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Op-Ed

People without water are more likely to become extremists: Karen Piper

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By EMN Updated: Nov 12, 2014 11:25 pm
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[dropcap]M[/dropcap]any parts of India battle the dual crises of flooding on one hand and drought on the other. Karen Piper, a professor of postcolonial studies in English and adjunct professor in geography at the University of Missouri, spent seven years investigating the water landscape across six continents for her new book The Price of Thirst. Piper sketches a frightening portrait where thirst is political, drought is a business opportunity, and our most basic natural resource, water, is controlled by multinational corporations. Madhavi Rajadhyaksha talks to Piper about her travels along the Ganga, and the global conflicts over water
Madhavi Rajadhyaksha (MR): It is often said that future world wars will be fought over water. Your book too traces some major global conflicts to water shortages. Are these alarmist predictions?Karen Piper: No, they are not. There are many wars that have already been fought, or are being fought daily, over water. For instance, many Arab-Israeli conflicts have started over water access. The Darfur conflict started over water. What is surprising is that the media usually describes these wars as ethnically or religiously motivated. If we could focus on the actual point of contention – water inequity- the problems could be easier to solve through alleviating water shortages. It is crucial to have impartial international organizations that can help to do this. International organizations like the World Bank often fuel conflicts instead. For example, the World Bank has funded Turkey’s Greater Anatolia Project, which is cutting off desperately needed water in Iraq and Syria. ISIS has clearly stated that it will take over Istanbul, if necessary, to keep the water flowing to Syria, because of these cutoffs. It’s no wonder that ISIS is trying to take over dams now in Iraq. The fact is that people without water are more likely to become extremists.
MR: Prime Minister Narendra Modi has identified the inter-linking rivers project as a chief priority for India. Do you see any benefit of this project in resolving India’s water crises?
Karen Piper: The inter-linking rivers project is a crazy idea. I would question any politician who wanted to implement it. It was conceived during the British colonial period by Arthur Cotton and gets dusted off every now and then as a solution to India’s droughts. The idea is to transport water from the water-rich north and east to the drought-stricken south and west of the country. The benefit is water supply, in the short term, to areas that suffer drought. The reason I say “short term” is that it would kill the very rivers it relies upon for its supply. This short-term benefit does not even outweigh cost of building it, which would be over one hundred billion dollars, let alone the costs of maintenance, environmental destruction, and displacing people.
India is already dealing with the consequences of around 50 million people displaced by water projects. Why would you want millions more people displaced and migrating to cities? The environmental cost will be even greater.
MR: You travelled along the river Ganga. What were your starkest observations?
Karen Piper: Tehri dam is a tragedy. It ruined the livelihood of so many people and destroyed a valley with such scenic and historical value. My starkest observation would have to be seeing how those who are kicked off their land are mistreated and given raw deals because they have no power. India throws an amazingly large number of people off their land, and then tries to move rivers to cities to supply its urban sprawl. This also happens in other countries, including the US. But the scale is largest in India and China.
MR: People in India seem largely apathetic about water usage till a shortage hits. Should they worry?
Karen Piper: This is a problem throughout the world. With modernization and urbanization comes apathy because people think that someone else is running the show and will somehow get water to them. Then they are shocked when a crisis emerges and water does not miraculously appear. I wrote this book partly to get people thinking more about where their water comes from, who is making decisions about it, and whether or not they are the right decisions. I want people to understand that “public water” means it’s their water and they are responsible for taking care of it. Otherwise, we will continue this cycle of apathy and then panic.
MR: There is a school of thought that believes putting a price on commodities increases public consciousness. Charging for water then has its benefits. Your thoughts?
Karen Piper: The problem is that pricing water creates a system of “have-and-have-nots,” as the market does with every other commodity. We can’t treat water as some kind of luxury commodity, since we can’t survive without it. Besides the ethical considerations, creating markets for water does not lead to less water usage. Corporations that charge more for water are not interested in conserving it. In fact, they give bulk discounts to the biggest water guzzlers, agri businesses and industry, and build housing developments in order to create more customers.
MR: You have traced the global footprint of water privatization? What is your estimate of water that is privatized in India and around the globe?
Karen Piper: That is a difficult question to answer, since estimates vary widely. In 2007, the World Bank estimated that 170 million people were supplied by the private sector. Corporations provided a much higher estimate in 2014, claiming to supply 862 million, or 12% of the world’s population. I think the corporate figure is much more accurate, and even this estimate does not include every kind of water privatization. For instance, there is state-wide commoditization of water in Chile, so you have to include the entire country’s population, and there are water markets in the American southwest, which are not factored in. At any rate, it’s constantly growing, since countries are still pressured by the IMF and World Bank to “privatize” their water, though they don’t call it that any more. Now it’s called “public-private partnerships” or “private sector participation” in providing water.
MR: What are the broad implications of water being regarded as an economic good?
Karen Piper: If water is treated as an economic good, this opens the door to pricing people out of water. Since water is necessary for survival, the obvious impact is that those who cannot afford clean water die, usually from drinking dirty water. There are mechanisms in some countries to prevent this from happening, which is called a “lifeline supply” of free water. But the amounts are often quite low. In South Africa, for a family of five, the amount per person per day is less than what it takes for one toilet flush. In India, that number is higher, but it is decided city-by-city and often not enforced.
MR: Water sharing remains a contentious issue between Indian states. Did you encounter similar challenges in other countries and how best were they resolved?
Karen Piper: Definitely, there are the same problems around the world. Just look at the Colorado River. Not only do the US and Mexico fight over it, but also all the US states that use it fight over it. Water is always a contentious issue when it is in short supply. But the worst thing you can do in such times is treat water like any commodity, which means handing it over to the highest bidder. That would mean that Mexico would not have any water; it would all go to Los Angeles!
Instead, what you can do is set up a legal framework for sharing water equitably that is transparent and fair to all involved. And then abide by that document. A bigger issue is the need to understand that the natural world has to have water to survive, and people need the natural world to survive. That is so often forgotten in any negotiations.
Regions that are considered “water-rich” actually have exactly the right amount of water necessary for survive. To take that water away is to kill an ecosystem, oftentimes merely to grow cotton in the desert someplace far away. It would be far better if the laws of nature were considered the foundation of any treaties made between states. It would reduce costs.
MR: Your book talks about the revival of indigenous water-knowledge systems. Please elaborate how these could help tackle the water crises?
Karen Piper: In the US, people don’t think about Native Americans as being farmers, but they actually had complex irrigation and rainwater collecting systems that were sustainable for centuries. In British Columbia, Canada, natives had also had elaborate permaculture gardens, which use perennial plants and avoid the water loss and soil degradation that comes from yearly plowing. Today, people are reviving those systems quite successfully in Canada and the Pacific Northwest of the US. It is on a small scale and needs more government support. In India, reviving rainwater-harvesting systems, like the tank system, has been successful in many places. There should be much more government support for those initiatives before anyone talks about large-scale diversions. Delhi has an amazing ancient rainwater collecting system that has fallen into ruin, but could be restored in many places. Qanat systems are being restored in the Middle East. Systems that have lasted a very long time should be our models, not dams, which last around 40 years before they fill with silt.

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By EMN Updated: Nov 12, 2014 11:25:00 pm