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THE WORLD'S THIRST

by HOMERO ARIDJIS

from REFORMA, Sunday, March 27, 2002

In 1993, in my novel "La Leyenda de los Soles" (Legend of the Suns), I foresaw a city without water in 2027, the year that coincides with the next "Fuego Nuevo" (New Fire), that the original Mexicans used to commemorate every 52 years, specifically on the "Cerro de la Estrella" (Hill of the Star), now a site for the celebration of the Christian Passion.

Meanwhile, the global consumption of water is doubling every 20 years. According to the UN, today more than one billion people, that is to say one sixth of the world's population, has no access to potable water, and 5 million die every year from drinking water that is polluted. To go on like this, by the year 2025 some 5 billion human beings - 65% of the possible global population by then - will suffer from a severe or total lack of potable water. The majority will be in Africa or South Asia, the places where now exist the most poverty and hunger on Earth.

Citizens, scientists and political leaders throughout the world are very concerned about pollution and the loss of wetlands, lakes and rivers, coral reefs, seas and oceans - where the fisheries are reaching their limits - but little is done. Competition for water in the regions of greatest scarcity is on the rise. With climate changes and the indisputable warming of the Earth (evidence for which is the breaking off from Antarctica of an iceberg the size of Cyprus), the water crisis will intensify. The impact of water shortages is becoming a destabilizing factor. In the Middle East, the former king of Jordan once said that he would only go to war with Israel over water, since Israel controls Jordan's water supply. The regions where water is now most in contention are the Aral Sea, the River Ganges, the River Jordan, the River Nile and the Rivers Tigris and Euphrates. If agreements are not reached for the sharing of the water, there will undoubtedly be disputes and even wars. Mexico has been paying a debt since 1992 for water from the Colorado, Tijuana and Bravo (Grand) rivers, leaving the northern region region of our country, where drought has reached critical levels, short. According to state authorities in Texas, the lack of this water has cost the state about one billion dollars and more than 30,00 jobs, over the past 10 years.

The increase of urbanization and industrialization in the world, in northern countries as well as the developing world, has increased the demand for water. But, where is this water to come from? From agriculture? This could cause a decrease in agricultural production. Transferring water to the cities could determine the capability of the world to feed itself, although in the industrialized countries there is less taking of water from agriculture for urban use, because the demand increases more slowly. Throughout the world there are political and economic forces that determine the allotment of water. In countries like the US, water rights can be transferred, something that affects people who are not involved in the sales of these rights. This transference has an impact on employment, the stability of rural communities and the environment. When the renewable supply of water in a country falls below 1,700 cubic meters per capita, there is an insufficient supply to satisfy the domestic, industrial and alimentary needs of the population. The importation of grain begins, reserving water for domestic and industrial use. At this time 34 countries in Africa, Asia and the Middle East find themselves in this situation.

The usual way to increase water supply has been to build dams, which are extremely destructive for local populations and the environment. Over the last 51 years, the number of dams in the world has risen from 5,000 to 38,000. It is said that in the 21st century water will be what oil was for the 20th, and the question of the century will be: who are the owners of the water and to what extent can they sell it? The privatization of water is already a business worth $400,000,000 a year. The multinationals of water hope to increase their profits even more, taking advantage of international agreements on trade and investment to control the supply and demand.

Previously, governments used to believe that basic services like water, education and health should not be included in trade agreements because they involve fundamental rights of their citizens. But, under NAFTA, these rights have been eroded. The possible expansion of NAFTA to the whole continent, thereby imposing its failed model of privatization and deregulation to 34 countries in the Americas and the Caribean, will create the largest free trade zone in the world; of some 800,000,000 people. According to an analysis of the agreement done by Maude Barlow, a Canadian expert in continental trade, all public services will have to open themselves up to competition from multinational corporations, whose principal aim is profit, and not public service. Private corporations will have the right to operate free from government regulations. As for water, federal and local governments will be forbidden to give preference to national providers of water and sewage services. Defenders of privatization argue that a market system is the only way for water to be distributed, but it has been proved that selling water in the marketplace does not satisfy the needs of the poor. Privatized water goes to those who can pay for it. Water flows towards money. Barlow says that in the northern hemisphere, the privatization of water has resulted in high prices and loss of access, unfulfilled promises to improve hydraulic infrastructure, loss of access rights for indigenous peoples, unemployment, lack of information about water quality, and large profits for the privatizing companies.

Part of Mexico City's water supply is already in private hands, some of them foreign. Instead of the aberrant construction project that is the Periferico y el Viaducto (the second tier highway planned for Mexico City), which is going to disfigure the City of Mexico and condemn the metropolitan area to a hell of selfish individual transportation, the government of the Federal District should be investing in projects to remedy the large water deficit (22,000 liters per second) that we suffer from, improving the distribution networks to avoid the enormous leaks (37% of the present supply), recycling sewage, and implementing efficiency and conservation.. The city continues to subside due to excessive extraction from the aquifers, and what was, under the Aztecs, a fertile metropolis of lakes and lagoons, is now threatened with death through thirst.

At a distance of 25 years from the next celebration of the New Fire ceremony, everything would seem to suggest that not only are we moving towards the future, but that the future is already here.


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