Global water supply under attack

Chapel Hill Herald, Saturday, January 08, 2005

The United Nations' Universal Declaration of Human Rights specifies a right to such basics as food, clothing and housing. But the word "water" does not appear in the document. Perhaps this is because the authors of the 1948 document could not imagine a time in which fresh drinking water would become an increasingly rare commodity, no longer freely available to all. That time is upon us.

In southern Orange County we are fortunate to have abundant fresh water provided from OWASA's reservoirs. But global trends are not encouraging and may threaten both our control over our water supply and our ability to keep it off the competitive market.

Less than one-half of 1 percent of the world's water is fresh. The rest is seawater or frozen in permanent ice masses. The UN has determined that a billion people lack access to fresh drinking water. Global water consumption is growing at twice the rate of the population.

Overuse of water is well known. America's Ogallala aquifer is being depleted at eight times its recharge rate. Over-pumping in Mexico City may deplete its water supply in the next decade. The list of looming national and regional water crises goes on and on.

Meanwhile, the World Bank is pushing countries to commodify their water systems, turning control over to huge corporations like France's Vivendi or America's Bechtel. International trade agreements undermine resistance to corporate control. A California company has claimed that British Columbia's ban on water exports violates NAFTA's protection of investor rights. It has sued Canada, demanding $10 billion in compensation for lost profits.

If you saw the film "The Corporation," you know the story of Cochabamba, Bolivia. There, with help from the World Bank, Bechtel took over the water system under a contract that ratcheted up prices and forbade people from collecting their own water, even the rainwater that fell on their roofs.

The peaceful protests of tens of thousands were met with the violent imposition of martial law. Despite tear-gassing, injuries and killing at the hands of the police, the Cochabambans persisted until Bechtel was driven out and their water system was returned to public control. Bechtel's annual revenues, by the way, are five times the entire national budget of Bolivia.

The Cochabamban activists articulated three principles which are worthy of global recognition:

"1) Water belongs to the earth and all species and is sacred to life, therefore, the world's water must be conserved, reclaimed and protected for all future generations and its natural patterns respected. 2) Water is a fundamental human right and a public trust to be guarded by all levels of government, therefore, it should not be commodified, privatized or traded for commercial purposes. 3) Water is best protected by local communities and citizens who must be respected as equal partners with governments in the protection and regulation of water."

Commenting on the prospects of water privatization for the OWASA system, OWASA Chairman Mark Marcoplos told me, "Privatization is not likely right now but a different political atmosphere could change things. Picture a downturn in the local economy coupled with a slim majority of elected officials who favor privatization."

One way to help prevent that outcome is to reduce our own complicity with the growing commodification of water. Most of the bottled water we drink comes from major multinationals: Coke's Dasani, Pepsico's Aquafina or one of Nestle's 15 brands.

Most consumers are not aware that with bottled water they don't really know what they're getting. According to the EPA, "Some bottled water is treated more than tap water, while some is treated less or not at all." The National Resources Defense Council found that "there is no assurance that bottled water is any safer than tap water."

In many places, drinking bottled water is a necessity. Here, it is a luxury item. When you purchase bottled water you are taking it from someone else whose local supply may be in jeopardy; you are competing with those who really need it, driving up their prices; you are strengthening the hand of the multinational water industry; and you don't really know what you are getting (and don't forget the waste generated from hundreds of millions of plastic bottles).

An easy act of resistance is to use a refillable water bottle. If you are concerned about water quality, add a filter to your tap or under the sink. If we agree with the three principles of the Cochabambans, we must act to reduce pressure on the global water supply. The best way to do that is to take advantage of our local supply of high quality drinking water.



When I wrote this column, I did not have sufficient space to explore possible pressures in the future toward the privatization of OWASA. As right wing political success places increasing pressure on federal and state government, we will, over time, have to pay for more services locally. This will lead to a trade off between tax rates and services. Privatization is often proposed as a stop-gap measure, turning public assets into cash to delay hard choices.

It is not difficult to imagine such political trends beginning to have salience in southern Orange over time.


You are correct. That is why GE started a water platform years ago.
In the not so distant future, wars will be fought over water not oil.

As we speak, GE is delivering mobile RO units to the hardest hit areas of the Asia-Pacific rim. Residents will have clean sterile drinking water this weekend.

GE press release:

Major Product Donation
Source: Press Release
09 January 2005

ASSIST INTERNATIONAL announces major infrastructure donation from GE to provide potable water in Banda Aceh, Indonesia

75-ton Water Purification System Departed Dubai Sunday, January 9th On World's Largest Aircraft

On Friday, January 8th, Assist International announced the donation by GE of a water purification system that will produce at least 432,000 gallons of potable water per day in Banda Aceh, the northern Indonesian province that was the hardest hit by the tsunami. The equipment has the potential to provide drinkable water for 110,000 Indonesians per day. GE expects the system to be functional as soon as next weekend, January 15-16.

The equipment comes from GE Infrastructure, Water & Process Technologies.

GE is also donating an 800 kVA power generator to power the system, as well as additional equipment including breakers, cables, membranes and filters. To ensure the system can begin working as quickly as possible, GE is dedicating the resources and expertise of more than 50 engineers, operational specialists and project managers.

The equipment, which weighs 75 tons, is currently in Dubai, United Arab Emirates and will depart for Banda Aceh on Sunday night, January 9th, on the world's largest aircraft --- the Antonov An-225. Originally built for the Soviet space program, it is now used to carry ultra heavy and/or oversize freight. The cargo will be flown to Singapore where it will be transferred to a ferry barge. On Tuesday night it will depart for Banda Aceh and is scheduled to arrive in Lhokseumave jetty (Banda province) on Thursday, January 13, subject to weather and other conditions.

Upon arrival in Indonesia, the equipment will be turned over to PLN, the Indonesian state utility company.

“The water purification system which GE is donating is going to literally save thousands of lives,” said Bob Pagett, President of Assist International. “It is Assist International's privilege to partner with GE whether in Africa, or Southeast Asia, in projects that really make a difference.”

The tentative timeline for the project is:

01/09/ 2005: Sunday PM - Departure from Dubai on AN 225 --- World's largest aircraft
01/10/ 2005: Monday AM - Arrive in Singapore Changi Airport approximately 7:00 am
01/10/ 2005: Monday PM - Transfer shipment in Singapore from airport to private jetty
01/11/ 2005: Tuesday AM - Load equipment on ferry barge.
01/11/ 2005: Tuesday PM - Depart Singapore jetty.
01/13/ 2005: Thursday AM - Arrive in Lhokseumave jetty (Banda province) subject to weather and other conditions permitting
01/15-16/2005: Saturday/Sunday - Operational based on best circumstances

Assist International is involved in relief efforts across the region as well as ongoing humanitarian projects.

About Assist International

Assist International is a 501(c)(3) non-profit humanitarian organization based in Scotts Valley, California, that networks resources from the business world, service clubs, doctor and hospital groups, corporations and individuals with human needs throughout the world. Assist International is a nonsectarian, nonpolitical organization dedicated to relieving human suffering in developing nations by providing medical equipment and supplies, medical education and other relief supplies. For more information, visit the Assist International website at

While the quality of our water here in Orange Co is quite good, we can all do things to keep it that way. One way is to NOT throw unused pharmaceuticals down the toilet. The true impact of pharmaceuticals in our waterways is still emerging but it's not looking good. Some compounds, such as amphetamines, are not filtered out completely during processing and are showing up in wildlife and in kids. For now, if you have unused pharmaceuticals, it would be good to hold on to them until we have a community-wide plan for disposal.

Good point! Solid waste, drugs & chemicals should never be flushed as sanitary waste. Meth labs are notorious.

I just heard from a buddy on-line.

One 75 ton RO unit is on-line with the other ready to come on-line Sunday.

If GE engineers have to be out by March, who will run these sophisticated units?


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