The Impact of Corporate Water Use on Developing Countries
by Staff Writer Brendan Pringle
It’s so easy to take water for granted. The planet is covered with H2O, and we can find cheap bottled water just about anywhere in the United States. While the eco-conscious make an effort to conserve water around the house, this type of usage comprises only about 8% of water consumption, leaving the rest to agriculture and industry.
Water is a necessary resource for every type of industry, but when the health and survival of native peoples are endangered, a line must be drawn.
Although it may seem basic, water is a deceptively complex resource to analyze. As Marcus Norton, head of water disclosure at the Carbon Disclosure Project argues, we cannot solely measure water scarcity by volume used. Rather, we must ask: “Is it from a watershed where water is abundant or scarce? Is the water coming from a renewable source or from an aquifer that might take thousands of years to replenish?” Impact must always be examined at the community level, especially in developing countries.
According to research published by IBM Corporation, 41% of the global population “live in water-stressed areas.” This number is only growing, and at a frightening rate. A recent report commissioned by Nestle and brewer SAB Miller concluded that “by 2030, global water demand would outstrip supply by 40%.” On the flip side, it emphasized that “existing management and technology could cut water use and boost supply enough to close the gap.” If negative trends continue, however, water scarcity could cause losses “equivalent to the entire crops of India and the US combined” by the year 2025. This would be absolutely devastating.
So who is to blame for these water shortages? Well, water has become almost as lucrative as oil in some places. The sale of water sources throughout the world has expanded into a massive, $400 billion global industry. Suez and Veolia currently “deliver water to some 260 million taps around the world.” These companies, among others, establish the price of this precious “inelastic” utility, and thus can determine whether the average person is able to afford fresh water or not. Corporations owning or operating water systems make about 200 billion a year, and currently only serve about 7 percent of the population. As a result, about 1.2 billion people in developing countries have inadequate access to safe water. In addition, the high-tech industry, which demands large quantities of clean water has worsened the state of water scarcity throughout the Asia Pacific region, with 11 of the world’s 14 largest semiconductor factories running throughout the area.
Fueling this market is the poor economic status of developing countries. Abiding by the lending requirements enforced by the World Bank, such countries “have had to aggressively export their way out of debt, devastating watersheds and placing water supplies in danger.” Throughout Latin America and Asia, large corporate factories are “moving up the rivers of the Third World, sucking them dry as they go.”
Fortune Magazine predicts “water will be to the 21st century what oil was to the 20th century.” And to think world oil domination was once our biggest fear.
In addition to shortages, water pollution has grown into a disastrous problem in developing countries. On average, one child dies every eight seconds as a result of a water-borne disease. Poor waste management infrastructure is a key aspect of this problem, but globalization has dramatized the impact of this fault. Industrial waste bi-products, as well as pesticides can stealthily contaminate drinking water. Increases in mining and manufacturing have magnified the threat of underground water pollution, “contaminating the aquifers that provide more than 50% of the domestic supplies in most Asian countries.” The ramifications of this statistic are no less than bone chilling.
This is not to say that privatization of water is bad. Private companies that have the potential to supply clean water in a way that is competent and yet affordable should not be restrained. Private industry, has the monetary and technological resources necessary to make water delivery more cost-effective and environmentally sound. Meanwhile, it is generally accepted that the governments in many developing countries have “done an abysmal job in protecting water within their boundaries.” In Africa, for example, some governments lack the tools and capacity to monitor water supply trends, water-related legislation is poorly enforced, and studies are not conducted in a systematic fashion.
However, the actions of global industrial players must be checked. Many governments have already “sold out” on this valuable resource, destroying competition and generating monopolies. Likewise, corporations that purchase water reserves solely for their own unrelated industrial use in scarce zones are blatantly abusing the surrounding peoples. Such behavior needs to be halted before both time and water run out.
In the meantime, some basic practices could be implemented in order to conserve. The installation of nozzles on hoses, the usage of high-pressure washing equipment for cleaning, and the recovery of condensation are all sustainable methods of water preservation that should be immediately put into practice. Yet amidst these minor adjustments, the corporate world needs to recognize the people they are directly affecting, and make an effort to reconsider and transform their current practices.
It’s a matter of life and death.