Water rights: how the source of life could become a source of fatal tension
Photo Credit/Walter J. Pilsak
Nestle is aggressively targeting Pakistan’s water table in order to produce their Pure Life product. By doing so, it has left local citizens to consume unsafe drinking water. The company markets Pure Life water to the elite Pakistani population, and the European and North American markets. Pakistan struggles with water shortages so Nestle’s presence exacerbates the problem of over-pumping groundwater, which is a source of drinking water for most Pakistanis.
Nestle’s corporate interests have far reaching implications that go beyond Pakistan. In 2000, at the World Water Forum, the company actively worked to prevent water being deemed a universal right. Nestle, along with other corporations, won and were able to declare water a need, not a right, and therefore were allowed to commodify it. This was a sobering win in a world where water is growing scare.
To show just how scarce water is, here are some facts: by 2030, half of the world’s population will live in high water-stress areas. Extreme droughts will be five times more potent in 2050 than they are today. Those statistics pertain to scarcity alone: the socio-economic outcomes of water degradation are monumental. This reality will surely cause either governments to cooperate with one another, or tensions to arise, as has occurred between Egypt and Ethiopia.
On September 23, 2013, Peter Schwartzstein of National Geographic published a report highlighting the tensions between Egypt and Ethiopia over Ethiopia’s plan to dam the Blue Nile River in order to build the 1.1 mile long, $4.7 billion Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam. It will be the biggest in Africa and is slated for completion in 2017.
Egypt, whose population is to double by 2050, sees the dam as limiting its options for water resources and a violation of water treaties signed in 1929 and 1959. These treaties allocated 87 per cent of the Nile’s water to them and veto power on any potential projects upstream. Ethiopia does not recognize the validity of these treaties as it did not sign them.
Tensions have escalated to the point that in June 2013, an official in the Nour Party in Egypt proclaimed, “building a dam is tantamount to a declaration of war.” Egypt and Ethiopia’s tensions are just one example of the potential for geo-political clashes that could occur over access to water.
So what should be done to ensure that clean water is accessible to everyone? Water access should be accepted as a universal right. Nestle and other corporations with interest should not be allowed to interfere with this, or commodify water at the expense of local civilians. Engineers should work towards creating more efficient water technology for agriculture and industry.
Governments also will need to play a growing role with one another in negotiating and signing agreements around common shared bodies of water. According to a database collected by researchers at Oregon State University, over the past fifty years there have been 37 disputes over water, 30 of these were between Israel and a neighbour state. Treaties that aid in creating cooperation dwarf disputes that have led to conflict. 157 treaties have been negotiated and agreed to. There has also been 1 228 cooperative events over 507 conflict related events.
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From these statistics, it’s clear that most countries favour working together over using violence in managing and negotiating water access. Cooperation between states will most likely continue to be the most used form of ensuring access to water for their livelihood. Water scarcity may force governments to recognize that access to safe drinking water is a right and not a need as it will impact the wellbeing of their citizens and countries’ potential.