Africana Plus

No27 January 1998.1


Blue gold

The human brain is a water-filled sponge. It contains other elements as well, but mostly water. All living creatures are, after all, comprised of 80% water on average. Water is essential for life, and not just human life, but plants and animals as well: we all need water to sustain life and to grow.

There are two kinds of water on the planet. Salt water, which accounts for 97% of the Earth's water resources, and fresh water. But not all fresh water is easy for people to get at and use. Four-fifths of all fresh water exists in the form of ice or snow, leaving only one-fifth of that 3% of fresh water available for humans and other life outside the ocean environment. This fresh water can be found below our feet, as ground water, and as surface water in lakes and rivers.

Water, the source of life, is something we tend to take for granted in Canada because we have such abundant precipitation and water is everywhere. Canada is the envy of many countries, not only for its standard of living, deemed to be the highest in the world, but also for our incredible reserves of drinking water, which have earned us first place in the rush for "blue gold".

In Quebec in recent months, and especially in Montreal, there has been public debate over the privatization of water, so essential to life. People are reluctant to consider giving up control of their taps, even temporarily, to private enterprise. Water is certainly an abundant natural resource in Quebec, with its thousands of lakes, rivers and watercourses. The sheer size of the mighty St. Lawrence River, for instance, lulls us into thinking that we will never run out of fresh water. This impression of unlimited supply often, if not usually, means that we use more water than we really need.

The environmental cost is not hard to figure out: excessive demand for drinking water leads to added demand for chlorine and for energy. Adopting a type of water management that promotes rationalization and encourages people not to overconsume would certainly be good for the environment.

Naturally, the prospect of privatization can leave no one indifferent. Too bad for those who still think of water as a gift from the Almighty and who appreciate the generosity of Mother Nature. Nothing is free in our consumer society. Gold - whether gold, black or blue - will always attract its share of prospectors, as well as predatory capitalists. Drinking water could be a very lucrative sector for private companies since it is a necessity for everyday life, and companies with aqueducts could find themselves with a corner on the market.

These companies are already eager with anticipation. They can charge a good price for all the water they bottle. And consumers will be happy; they want nothing more than to be sold on all the health benefits of water. Companies can vaunt its healing properties; mention that it is served at the tables of rich and poor alike; praise it for its purity and clearness. No doubt water will even be identified by its region of origin, and connoisseurs will talk in terms of "vintage" years for water.

While water may be plentiful in northern countries, it is becoming dangerously scarce in the countries of the South. The gardens of Europe and North America stand in sharp contrast with the deserts of Africa and Australia. A recent World Bank study revealed that an investment of $600 billion would be required over the next 10 years in order to provide drinking water for the people of Third World countries and purify the waste water of major cities in developed countries. Water has become one of our planet's priorities. Flooding contaminates it. Overall, in hot countries, lack of water means desolation, disease and death. In most developing countries, particularly in Africa, the majority of people have access only to unprotected supplies of water and to inadequate purification facilities. As a result, the people of these regions are in poor health and thus have low productivity and less potential for economic development. In an African family, for example, it is not rare for most of its members to be affected by insufficient quantities and quality of drinking water. Half of them may be dead, and the other half suffering from intestinal parasites (amoeba or bilharzia), cholera or diarrhea.

According to the World Bank, some half billion city-dwellers (520 million) will not have access to drinking water in the year 2000, as a result of trends that have already been apparent for a number of years: rapid urbanization in developing countries, the growing polarization of rich and poor, and the deterioration in living conditions, all of which will increasingly force politicians and managers to seek solutions based on integrated management of water.

Has creation been unfair? Or is this an opportunity for human beings to be creative? Haven't people talked about towing icebergs to quench the thirst of the South? Aren't people also trying to use satellites to locate underground rivers that could make the deserts bloom? We know that oases are not an exception, but rather a sign; a sign that water can be found everywhere in the desert, even in the most improbable places. Think of the thousands of wells that dot the Sahel like the holes in Swiss cheese: they are signs of hope for life, any kind of life. The result of a generous effort by millions of people, artists and acrobats, patrons and everyday people wanting to show their support for the emaciated nomads who wander this dry and arid land. These crevasses in the ground call forth tears from the heart. There have even been international shows from time to time which have helped to provide clean drinking water.

But these impulses of generosity are not enough. Often they are short-lived. There is need for a sustained outpouring of philanthropy or charity directed by volunteers, cooperants or missioners, lay or religious. These people give time and money and sometimes even their lives so that the southern hemisphere can have life in abundance. Everyone has his or her own way to love, and one should not be regarded as better than another. Each act of solidarity is important in this immense struggle. Indeed, every drop of water is necessary to create an oasis in the desert.

"Thirty children died of cholera in Kisangani as a result of drinking contaminated water after the Congo River overflowed its banks, UNICEF announced yesterday in Kinshasa. Some 740 people with diarrhea were hospitalized in a treatment centre set up by Médecins sans frontières in the capital of the eastern province of the Democratic Republic of Congo (formerly Zaire). The Red Cross brought a tank of drinking water to the city, which has been affected by serious flooding." (Journal de Montréal, 31-1-97)

The UN has been considering the problem of drinking water for years. Furthermore, two years ago, it declared war on poverty by introducing a decade for the eradication of poverty in the world. And can there be any greater poverty than not having enough water? Each year, it causes the deaths of millions of people.

Let us support programs which promote the improvement of this invaluable resource. Our blue planet needs its blue treasure.

Let us find out what we can do to respect nature and safeguard the future of our children and of all humanity.

Let us lobby our governments to introduce environmental policies as well as aid programs for the underprivileged of the Third World.

These would make worthy New Year's resolutions for us all. People dream of being independent. But in actual fact, we stand and fall together. It is impossible to be happy completely on our own. The time is coming when the misery of the forgotten, the rejected and the hungry will turn to revolt and despair. A revolt that may overturn everything that has been built without them, and even against them.

If it is impossible to be happy on our own, it is also impossible to find peace on our own.

Michel Fortin, M.Afr.

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