The opening line of Psalm 24 — “The Earth is the Lord’s, and all of its fruits” — is considered by many to express the cornerstone economic principle of Judaism. It’s a principle that our biblical ancestors learned the hard way: According to one Hasidic teaching, Jews endured centuries of slavery in Egypt in order to learn that wealth comes from God, not from the Nile River.
Whether or not we envision a God who “owns” the earth, however, Psalm 24 readily translates into the self-evident statement that soil, air, sunshine and other natural resources critical to economic activity are not the creation of people, corporations or nation states, but are humanity’s shared treasure.
In the case of water, it’s also our shared problem.
The United Nations estimates that, within a single generation, 2.7 billion people will lack safe drinking water and 3.4 billion will confront serious water scarcity. Indeed, water scarcity is the theme for this year’s World Water Day, which the U.N. General Assembly was scheduled to observe March 22.
The effects of this scarcity are ruinous. According to the World Health Organization, nearly half of humanity suffers from at least one of the six main diseases associated with contaminated water. Among them are diarrhea, which kills thousands of children every day, and trachoma, which causes blindness — and which resulted in some of our forebears being rejected at Ellis Island during the waves of mass immigration at the turn of the 20th century. Around the world, significantly more people currently die from water-borne disease than from war.
Water scarcity also causes the kind of acute political tensions that lead to war. The Latin for “rival,” rivalis, means one who shares a stream, and for good reason: Some 145 countries derive water from sources that cross national boundaries, according to the U.N. In the Middle East alone, river rivalry has produced threatening exchanges between Egypt and Ethiopia, between Israel and the Palestinians, and among Syria, Iraq and Turkey.
Poverty and mismanagement are, along with geography, generally seen as the main causes of our water crisis. Wasteful irrigation methods, industrial agricultural run-off, chemical pollution, degraded sanitation infrastructure, poor urban planning and ill-considered engineering projects all contribute. The disempowered status of women, who physically haul the great bulk of water and are most knowledgeable about it, is another factor.
Such problems suggest their own solutions: development aid, improved infrastructure, equitable access to land and resources for women, advanced irrigation techniques and small-scale hydropower projects. According to the U.N., the necessary new investment for these and other actions will cost only an estimated $30 billion per year.
Who will pay for these investments? These days, privatization is often promoted as the best way to provide that capital and ensure water protection. The World Bank projects that corporations will control more than 14% of the world’s water by 2015 and run a $1 trillion water industry by 2021. The profit motive, however, can also be polluting to the water supply.
According to Corporate Accountability International (formerly known as InFact), an activist group with 30 years of experience, agri-business now uses 70% of the world’s water and up to 85% of water in underdeveloped countries — often to irrigate export crops.
Bottled water, another profit center of water privatization, now grosses $100 billion annually worldwide — considerably more, it is worth noting, than the $30 billion required to address the water crisis.
Here in the United States, the Perrier subsidiary of Nestlé is aggressively lobbying to exploit the Great Lakes watershed, from which it bottles its Ice Mountain brand spring water. The efforts of the Swiss-based company, which according to the Beverage Marketing Corporation controls one-third of the American bottled-water market, has been met with multiple lawsuits and citizen protests.
In Argentina, Bolivia and the Philippines, the France-based Suez company’s mismanagement of water resources been met with consumer, environmental and union protests, including work stoppages, as well as political scandal over the cancellation and reinstatement of its contracts. (Suez does not deal in bottled water.) And in India, a Coke bottling plant has been charged with draining wells dry, leaving farmers and their families struggling to survive in the process.
Water scarcity is a problem of global proportions, but each of us can individually make a difference. All you have to do is replace your branded bottled water with a refillable water bottle. The less we support corporate control of this precious resource, the greater the chance it will be accorded the international preservation and rehabilitation effort that it requires.
Lawrence Bush edits Jewish Currents, the magazine of the Workmen’s Circle/Arbeter Ring.