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Oil or water? Getting our priorities right

By Darryl D'Monte

Worldwatch's new Vital Signs 2006-2007 seems more concerned with rising oil prices than with depleting water resources

Vital Signs 2006-2007: The Trends that are Shaping Our Future
Worldwatch Institute
WW Norton, New York, 2006, 160pp

One always greets a new publication of Worldwatch with a mixture of excitement and disappointment. Excitement, because it tracks many global trends and produces telling facts and figures which are grist to the mill of any environmentalist, wherever s/he is located. But there is also disappointment, because of the assumption in the very title of this Washington-based NGO: the claim that it represents the aspirations of the entire globe, where people's needs are so diverse.

The latest Vital Signs 2006-2007 is no different in this respect. Basing itself on the UN Millennium Ecosystem Assessment, a four-year analysis of the world's ecosystems, written by some 1,300 scientists, it takes a broad overview of disturbing trends in several natural resources.

If one wanted to pose the problem with such US-based think-tanks and their worldviews, one could ask the question: Which is more important, the shortage of oil or the shortage of water? No prizes for guessing which Worldwatch is more concerned with. In its preface, the book cites how the price of oil, hovering around $ 70, is obstructing the path to a new energy transition. Indeed, the world now needs 83 million barrels a day and new discoveries are not sufficient to keep pace with this demand, which is growing inexorably at 2% per year.

As someone who attends international environmental conferences regularly, I am often asked: What is the biggest environment problem in the world? My unfailing answer over the last few years has been: the shortage of water. Disturbingly, Worldwatch doesn't even list this among the 'Key Indicators' in its book. It covers food, energy, economic trends, transport, health and social trends, and conflict. But one simply cannot afford to ignore the water issue because it impacts everyone's lives, particularly -- but by no means exclusively -- in the developing world.

If one takes food itself, there is a serious underlying water dimension, as most grain-growing countries spend 70% and more of their water resources on irrigation. Only recently, the Earth Policy Institute, run by Worldwatch founder Lester Brown, reported: "Together, China, India and the United States produce nearly half the world's grain, and these three countries plus Pakistan collectively account for over three-fourths of the world's reported groundwater extraction for agricultural purposes."

It would be interesting to study how countries that import food and vegetables and fruit are, in fact, using -- virtually speaking -- the water resources of countries where these are grown. This is why several radical ecologists believe that the world should switch from being "omnivores" (Ramchandra Guha's apposite expression) to consuming what is grown locally, as far as possible. Apart from putting a strain on the world's water, global patterns of consumption take a toll of the atmosphere (when food is airlifted) or pollute the oceans (when it is shipped).

Admittedly this is easier said than done, given the tendency of even developing countries to import New Zealand apples or exotic Kiwi fruit and the like.

The Earth Policy Institute recognises that, "aquifers are being overexploited in major food-producing regions, including the north China plain, a region that yields half of China's wheat and one-third of its corn; Punjab, Haryana and other highly productive agricultural states in northern India; and the southern great plains of the United States, a major grain-producing region". The destruction of what is probably the most productive wheat-growing region in the entire world -- Punjab and Haryana -- is well documented in a book released last year by Shripad Dharmadhikary, who has studied how the much-vaunted Bhakra dam, supposedly the harbinger of the Green Revolution, did not contribute as much grain as was believed. What's more, the pattern of high-input farming adopted in the region has led to severe waterlogging and salinity there.

Simply put, the world's population doubled in the second half of the 20th century, while water consumption trebled. If irrigation accounts globally for 70% of the water, industry sucks up 20% and households the remaining 10%. This has put an enormous load on all waterbodies -- surface as well as aquifers. Two rivers -- the Amu Darya in central Asia and Colorado in the US -- no longer flow perennially. The Dead Sea, true to its name, has dropped an alarming 25 metres in the last 40 years. Cities like Shanghai and Kolkata also rely heavily on groundwater, while Chennai has to turn to tankers for its needs (possibly the worst case of its kind in the world).

It is a pity that Worldwatch only devotes two pages of the concluding chapter, 'Economy and Social Features', to water and sanitation. If water is ignored, sanitation is usually treated as taboo -- certainly in the industrial world, where it isn't an issue for the most part, but even in developing countries, where it is a major contributor to ill health.

In this context, it is disturbing to learn that the major advocacy group on sanitation, the Water Supply and Sanitation Collaborative Council (WSSCC), which has launched the innovative WASH (Water, Sanitation and Hygiene for All) campaign, is in the doldrums. The executive director of this multi-stakeholder Geneva-based organisation till recently was Gourisankar Ghosh, who made a name for himself when he headed the Water Technology Mission under Rajiv Gandhi and Sam Pitroda. It has single-handedly succeeded in getting sanitation included as an environmental Millennium Development Goal -- to halve the number of people in the world without sanitation, a staggering 2.6 billion, by 2015.

I wonder if sanitation has ever figured in a major way in Worldwatch's 'State of the World' reports or Vital Signs, which I have been looking at for at least 15 years. No one in the West is in the least concerned with sanitation because virtually every household has at least one toilet. But in poor countries, the lack of sanitation and hygiene is responsible for thousands of lives lost due to water contamination.

Even in rich countries, the perception that people are aware of the connection between hygiene and health is not necessarily true. Studies by experts from the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine show that even in the UK, a majority of mothers do not wash their hands after they have changed their babies' nappies. The less said about the situation in developing countries, which have to combat not only the shortage of water but illiteracy, the better.

Worldwatch would do well to pay some attention to this most vital sign of the world's wellbeing, or lack of it. If it did, it would surely realise that wherever we are in this world, we are blindly following a three-century-old technology for sewerage. What we are doing is taking a relatively small amount of human waste, and, by flushing it through a sewage system, squandering water that is usually purified to potable levels. This magnifies the amount of waste several-fold. It is only in some European countries, notably Sweden, that experts are turning their minds to "ecological sanitation", where the water employed is drastically reduced and the human waste -- solid and liquid, which are separated -- used as fertiliser.

If Worldwatch pointed its antenna in the right direction, it would have reported that the WSSCC is in imminent danger unless there are interventions by right-minded people in the UN system and outside it. After many years of functioning as an advocacy group within this system, under the aegis of the WHO but with virtually total autonomy, it is now, perhaps, moving in the direction of being transformed into a donor agency. This emphasis on 'taps and toilets' is what most governments in developing countries -- with rich countries being the main donors -- are obsessed with. But this is not the way to go in making sure that more people obtain water and sanitation.

Particularly as regards sanitation, the WSSCC has put together compelling case studies from around the developing world that the actual need is to make people demand these facilities. At several international meetings on water, Indian government officials have said that India is well on the way to meeting the Millennium Development Goal in this respect. However, merely providing a toilet plinth and fittings is hardly sufficient if there isn't enough water to keep the facility clean. Activists and experts in South Asia have come up with innovative ways -- as a meeting this March at the Rajiv Gandhi Foundation in Delhi demonstrated -- of making people demand sanitation as a basic right, and to assert their need for dignity and privacy.

As we have seen, this vital goal is tucked away at the back of the book and is immediately followed by a section on how car-sharing is gathering momentum, which shows how sanitation literally takes a back seat! This is why there is the need to question which agenda Worldwatch has in mind -- or, to put it more bluntly, which world it is concerned with.

I heard both Lester Brown and Jonathan Lash, president of another Washington green think-tank, the World Resources Institute, speak at a meeting of international environmental journalists in Tuscany two years ago. Although most participants were from developing countries, both speakers spent an inordinate amount of time talking about hybrid cars -- the Toyota model which runs both on petrol and electricity. They said that this heralded the way to a new future. But cars, as all environmentalists ought to know, are the problem rather than the solution. Even if they do run on electricity or hydrogen (in future), these will only reduce mobility not improve it.

The preoccupations of Worldwatch are all too evident in this latest Vital Signs. The preface deals almost entirely with the US situation, beginning with Hurricane Katrina and how the US media has finally conceded that climate change is happening. If energy is to be examined on a global scale, it is the shortage of fuelwood to cook food with -- given the devastating rate of deforestation in developing countries -- that should cause alarm, but doesn't figure in this scenario.

Christopher Flavin, president of Worldwatch, states how there is a "tipping point" and "signs are now growing that the world is on the verge of an energy revolution". He mentions the rapid growth of renewable energy industries in this regard, and cites how ethanol production has increased by nearly one-fifth globally, over the last year. However, there are no quick fixes in such a switchover.

His predecessor, Lester Brown, has, in a study in July , showed how for the first time cars are taking precedence over the world's food needs. He writes: " Cars, not people, will claim most of the increase in world grain consumption this year. The US Department of Agriculture projects that world grain use will grow by 20 million tonnes in 2006. Of this, 14 million tonnes will be used to produce fuel for cars in the United States , leaving only 6 million tonnes to satisfy the world's growing food needs ." This obviously disturbing trend ought to find place in a book of this kind.

Brown goes on to say: "In agricultural terms, the world appetite for automotive fuel is insatiable. The grain required to fill a 25-gallon SUV gas tank with ethanol will feed one person for a year. The grain it takes to fill the tank every two weeks, over a year, will feed 26 people. Investors are jumping on the highly profitable biofuel bandwagon so fast that hardly a day goes by without another ethanol distillery or bio-diesel refinery being announced somewhere in the world. The amount of corn used in US ethanol distilleries has tripled in five years, jumping from 18 million tonnes in 2001 to an estimated 55 million tonnes from the 2006 crop."

At the Delhi Summit on Sustainable Development in March, the high-profile California-based venture capitalist Vinod Khosla made a big pitch for a grass called 'miscanthus' to produce automobile fuel in the US, and observed that India could use its own species to do the same. However, as should be abundantly clear by now, developing countries desperately need to produce more food first and then more biomass to provide fuel for cooking. Thus, as environmentalists are fond of saying: "The earth is one, but worlds are many."

InfoChange News and Features, August 2006