Himalayan glaciers are retreating fast. Recently the Chinese Academy of Sciences has announced that Tibetan glaciers are shrinking by 7 per cent every year, which means that they will halve every decade. Each year the loss of ice equals the flow of the Yellow River. In the Ganges alone, the loss of glacier meltwater would reduce July-September flows by two thirds, causing water shortages for 500 million people and 35 % of India’s irrigated land.
In the dry Andes, glacial meltwater contributes more to river flow than rainfall, even during the rainy season.
Thus, reducing greenhouse gas emissions to stop the global warming is extremely important to prevent whole nations from turning thirsty. And hungry, because water is also strongly linked with food. An average person drinks 4 liters of water per day, but the water required to produce our daily food is much more, around 2000 liters.
Unfortunately also groundwater is used more rapidly than it is formed. In many areas the formation of groundwater is so slow that it is called “fossil water”. Water tables are falling in countries that contain more than half of world’s population.
Falling water tables are hidden. Rivers that are drained dry before they reach the sea are visible, e.g. Colorado in USA and Yellow river in China.
The “green revolution” which tripled the world grain harvest from 1950 to 2000, was very much based on expanding irrigation. Some experts speak about “food bubble” meaning unsustainable use of water for irrigation.
It seems to be fashionable to advocate privatization of water as a way to stop wasting of water. But we have to make a difference between pricing of water and privatization.
For me it makes sense that “free” water is wasted, exactly as too cheap energy is wasted. It makes sense to have a price for water, at least for tap water in cities, to finance building and maintenance of the water pipelines. But it is another issue what kind of price is socially acceptable in poor countries. Anyway, in many countries poorest people do not have water pipelines in their homes, they have to buy their water from the street with a high price.
And it is still another question, who should get the money. Water is a life necessity, and once connected into water pipeline network, the consumer has no choice. I think that water companies in cities should be publicly owned.
In many countries water privatization has de facto meant allowing private companies to make money with fossil groundwater, e.g. to produce bottled drinks. When the reservoir is empty, the local community is left without groundwater.
One phenomenon creating hope is a new grassroots movement in India, spreading so called rainwater harvesting. This means revival of old traditions to channel and store rainwater during the rainy season, when it otherwise just flows rapidly to the sea. In many villagers this has been successful. For me it seems that local co-operatives are a suitable way to organize this, not private firms.