Global Environmental Politics

Master's Degree Programs in Global Environmental Policy and in Natural Resources and Sustainable Development

Ken Conca: Water – What to Do?

SIS Conca_2

-By Ken Conca, Ph.D.

March 22, 2014 – World Water Day

I do research and teach courses about water: water governance, water politics, water management, water as a human right, water as the lifeblood of ecosystems and cultures, water as a scarce resource, water as the way we are coming to experience the effects of climate change. As my students learn about the many problems surrounding water, they often express frustration about their inability to take action. Fair enough: issues are complex; interests are entrenched; institutions seem remote and inaccessible; circumstances vary from place to place; and on closer inspection, sometimes the ones you thought were the “good guys” turn out to be wrong. What to do?

This challenging question has prompted me to keep an eye out for meaningful forms of action that are within most people’s reach. Here are some ideas, in no particular order:

 1. Don’t drink bottled water.

In the United States, tap water is more carefully monitored for quality (by EPA) than is bottled water, which has been considered a low priority among food products. Worse, the bottles create a mountain of pollution and toxic waste up and down the supply chain, from the fabrication of plastic through to the disposal of empty bottles. Recognizing this, UN peacekeeping missions have given up the use of bottled water—and so can you. Educate yourself about bottled water by reading Peter Gleick’s book, Bottled and Sold: The Story behind our Obsession with Bottled Water, and through environmental media such as Grist magazine <www.grist.org> Urge your organization or campus to stop selling and using bottled water. And unless you have specific, reliable evidence that there is a problem with your public water supply, use the tap.

 2. Support the campaign for a human right to water.

In an important step, the UN General Assembly in 2010 recognized that there is a human right to water. But a declaration of this sort lacks the “hard law” status that would make it easier to hold governments accountable to protect, respect, and fulfill the right. Press the Obama administration to make sure that US policy does not block progress on a human right to water at the UN, as past administrations had done. Learn more from the Council of Canadians’ “Blue Planet Project” www.blueplanetproject.net 

 3. Oppose water privatization, in your community and abroad.

There may be a role for the private sector in some aspects of providing water services, but too often privatization schemes promise improvements they don’t deliver, reduce the control and voice of local communities, and hurt the poorest users of water. Keep water supplies in public hands, for the public good. Learn how from Food & Water Watch <http://www.foodandwaterwatch.org/water/> and other organizations working to keep water public.

 4. Join the global campaign against costly mega-dams.

It is important to be able to store water, to guard against seasonal or annual fluctuations and to help lift poor rural farmers out of poverty. But this can be done without building enormous concrete barriers that displace local communities and trash the environment. Hydroelectricity surely has a role in the shift away from fossil fuels, but micro-hydro and “run of the river” schemes generally make more sense than traditional, big hydro (which often reduces greenhouse-gas emissions less than its supporters claim). Learn more from International Rivers <www.internationalrivers.org> and other organizations that back the campaign for people, water, and life.

 5. Tell Congress to fix the Clean Water Act.

Recent Supreme Court rulings have badly weakened the law’s scope and protections for wetlands. See the EarthJustice campaign to promote the Clean Water Restoration Act <http://earthjustice.org/features/the-clean-water-restoration-act-protect-america-s-waters>, which would restore the law’s original intent to keep waterways clean.

 6. Educate yourself.

Read the Pacific Institute’s periodic report The World’s Water <www.pacinst.org>; read the latest research articles on the peer-reviewed, open-access journal Water Alternatives < http://www.water-alternatives.org/ >; read the research reports coming out of water think-tanks like IWMI < http://www.iwmi.cgiar.org/> and SIWI < http://www.siwi.org/>. Read Alternet’s water page http://www.alternet.org/water/&gt;.

 7. Go to the movies!

Check Bullfrog Films’ great series of documentaries on water, politics, culture, and livelihoods around the world <www.bullfrogfilms.com/>. Here in the Washington area, we’re fortunate to have the DC Environmental Film Festival www.dcenvironmentalfilmfest.org/. If your community has an annual film festival, contact the organizers and ask them to screen water-related films. If not, organize a film screening and panel discussion for a local bookstore, campus, library, or community center.

 8. Don’t buy into the “water wars” hype.

The media and some interest groups too often portray water as the “blue gold” of the 21st century, something that will trigger violent conflicts between nations or social groups over increasingly scarce supplies. There is indeed a great deal of violence around water, but almost all of it is the structural violence of poverty, human insecurity, and environmental damage, not the clash of nations on the field of battle. Next time you see a breathless media report about the coming water wars, write a letter to the editor or post a comment about the real violence problem and the ample opportunities to build peace around water. Learn about the environmental peacebuilding and water cooperation initiatives of groups like Friends of the Earth Middle East <www.foeme.org> The cynics’ vision will only be the future if we allow it to be.

 9. Protect ecosystems.

Healthy, functioning freshwater ecosystems reduce human vulnerability and increase social resilience. Stop the damming of rivers, the building of canals, and the destruction of wetlands that make coastal communities more vulnerable to extreme weather events. See the Open Society multimedia project “Katrina: An Unnatural Disaster” www.soros.org/resources/multimedia/katrina/about/. Work in your community to promote “green infrastructure” solutions to water management problems <water.epa.gov/infrastructure/greeninfrastructure/>

Author: sisgep

The Global Environmental Politics program in the School of International Service at American University offers a unique, specialized, and world-leading graduate environmental studies education. We have two degree tracks: Global Environmental Policy (GEP), and our dual-degree Natural Resources and Sustainable Development (NRSD) option with the UN-mandated University for Peace in Costa Rica. Join us!

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