Water: the real rationed resource

Mineral water being poured from a bottle into ...

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The New York Times reports today that Georgia’s state government rewrote its rules back in 2003 for water use during droughts, particularly for one of its worse water-guzzling offenders: golf courses. Naturally, golf course managers were indignant. They claimed their greedy consumption of water was necessary because they planted native grasses that can be enjoyed by their community’s rich white people. The Georgia government recently caved and now consults its golf courses on “water strategies.” 

Lately, the GOP has been hysterically shouting about the prospect of rationed healthcare, but what all Americans (and global citizens) should be concerned about is rationed water, particularly the hierarchy of water access that already exists, and will likely worsen in the future. 

This water hierarchy varies in degrees of access. The people at the top of the hierarchy, rich people (namely golf club owners,) can afford to haggle with the state government and strike a deal to reduce consumption by 25 percent in three years. Meanwhile, the average American golf course drinks up some 50 million gallons of water a year — comparable to the yearly usage of 1,400 people, according to the Times.

The people at the bottom of the water hierarchy, poor people, are not in a similarly advantageous position to make such bargains. Prison inmates receive the least access to quality water, since they are traditionally poor people without any legal leverage. Once a prisoner is behind bars, they become invisible to the rest of society, and can then be forced to drink poisonous water without any meaningful backlash from members of the free society. In 2008, the LA Times reported that drinking water pumped from two wells at Kern Valley State Prison contained arsenic, a known cause of cancer, in amounts far higher than federal safety standards. A $629,000 filtration system was designed, but never built, and the prison staff and inmates were not informed that they were drinking contaminated water.

In Alabama, several nurses employed at St. Clair Correctional Facility said water was cut off in the prison for nearly two days, creating such a foul environment that medical staff wore surgical masks to block the smell. The nurses said they believe the foul water contributed to the high number of inmates with gastrointestinal problems.

“From Day One, we were told, ‘Don’t drink the water.’ That’s when I got into the habit of buying water and bringing it from home,” said Kim Chapman, a licensed practical nurse who worked at the prison for three years before quitting in November.

Only prisoners drank the water, she said. 

In 2006, inmates at the St. Louis and Mid-Michigan correctional facilities filed a federal lawsuit claiming they were forced to drink water contaminated with a byproduct of the banned pesticide DDT. 

But prisoners aren’t the only ones at risk. A peer-reviewed study of the drinking systems of 19 U.S. cities led by the Natural Resources Defense Council found that pollution and deteriorating, out-of-date plumbing are sometimes delivering drinking water that might pose health risks to some residents. The study found that aging pipes generally fail to remove 21st-century contaminants like pesticides, industrial chemicals and arsenic.

Additionally, an Associated Press investigation showed that a vast array of pharmaceuticals, including antibiotics, anti-convulsants, mood stabilizers and sex hormones, have been found in the drinking water supplies of at least 41 million Americans. During the course of a five-month inquiry, the AP discovered that drugs have been detected in the drinking water supplies of 24 major metropolitan areas, including Southern California, Northern New Jersey, Detroit, and Louisville, Kentucky.

The fight for access to clean drinking water has been a problem outside of the United States for decades. The film Flow explores the problem of water privatization, when huge multinational conglomerations steal the water supplies of indigenous peoples, and then sell it back to them at inflated (oftentimes unaffordable) prices. On the filmmakers’ website, they stress the fact that of the 6 billion people on earth, 1.1 billion do not have access to safe, clean drinking water. In another clear example of the water hierarchy, Flow‘s creators state that while the average American uses 150 gallons of water per day, those in developing countries cannot find just five gallons. 

Bolivia is the most famous international example of water privatization. In Bolivia nearly one out of every ten children will die before the age of five. Most of those deaths are related to illnesses that come from a lack of clean drinking water, according to Jim Schultz, founder of the Democracy Center in Bolivia. In 2005, the citizens of El Alto took to the streets to demand that their water system, which had been privatized in 1997 under World Bank pressure, be returned to the people. The protests worked, and Bolivia’s president soon issued a decree canceling the water deal, spearheaded by the French water giant Suez, a corporation that works closely with the World Bank. This was the second major revolt in Bolivia, the first being the protests in Cochabamba, inspired by the Bechtel Corporation water privatization. Bechtel, the international engineering company, was eventually ousted from the country. 

Poor people everywhere suffer at the bottom of the water hierarchy because those at the top (wealthy nations and multinational conglomerates) control quality and access. Mexico’s water system in Cancun’s is run by AguaCan, a company 50% controlled by Suez that provides drinking water, drainage and sewer services, but the quality of that drinking water is highly suspect. “Its not good quality water, nobody drinks the water here, explains community activist Arturo Moss. “If you want to drink fresh water, you have to buy containers of purified water.” But many people cannot afford to purchase water purification tablets or bottled water, and so they take their chances with contaminated water. Access, Moss explains, again depends on means. “In Cancun, in the hotel zone they have water 24 hours a day, but here in the urban areas the service is very limited: only for 2 or 3 hours a day.” The Cancun hotel zone frequently houses wealthy American students on Spring Break, and for that lucky coterie, clean water is readily available.

The number of examples of the water hierarchy are truly overwhelming. Women in poor communities across Asia, Africa, and South America typically walk an average of 3 miles a day to fetch water for their households, often from contaminated sources such as rivers, unprotected springs, and shallow wells, say John Sauer and Andra Tamburro, representatives from the Washington, DC-based group Water Advocates.

Water shortage is the worst crisis facing the world. The problem is so massive that it now threatens the very top of the water hierarchy, wealthy nations and their affluent citizens. A combination of climate change and poor resource management is leading to water shortages in even the most developed countries, according to a report from the WWF. The report also argues that wealthy countries continue to use up the water of the developing world by producing items such as clothing, fruit, vegetables, and jewelry, all of which demand using massive quantities of water during processing.  

The crisis has already started in cities such as Mumbai, India, where officials have reduced water supplies by 30% as the city faces one of the worst water shortages in its history. The BBC reports that the cuts will affect supplies to hundreds of thousands of households as well as hospitals and hotels.

The good news is that with the combination of careful planning and conservation, every human being can have access to drinking water, or as the Flow creators say, “Water justice for all.” There are dozens of water advocacy groups that fight for justice by demanding the end to water privatization, and also believe that we should use our water wisely to nurture children in third world nations instead of wasting 50 million gallons on fairways enjoyed by a paltry percentage of the population.


  1. Jessica Faye Carter

    I’ve been thinking about this issue lately and have come across a number of groups supporting new well-drilling, well repair, hospital well repair, etc. The one I really like is charity:water because you can actually see them build or repair the wells on the site.

    The other week I received a water report from my municipality, and in a moment of horror, worried that it was wrong. Between this article and Turi’s on the drugs in the water supply, I think I’m just going to bank on my report being incorrect and invest in a turbo-charged water filtration system.

  2. Yet another reason to be grateful I live in NYC! Allison at the heart of the issue regarding our domestic water issues is the same problem that effects just about all of our domestic infrastructure issue, the anti tax policies of the GOP. It’s no accident that we in NYC have one of the best water supplies systems in the world, we pay for it. Also there need not be a conflict between things like golf courses and the public’s need in general. Waste water can safely be recycled and used for just such purposes, as long as people are willing to pay for it.

  3. Michael Peck

    The real threat is water wars. A little-discussed cause of the Arab-Israeli conflict is water, and who will control the water resources in the northern Israel/Lebanon/Syria area.

    I suspect another powderkeg is the western and southwestern United States. Too many states using too much water in a region that isn’t naturally suited for large populations and intensive agriculture.

  4. Allison Kilkenny

    In addition to pharmaceuticals, another big problem is pesticides (legal and illegal, both in our food and in our drinking water.) Scientists believe that pesticides like DDT, industrial compounds called PCBs (polychlorinated biphenyls) and other contaminants have an antiestrogenic effect, which means the pesticides cause a dramatic increase in hermaphrodites (particularly among frogs). Chronic low dose DDT exposure has also been shown to be associated with premature birth and low birthweight in human babies who were exposed before birth, and with decreased duration of milk supply in nursing mothers. Fortunately, DDT was banned in 1972 in the US because it nearly led to the extinction of the eagle and falcon. Unfortunately, DDT is still in some our food, particularly imported food.

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