21 September 2010

Film: "One Water" by the University of Miami

A collaborative project at the University of Miami
Funded by the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation
Directed by Sanjeev Chatterjee
Narrated by Martin Sheen
Televised by Planet Green as part of Blue August (2010)
First aired 2 August 2010 at 9 PM EDT

Links: official website, film synopsis, film credits, press kit, educational resources

The film opens with a bullhorn announcement of its own screening, albeit to Indian citizens living on the Ganges delta near Bangladesh. Our narrator sums up the scene in a larger context: "Water is abundant here, but in the absence of purification plants and piped service to homes, poor communities like this one in the Sundarbans depend on natural sources of water for their survival."

One Water was produced by three filmmakers gathering footage and interviews in fourteen countries over five years. It is a simple film, filled with footage of normal people going about their lives in places around the world that experience either the abundance and the lack of water, or both at various times, and what each experience means for life. This film does not preach; Martin Sheen was a great choice for narrator, as his voice conveys well the gravity of the issue without the capability for overt coercive monologue. One Water exposes, in short interviews with experts and through well-crafted narrative prose, the present state of Earth's freshwater in the context of humanity. There is appropriate and welcome silence at times, while the pictures tell the story and the narrative refrains from voice-overs by Mr. Sheen or the interviewees, some of whom are well-known advocates in the ongoing negotiation over the privatization of water. The right to water as a fundamental for life, and the difficulty and cost of obtaining clean resources, are ultimately at the foundation of this story. One Water does not necessarily address the sciences of hydrology and climate change, but neither does it tackle directly the issues of basic human rights, corrupt politics and politicians, economic collusion, and the business practices of evil corporations; check out Blue Gold (another film that I may review soon) if those are what you're looking for. This film does not take a stance on the privatization of water resources in poor regions; in fact, it provides views on both sides of the issue, attempting to explain that the mere provision of water costs money, but even so that there are ways to get it to even the poorest individuals. Given both the straightforward message and the effort undertaken to produce this film, this is a great addition to the still small portfolio of works illustrating one of the central issues facing humanity in the 21st century.

What follows are my notes and impressions upon viewing One Water. I owe many thanks to MKG at Planet Green for access to the film through the Discovery Digital Media Center, with my apologies for taking such a long time in review.

Indian women carry pots and collect water from handpumps, in many areas leading to groundwater overpumping. With the groundwater deficit comes arsenic seepage into wells, resulting in severe and long-term sicknesses at home. It doesn't help that the women must walk many miles back to home, swimming across muddy and sewage-laden streams, the whole time protecting all that they can carry.

The narrator describes the global problem: "Access to safe water for drinking separates the 'haves' from the 'have-nots' like nothing else on Earth."

Commentary at various points in the film is provided by several interviewees:

An apparent pastoral farmer in Ecuador actually harvests ice from Mt. Chimborazo, carrying it to the valley below on pack animals and his own back. Volcanic minerals embedded in the ice are reported to have healing powers. A woman and child carry water pots across dry lakes in the Thar Desert of Rajasthan, India, to collect from a deep well. During drought, winds carry dry salt from the lake bed onto adjacent agricultural areas, diminishing farm productivity significantly; the story is reminiscent of the Aral Sea experience, with toxic dust on the winds. In India, the government pays people who live here to make bricks from the dry earth, but it doesn't make up for farming losses. In contrast, public thermal baths in Budapest and along the Danube seem an excessive indulgement but remain "an essential part of personal health care."

In Kenya, and much of sub-Saharan Africa, unsafe water brings disease (diarrhea, cholera, typhoid and malaria) that kill millions each year. Many of the afflicted are children under 5 years old. Vaccines, medicine for infections, and mosquito nets are all in short supply. Malaria seems particularly adaptible to new medicines, with new strains of the disease appearing as quickly as treatment for an existing variant is developed.

There is a coming crisis in the depth and quality of the Ganges River, as physical and cultural realities clash. The Ganges passes 1,500 miles from the Himalaya to the Bay of Bengal, through 29 major cities each with greater than 1M population, and estimates suggest that more than 400M in India depend on its waters. However, the waters of the Ganges remain sacred and indispensible to the devout Hindu. Our narrator explains: "The Lord Shani looks at the river, Mother Goddess Ganga. Shani, born from the union of Sun and Shadow, is both the inflicter of great pain and the giver of divine wishes. He is capable of great damage, but his wrath is caused by karma, or the deeds of people. If the river becomes a sewer, how long will it be before divine protection runs out? How much more can the Mother Goddess take in? How long before the great Ganges dies?"

The Yangtze River, a symbol of progress and a source of great controversy in China, carries more than half of China's industrial and sewage waste, according to the Worldwide Fund for Nature (WWF). Both surface and groundwater sources are polluted, especially in urban areas, indicative of "progress." Many aquifers in northern China are drying out. The new measures of progress have become cleaning up its waters and getting it to people where they need it. The Three Gorges Dam, while providing much-needed power generation and flood control, also uprooted millions of people.

The Colorado River illustrates the power of money and politics to move water to desert cities, modifying the surrounding landscape and ecology. Las Vegas continues to seek new water sources in addition to its primary reservoir, Lake Mead. Massive pumps move water over mountains to far-away consumers in Los Angeles and central Arizona.

The narrator asks: "Who owns water?" The finite amount that moves through the water cycle is not manufactured, but recycled continuously. All creatures gather at the edge of a watering hole in southern Africa. The growth of civilization runs counter to the "natural order." The expansion of urban and peri-urban areas involves an evolution over time in water provision. Water has become a commodity, for sale only to those who can afford to pay. Government efforts to provide free access for the poor remain inadequate. Protesters declare that "Water is not for sale" and "Water is our right" while bottled water costs, in many countries, more than gasoline. In arid countries, bottled water sells for more than ten times the cost of an equivalent volume of tap water in the United States.

The narrator asks again: "How much should water cost? Who should pay for water? Is water a commodity, or is it a basic human right?" The Dalai Lama describes water as "something common, for everybody." However, as described by Mr. Kelly, "one half, now, of all the available water, to humans, is contaminated." He goes on to explained that "one half to 70% of [the cost of water] is energy costs, getting the water to you and into that glass and cleaning it up. And that process of cleaning is what costs money."

Expansion in government service of public water supply often cannot keep up with the growth in public need, sometimes because of corruption or bureaucratic inertia or simple capacity for growth. As Ms. Sadoff and Ms. Barlow suggest, one possible solution is placing water resources in the hands of a non-profit, semi-autonomous agency running on basic business principles. For the World Bank, privatization remains "one of the tools in the toolbox" to expand water services to the poorest communities. But privatization is a for-profit activity. Subsidies must fill the gaps between costs and the ability-to-pay, using funds from the "haves" to help the "have-nots." Water remains a catalyst for poverty eradication and for social and economic development, as Ms. Sonjica describes conditions in South Africa. As Mr. Kelly observes, "with clean water comes better health; with better health comes productivity; with productivity comes an economic, self-sustaining base."

It is described by Ms. Sadoff of the World Bank as a misconception that the "privatization of water" is the surrender of the resource itself. Mr. Kennedy responds: "If you allow private companies to get control of the waterway, and to start charging people for that, that is the privatization of the resource, no mater what you want to call it."

Our narrator concludes the film: "We have a choice: water can become more and more a point of contention, a precious resource over which wars will be fought, or it can be the bond that connects us all. We can fight over it, or share it as a basic human right. It all depends on the kind of world to which we want our children born."

15 September 2010

Report: "Charting New Waters" by the Johnson Foundation at Wingspread

Working toward leadership in the quest for a coherent, forward-looking and farsighted national freshwater policy framework for the United States, the Johnson Foundation at Wingspread held a multi-sector Freshwater Summit in June 2010 at their headquarters in Wisconsin. The Summit included invited leaders representing business, non-governmental organizations, agriculture, academia, government, foundations and communities who were brought together to build on the findings of an earlier Freshwater Forum sponsored by the Foundation. The result, released this morning in Washington, D.C., by the participants of the Freshwater Forum is the report "Charting New Waters: A Call to Action to Address U.S. Freshwater Challenges."

A media advisory released earlier this month listed the details of the event in DC this morning, including a panel discussion moderated by PBS Newshour host Gwen Ifill. Scheduled panelists include: Chuck Clarke, CEO of the Association of Metropolitan Water Agencies and President of the Cascade Water Alliance; John Ehrmann, Senior Partner at the Meridian Institute; Cecilia Estolano, Chief Strategist for State and Local Initiatives at Green for All; Peter Gleick, President and Co-Founder of the Pacific Institute; David Kohler, President and COO at the Kohler Company; and Patrick O’Toole, Board President at the Family Farm Alliance. The diversity of the discussion panelists is highly representative of that of the Summit participants working with the Johnson Foundation. The discussion in DC will accompany formal presentation of the Foundation report to President Obama's administration at a meeting of federal agencies convened by the White House Council on Environmental Quality.

The preface to the Executive Summary of the report, which was made available to me ahead of the official release and embargoed until this morning, states explicitly and very well the myriad issues faced in the U.S. over freshwater resources and the near future:
"Together we are representatives from business, nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), agriculture, academia, government, foundations and communities. We are united in our commitment to harness American ingenuity and develop innovative, integrated freshwater solutions that cut across traditional boundaries and counteract the inertia that has developed around freshwater management due to fragmented decision-making frameworks and institutional obstacles.

"Our growing population and changing environmental conditions are driving the nation toward inevitable and difficult freshwater management decisions. Many challenges will center on balancing municipal, rural and ecosystem supply needs. We must ensure the long-term viability of safe, affordable and efficient food production while also meeting municipal and industrial water needs. We need to reduce the water demands and impacts of energy generation while continuing to produce enough energy to sustain our economy. We must work to mitigate the causes of climate change and to adapt to its impacts on the hydrologic cycle which pose serious risks to freshwater supply and quality across large areas of the nation.

"In spite of the challenges we face, we see a promising future for U.S. freshwater resources – a future that is sustainable and resilient. Streamlined and effective regulation and enforcement, collaborative problem solving, innovative local and regional strategies, technological innovation, integrated policy and management solutions, and co-beneficial strategies and outcomes are the hallmarks of the new course we see for freshwater management and resources in the United States. We see a future in which leaders in all sectors have the courage and tools to chart a course that ensures access to clean freshwater for all Americans. In this future, our freshwater resources reinforce America’s preeminence as the land of opportunity, attracting new investment while providing an unparalleled quality of life. We urge other leaders to join us in advancing sustainable and resilient solutions to the freshwater challenges we face.

"The time to lead is now."
An information box in the Executive Summary calls out the salient motivation for this particular report: "We must act now because...
  • "Healthy and livable communities need clean and adequate freshwater;
  • "Reliable freshwater supplies are critical to U.S. economic security;
  • "Freshwater ecosystems have intrinsic value and are fundamental to our natural heritage and economic well-being; and
  • "Ecosystems can experience abrupt, nonlinear change."
True, and so very fundamental, every one of these. The Johnson Foundation and the authors of this report seem to have hit the central issues related to freshwater in the U.S. right on target. Let us hope that the federal agencies in attendance take the message delivered here, the reality of water issues that are present even in the richest country in the world, none too lightly. The authors span decades, even more than a century, of attention to natural freshwater availability and water infrastructure in our country in these four very simple points. The last item surprises me: it's so far ahead of the common knowledge and understanding, outside of climate science, that it's finally emerging in the professional literature for hydrology, though it's been around in evolution and biology for some time. This interdisciplinary approach to the social, political and societal issues embedded in freshwater in the U.S. brings the science of the problems, and our learned scientific approaches to the solutions, to the forefront of the discussion.

As outlined in the Executive Summary, "Charting New Waters" describes several recommendations to our national leaders. In brief, the eight keys proposed by the Johnson Foundation are:
  1. Improve coordination of management across scales and sectors;
  2. Enhance effectiveness of existing regulatory tools;
  3. Promote efficient, environmentally wise water management, use and delivery;
  4. Ensure decision making is based on sound science and data;
  5. Employ a long-range adaptive approach to planning and management;
  6. Account for the full cost of water, and invest in sustainable water infrastructure;
  7. Educate the public about challenges and solutions;
  8. Develop and validate methods for freshwater ecosystem services markets.
Note that the last item does not suggest the development of water markets per se, but instead the recognition that ecology provides much of what we humans attempt to impose on water in management, treatment and allocation activities. The ecological contribution can therefore be valued according to the cost of the comparable human activity, and anything with an explicit value may be traded, so markets will inevitably emerge in an unregulated economy. Up to this time, the ignorance of inherent value in water, both in place (as part of the natural ecology) and in human use, has been forced on society and its economy by various methods (e.g. the prior appropriation doctrine, enforced throughout much of the American West). However, economic markets that exploit the inherent value of water are a discussion for another post...

Education, multi-dimensional coordination, inter-agency and public-private (including government and NGO) cooperation, and improvements in the water sciences are prominent as themes that cut across all of these report recommendations. Taken together with the motivations listed above, these themes are the obvious platform on which the Johnson Foundation's contribution to the emerging discussion on national water policy are based. Details, even in the Executive Summary, on these recommendations are insightful and full of relevance, as up-to-date as information to policy-makers can get without predicting the future itself. Far too much second-guessing is based on dated studies and frustrated efforts at communicating science to decision-makers, leading to the problematic "wait-and-see" non-decision and the inevitable, though poorly-understood and too-frequently ignored, costs of non-action. This report provides seemingly little wiggle room for the president's administration to leave the discussion stalled, as I expect the descriptions and recommendations offered here will spur further work, and "calls to action," by both the Summit participants and related groups and individuals pushing for progress on water issues.

Though I wouldn't like to be picky, had I been invited as a participant I might have taken issue with some of the wording in the preface to the Executive Summary given above. It's plenty strong, I think, but the description of issues in the second paragraph is parsed just enough to suggest that problems in freshwater quality should be addressed as part of our response to climate change, and not necessarily as a problem in its own right as a result of poor business and community practices and simple regulatory insufficiency, both of which might be chalked up to bureaucratic inefficiency that result from (and contribute further to) the "fragmented decision-making frameworks and institutional obstacles." Municipal wastewater, industrial compounds, commercial byproducts, and agricultural runoff all contribute to the problem of freshwater quality, and none of these can claim climate change as an aggravating factor. Combined sewers in many cities persist, and discharge of raw pollutants to our waterways remains just as bad as before "climate change" became a buzzword; it's reporting that has stepped up, making us more aware of the issues and infractions, while regulation has lagged. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency was hobbled severely and for years during the Bush administration, pushing farther and farther back much-needed funding and advancements in legislation, infrastructure renewal and improvement, regulatory oversight, and criminal enforcement to mitigate water pollution across the country. This report by the Johnson Foundation, developed almost entirely since President Obama was elected in 2008, calls to task the current administration and its responsibility for inherited issues. Though the administration changes, the bureaucracy carries on, and it is left to the "new" leaders where priorities lay, at least until the next election...

03 September 2010

Annotated: UN Resolution on the Human Right to Water

Editor's Note: following is the complete text of the recent United Nations Resolution on the Human Right to Water and Sanitation, on which I reported previously. There are two principal changes that I have made: (1) superscript footnotes have been changed to bracketed end notes, without changes in the numbering or text; (2) links have been added everywhere that I could find an external resource that might contribute to discussion better understanding on the text of the resolution itself. This is not my commentary on the resolution or the outcome of the vote on 28 July in the UN General Assembly, simply an aid to those of us with interests in the state of international water governance...

United Nations
General Assembly

Sixty-fourth session
Agenda item 48
Integrated and coordinated implementation of and follow-up to the outcomes of the major United Nations conferences and summits in the economic, social and related fields

A/64/L.63/Rev.1 [*]
Distr.: Limited
26 July 2010
Original: English

Antigua and Barbuda, Bahrain, Bangladesh, Benin, Bolivia (Plurinational State of), Burundi, Central African Republic, Congo, Cuba, Dominica, Dominican Republic, Ecuador, El Salvador, Fiji, Georgia, Haiti, Madagascar, Mauritius, Nicaragua, Nigeria, Paraguay, Saint Lucia, Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, Samoa, Saudi Arabia, Serbia, Seychelles, Solomon Islands, Sri Lanka, Tuvalu, Uruguay, Vanuatu, Venezuela (Bolivarian Republic of) and Yemen: draft resolution

The human right to water and sanitation

The General Assembly,

Recalling its resolutions 54/175 of 17 December 1999, on the right to development, 55/196 of 20 December 2000, proclaiming 2003 as the International Year of Freshwater, 58/217 of 23 December 2003, proclaiming the International Decade for Action, ''Water for Life'' (2005-2015), 59/228 of 22 December 2004, 61/192 of 20 December 2006, proclaiming 2008 as the International Year of Sanitation, and 64/198 of 21 December 2009, regarding the midterm comprehensive review of the implementation of the International Decade for Action, ''Water for Life'', Agenda 21 of June 1992 [1], the Habitat Agenda of 1996 [2], the Mar del Plata Action Plan of 1977 [3] adopted by the United Nations Water Conference, and the Rio Declaration on Environment and Development of June 1992 [4],

Recalling also the Universal Declaration of Human Rights [5], the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights [6], the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights [6], the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination [7], the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women [8], the Convention on the Rights of the Child [9], the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities [10] and the Geneva Convention relative to the Protection of Civilian Persons in Time of War of 12 August 1949 [11],

Recalling further all previous resolutions of the Human Rights Council on ''human rights and access to safe drinking water and sanitation'', including Council resolutions 7/22 of 28 March 2008 and 12/8 of 1 October 2009, related to the human right to safe and clean drinking water and sanitation, General Comment No. 15 (2002) of the Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, on the right to water (articles 11 and 12 of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights) [12] and the report of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights on the scope and content of the relevant human rights obligations related to equitable access to safe drinking water and sanitation under international human rights instruments [13], as well as the report of the independent expert on the issue of human rights obligations related to access to safe drinking water and sanitation [14],

Deeply concerned that approximately 884 million people lack access to safe drinking water and that more than 2.6 billion do not have access to basic sanitation, and alarmed that approximately 1.5 million children under 5 years of age die and 443 million school days are lost each year as a result of water- and sanitation-related diseases,

Acknowledging the importance of equitable, safe and clean drinking water and sanitation as an integral component of the realization of all human rights,

Reaffirming the responsibility of States for the promotion and protection of all human rights, which are universal, indivisible, interdependent and interrelated, and must be treated globally, in a fair and equal manner, on the same footing and with the same emphasis,

Bearing in mind the commitment made by the international community to fully achieve the Millennium Development Goals, and stressing, in that context, the resolve of Heads of State and Government, as expressed in the United Nations Millennium Declaration [15], to halve, by 2015, the proportion of people unable to reach or afford safe drinking water, and to halve the proportion of people without access to basic sanitation, as agreed in the Plan of Implementation of the World Summit on Sustainable Development (''Johannesburg Plan of Implementation'') [16],

  1. Declares the right to safe and clean drinking water and sanitation as a human right that is essential for the full enjoyment of life and all human rights;

  2. Calls upon States and international organizations to provide financial resources, capacity-building and technology transfer, through international assistance and cooperation, in particular to developing countries, in order to scale up efforts to provide safe, clean, accessible and affordable drinking water and sanitation for all;

  3. Welcomes the decision by the Human Rights Council to request that the independent expert on the issue of human rights obligations related to access to safe drinking water and sanitation present an annual report to the General Assembly [17], and encourages her to continue working on all aspects of her mandate and, in consultation with all relevant United Nations agencies, funds, and programmes, to include in her report to the Assembly, at its sixty-sixth session, the principal challenges related to the realization of the human right to safe and clean drinking water and sanitation and their impact on the achievement of Millennium Development Goals.

[*] Reissued for technical reasons on 27 July 2010.

[1] Report of the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development, Rio de Janeiro, 3 - 14 June 1992, vol. I, Resolutions Adopted by the Conference (United Nations publication, Sales No. E.93.I.8 and corrigendum), resolution 1, annex II.

[2] Report of the United Nations Conference on Human Settlements (Habitat II), Istanbul, 3 - 14 June 1996 (United Nations publication, Sales No. E.97.IV.6), chap. I, resolution 1, annex II.

[3] Report of the United Nations Water Conference, Mar del Plata, 14 - 25 March 1977 (United Nations publication, Sales No. E.77.II.A.12), chap. I.

[4] Report of the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development, Rio de Janeiro, 3 - 14 June 1992, vol. I, Resolutions Adopted by the Conference (United Nations publication, Sales No. E.93.I.8 and corrigendum), resolution 1, annex I.

[5] Resolution 217 A (III).

[6] See resolution 2200 A (XXI), annex.

[7] United Nations, Treaty Series, vol. 660, No. 9464.

[8] Ibid., vol. 1249, No. 20378.

[9] Ibid., vol. 1577, No. 27531.

[10] Resolution 61/106, annex I.

[11] United Nations, Treaty Series, vol. 75, No. 973.

[12] See Official Records of the Economic and Social Council, 2003, Supplement No. 2 (E/2003/22), annex IV.

[13] A/HRC/6/3.

[14] A/HRC/12/24.

[15] See resolution 55/2.

[16] Report of the World Summit on Sustainable Development, Johannesburg, South Africa, 26 August - 4 September 2002 (United Nations publication, Sales No. E.03.II.A.1 and corrigendum), chap. I, resolution 2, annex.

[17] See Human Rights Council resolution 12/8.