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Our Desperate Battle Over Water in a World About to Run Out
By Jeffrey Rothfeder
Tarcher/Putnam, 205 pp., $24.95

By Jonathan Z. Larsen

As we watch Congress try to determine the exact nature of the shady enterprise known as Enron -- was it a classic "pump-and-dump" stock manipulation, a pyramid scheme, a shell game, or all of the above? -- it is sobering to consider what the Next Big Thing would have been for this predatory corporation: capitalizing on the world's water crisis.

Every Drop For Sale

In Every Drop for Sale, Jeffrey Rothfeder identifies Enron as one of the global companies that had positioned themselves to profit from the fact that our planet is becoming more parched by the day. As more and more cities and even countries admit that they can no longer deliver clean, reliable water supplies to their citizens, government officials are turning to the private sector to save them: companies like Enron, Bechtel, Suez Lyonnaise des Eaux, and Vivendi. In the United States alone, the private water sector now accounts for $80 billion in revenue.

The scale of the current crisis, as described by Rothfeder, a former BusinessWeek editor who began covering water issues for daily newspapers in 1979, is staggering. Borrowing a benchmark developed by Peter Gleick, one of the co-founders of the Pacific Institute for Studies in Development, Environment and Security, Rothfeder posits that each individual needs at least 50 liters of water a day for all uses: cooking, bathing, clothes washing, drinking, and sanitation. That's approximately two flushes of a U.S. toilet manufactured before the mid-1990s. Rothfeder reports that "2.2 billion people spread out among sixty-two countries -- one-third of the world's population -- live below this minimum water level." The average consumption in India, for example, is 31 liters a day, in Kenya 36, in Mozambique 7, and in Haiti and Gambia, 3. Three liters is about what a careless U.S. male uses while shaving. The consequences of such deprivation are catastrophic. "Upwards of 10 million deaths per year, mostly among the young and elderly," writes Rothfeder, "are caused by water-related diseases, chiefly cholera and dysentery. Nearly 250 million new cases are reported annually."

In his effort to be comprehensive, Rothfeder almost inevitably covers familiar historical ground, focusing heavily on the damage that has been done by giant water projects in the United States. Rivers have been dammed, diverted, and diminished in the Northwest and West to the point where they no longer meet the ocean, while migrating populations and agribusinesses have been lured into desert and semiarid landscapes where they do not belong, with guarantees of cheap water. But in the main, Every Drop for Sale is more concerned with today and tomorrow than with yesterday, and Rothfeder's reports from the front lines of the water crisis are intelligent and impassioned, though occasionally disorganized. Along the way, Rothfeder desperately tries to imagine a future in which an exponentially exploding population can share dwindling water resources without violence or warfare.

Environmentalists, according to Rothfeder, remain divided on whether privatization is a solution or a setback to the world's water needs. Some fondly cling to the view advanced by the Muslim rules of shari'a and most indigenous peoples, that water -- belonging to no one and everyone at the same time -- is a right that must be shared. Other environmentalists grudgingly admit that unless you put a market price on water, no one is going to conserve it; instead it will continue to be wasted, polluted, or misappropriated. But the move towards privatization has hardly gone smoothly. Rothfeder offers the following report card:

• In England, Margaret Thatcher placed the country's water management in private hands in the late 1980s. "Financial mismanagement became rampant, water rates skyrocketed, company executives gave themselves generous compensation packages from the water contracts, and water quality deteriorated," Rothfeder writes. Tony Blair's administration finally brought the system under control in the late 1990s, and it is now working well -- but requires strict governmental oversight.

• In Walkerton, Ontario, a private operator took over the town's main well. When the company discovered E. coli bacteria in the water supply, it failed to inform anyone for five days. Within weeks, seven people had died and two thousand had fallen ill. In its defense, the private operator claimed that it was too understaffed to have alerted its customers, and that in any case the contract did not specifically call for notification.

• In Argentina, the decrepit water infrastructure of Buenos Aires was turned over to the Suez Lyonnaise des Eaux and Vivendi corporations to fix, through thirty-year concessions. That was in 1993. To date, the country's regulators have called the program a failure and face the "doomsday option of revoking the contract."

• In the town of Cochabamba, in central Bolivia, the infrastructure of the water delivery system was so decrepit that as much as 60 percent of the water was leaking away. With no money to fix the pipes, the government of Bolivia sold Cochabamba's water system to a subsidiary of the Bechtel Corporation. Within six months, the company had doubled water rates; overnight many residents were paying 20 percent of their take-home earnings for their right to water. A general strike ensued, followed by violent street clashes between protesters and government troops. In the end, Bolivia tore up the contract with Bechtel -- but not before seven people had been killed, others "disappeared," and some ten thousand injured.

It is not easy to find any solace in these pages, but it is possible. Desalinization is becoming more and more feasible, at least for wealthy countries with access to the ocean -- to the point where Saudi Arabia now gets 70 percent of its drinking water from such plants. There are now 12,000 desalinization plants worldwide, reports Rothfeder, and even Tampa Bay, Florida, has invested in a plant large enough to supply 10 percent of the area's needs. This is remarkable because the United States has historically been as resistant to desalinization technology as it has to solar technologies. Even more promising, solar and desalinization technologies are now coming together in a process called thermal distillation, in which solar heat is used to convert salt water into water vapor. Regrettably, Rothfeder mentions this only in passing.

The cost of transporting water is also coming down thanks to new technologies. Rothfeder takes the reader along with him as he watches gigantic red polyurethane bags filled with water being towed by tugboat from the Greek port of Piraeus to the Saronic Islands. "I was certain that this couldn't be the way it was planned when the planet emerged," muses Rothfeder. "We weren't supposed to end up trading water on the high seas, ferrying it from where it is to where it isn't anymore or to where it never was." Yet a paragraph later we find Rothfeder speculating favorably on Kenya receiving shipments of water from as far away as Canada. "At best," he writes, "seagoing water transfers could stimulate global water redistribution, diminishing the gap between the haves and the have-nots."

In spite of his excellent reporting, Rothfeder advances throughout the book at least one questionable argument -- that less rain is falling on the earth than in the past. His theory goes like this: "As less freshwater makes its way to the sea, the Earth's ability to replenish its water supply is reduced. That's because most water evaporation, the precursor to precipitation, takes place in the ocean." Yet this hypothesis is not sourced and seems unlikely. Because of global warming, the ocean's surface area is actually increasing and its temperature climbing -- both factors that make more evaporation possible. The Worldwatch Institute's newsletter even attributes the rise in devastating floods in the last decade to the rise in evaporation.

Whatever the actual rate, or the amount of global rainfall, it is not nearly enough. Neither are the efforts to avoid a biblical-scale catastrophe.

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Jonathan Z. Larsen chairs the editorial board of OnEarth.

OnEarth. Spring 2002
Copyright 2002 by the Natural Resources Defense Council