Water Is Life

‘Water conservation is an intrinsic part of sustainable agriculture. Our forms of agriculture and food production have conserved every drop of water like a precious gift. Not only do we produce safe food, we also produce clean water. Our methods of agriculture also need strengthening and maintaining to overcome the severe crisis in global water resources’.

This is a paragraph from the letter that the 1200 Food Communities present at Terra Madre in 2004 will take to their governments in the coming months. The letter says many things about what producing sustainable food means in the third millennium, and water is an unavoidable issue.

The rise in water consumption during recent decades is of considerable concern. Agriculture has certainly contributed to the increase, but other factors responsible include wastage involved in delivering the precious liquid to urban areas plus a lack of awareness and education among the public in the ‘developed’ world (be they small farmers, teachers or industrial users). At Mexico City during the Fourth World Forum on Water which has just closed, representatives from various countries discussed how to address this ‘global challenge’. The tensions present in many regions over control of water sources is an indication of how crucial it is for development. Political commentators and experts in strategic issues do not hide their concerns about wars that could break out over a resource that is becoming increasingly difficult to access.

It is no secret that the complex conflict between Israel and Palestine is also aggravated by the question of water supplies for the West Bank. Not dissimilar are the continuing tensions between India and Pakistan regarding Kashmir, where water is an ongoing issue. The problem does not only affect relations between countries but also, more frequently, has aspects of a social emergency.

A few months ago there was a popular revolt in the Indian state of Kerala against a huge bottling plant for soft drinks. The excessive use of water, also publicized by Vandana Shiva, has caused underground water to dry up, crippling rural economic activity and forcing local people to travel considerable distances to get supplies from other villages.

But it is the Bolivian town of Cochabamba which has become the symbol of social conflict over water. In April 2000, as a result of privatization of the local water supply, the local people—by no stretch of the imagination well-off—saw their water bills increase by 300 percent from one day to the next, and found themselves spending up to 25 percent of their income on water. Incidents like this are at the root of the open hostility of most public opinion around the world to the privatization proposals, strongly supported by institutions like the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund.

It is just because water is not an inexhaustible resource that its use needs to be controlled, safeguarded and valued. And it also must remain a right. This means water must be managed. It requires long-term management which does not create monopolies in ownership of sources and can act immediately to eliminate waste. If we look at ways of limiting consumption just in the agricultural sector, we should remember that modern plantations seem to have an insatiable thirst.

It is a consequence of a relationship with the land which has no respect for environmental balances and the limited capacity of ecosystems. The habit of regarding the land as an inert factor of production has led us down a harmful path, encouraging us to farm so we are slaves of market trends and the most profitable varieties at any latitude, without considering the characteristics of the local growing area. Water will be one of the focal points of attention during the next edition of Terra Madre in Turin in October: the protection and ‘quality control’ of this vital resource are in the hands of Food Communities.

First printed in La Stampa on March 27 2006

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