The essential nature of water has always put it at the center of civilisation (where would the Romans have been without their aqueduct, for instance?), so it is not much surprise that it is also at the center of a growing number of conflicts worldwide. From biblical times to today, intense rivalries have brewed over water resources from North to South, pitting country against country, state against state, business against the poor, the farmers, the voiceless, even monkeys against people.
Last week I attended an amazing conference on global water politics at the Omega Institute in upstate New York with Maude Barlow, Tony Clarke, Satish Kumar, Ralph Nader, Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. and a host of other progressive thinkers who recognize water as the next oil - that is, the next resource worth going to war over.
Water is elemental, life-giving, sustaining. Water is more fundamental than any other element, let alone any other commodity. Consider, for example, that it takes over a month to starve to death, but you'll be dead in three days without water. This fact also makes it an attractive resource to privatise and commodify. There is no more basic need than survival, and no substance on earth more crucial to survival than water. It's a capitalist's dream, and a warrior's cause.
Desertification and deluge
I've done a lot of travelling in the Southern Hemisphere - to places where they have no water and to places where they have too much. The people at these two extremes often have more in common than you'd think.
They're poor and they have no control over their own destiny. And much of this is down to water.
Physics dictates that water takes the path of least resistance, but for most people on this planet, the path to water is bloody hard work. One billion people worldwide do not have any water within a 15-minute walk of their homes.
In Africa, 40 billion working hours are lost each year because people, mainly women, have to spend them fetching and carrying water.
The average African family uses about five gallons (23 litres) of water a day. When you consider that the average American family uses more than 100 (460 litres), it's just as well they don?t have to walk to get it.
I've seen in Bangladesh, children are given fruit drinks as soon as they come off their mother's milk, because water is siphoned off for business use.
The South fights back
Last year I drew attention to Coca-Cola's alleged abuses in Plachimada, Kerala in India.
The largest Coca-Cola bottling plant in India is being accused of putting thousands of farmers out of work by draining the water that feeds their wells, and poisoning the land with waste sludge that the company claims is fertiliser.
Activists and locals were struggling to shut down the plant that they said had drained local aquifers and literally parched the farmland that the people of the area depended on for their livelihoods.
Coca-Cola responded to the protests and complaints by calling the desperate locals liars. The company denies that the shortages have anything to do with its use of up to a million litres of water a day from the underground aquifer that used to keep the wells topped up.
There have been some new developments in this story recently. According to CorpWatch India, the local government in Kerala suspended the bottling plant's license to operate, citing "public interest" and threats to human health and the environment.
But the federal government of India, which has long been willing to look the other way when it comes to the downside of Coca-Cola's massive investment in that country, has temporarily suspended the local body's ruling.
Coca-Cola now wants to build a new bottling plant in Tamil Nadu. In April, more than 7,000 people - most of them women - marched in protest. They worry that Coke plans to take all of the already scarce water from beneath their land, too. They are fighting back.
And all of this so it can turn the precious water into sugary sodas which it then sells back to the very people it stole it from. Or worse, it bottles the water itself and sells that at a massive profit.
Why should we be surprised? A not so old annual report of Coca-Cola says, "All of us in the Coca-Cola family wake up each morning knowing that every single one of the world's 5.6 billion people will get thirsty that day. If we make it impossible for these 5.6 billion people to escape Coca-Cola, then we assure our future success for many years to come. Doing anything else is not an option."
This fighting back is the new politics of the 21st century. Everywhere power is being dissolved down to the level of the community - taking back what is rightfully theirs.
In this grassroots global revolution we find people are quietly getting on with changing the lives of their communities positively. And where people are finding creative technological solutions undreamed of by the Microsofts, Bayers and Exxons of this world.
The people involved know that freedom isn't just about the right to vote a dozen times during ones? life, but the right to decide one's economic as well as political destiny and that is precisely what economic globalisation is stealing from people all over the world.
To drink a glass of water a third of humanity turns on the tap, the rest improvises.
People left to their own devices come up with alternatives. Because they have no choice.
And the first choice is either stealing it or dealing it.
Corporations might call it stealing. But maybe we should call it taking back what is rightfully theirs.
Let's get this 'stealing' bit out of the way. The primary initiative is stealing the water before it flows into the water company's reservoir.
In Lebanon, it's quite common to illegally siphon off rivers and open ditches. This kind of water is fine for toilets, crops and even laundry. But in Peru, 10 percent of people drink it.
In India, some people get treated water by draining holding tanks or bypassing water meters.
In Filipino slums, people often rig garden hoses to fire hydrants or even pierce city mains.
Water trucks often supply slum areas of major cities. But not for free. Dealers serving the shanty towns of Bangladesh are known to charge 250 times the price of municipal water.
There's a black market in water. In Mexico, the water that's trucked to squatter towns is officially free, but drivers commonly extort and pocket payment.
Poor people in rural areas of Southeast Asia and Africa pay an average of 12 times as much for each litre of water than those connected to municipal systems and typically spend 20 percent of their income on water.
It's the sort of entrepreneurialism you don't want to hear about.
- Harvesting rainwater
In a given weekend, more than 50,000 people around the world will die from diseases triggered by lack of safe drinking water.
While we debate and analyse the statistics of woe, poor people are quietly getting on with the business of finding, getting and keeping clean water. People left to their own devices have to come up with creative solutions and there are lots of them.
Groundwater, the unseen source of life for two billion people, is diminishing almost everywhere in the world. Some two billion people and as much as 40 percent of agriculture is at least partly reliant on these hidden stores. And it's costly to extract.
Most effort and expense has traditionally gone into schemes to draw up the water from underground sources after it has fallen to earth. In Kenya, however, they're taking a different approach.
As 50 percent of the people of Kenya have no access to safe and adequate water, a group of individuals formed the Kenya Rainwater Association to collect rainwater.
Now, rich countries like Australia and Japan are starting to collect rainwater, thanks to the leading edge technology developed by the Kenya Rainwater Association.
How does it work? Roofs provide the least expensive way of harvesting rain. But it's best done with cheap materials that can be fashioned into household tanks - corrugated iron, plastic or tile.
They build to a general model - foundations sealed with concrete; round tank walls, because these are stronger than rectangular ones; a roof to stop evaporation and prevent contamination. Sounds simple to us, but Kenya is a country where manufactured goods are scarce.
And good practice is copied everywhere. Today, there are more than three hundred women's groups involved in rainwater harvesting in Kenya, and the technology is being transferred to neighbouring Uganda.
Thanks to water harvesting, villages in the Indian district of Madhya Pradesh have avoided the impact of the recent drought that has devastated much of Western India. Water harvesting is a sustainable approach to an age-old problem of seasonal drought.
Unsafe drinking water is the world's No 1 killer, leading, according to the UN, to nearly 250 million cases of water-related disease each year and between 5 million and 10 million deaths.
Water can also be a curse. Bangladesh, a country of 112 million, is at the forefront of the world water crisis. The poorest are the most vulnerable. Not only storms and floods, but waterborne diseases, lack of sanitation, and polluted water often determine how long they live.
The problem is one of contamination. Water can be sterilised by boiling, but this is uneconomical because wood for fuel is extremely scarce in Bangladesh.
So, women know that they've just got to do it themselves. Villagers collect water using their saris as filtration tools in the attempt to reduce the occurrence of cholera.
The women have learned from experience just how to do it. The sari needs to be folded so that there are four to eight layers of cloth. The folded cloth is then wrapped over the water pot before water is collected from the river or pond. Laboratory tests have shown that this method removes 99 percent of bacteria.
Once the water is in the pot, the sari is removed, unfolded, rinsed in the pond or river, or in a small amount of the filtered water. It must then be dried in the sun for a couple of hours - a process of natural decontamination that kills off any bacteria trapped in the material.
Saris are found in every household in Bangladesh. They're thin and easy to dry. Water collection using saris to filter out bacteria is a method that's available to even the poorest of the poor.
- Reinventing the wheel
I think the solution that grabs me the most is the children's play pump in South Africa. Children at Thabong nursery school in Davieton, east of Johannesburg, have no idea that they are involved in a scheme that benefits their community.
But the fact is that the community has harnessed the energy of children at play to ease the burden on their mothers. Instead of pumping the water by hand, the children are doing it for them.
Purely by pushing round and sitting on the simple roundabout we all used to know as kids. All that's needed to operate the pump is the energy of children at play. And it?s an idea that's spreading throughout the poor villages and deprived urban areas of South Africa. And what a fantastic idea!
Fifty two roundabouts have already been built. How do they work? I'm reliably informed that the roundabouts go round and round and the pump goes up and down. It pumps 1400 litres an hour. It's as simple as that.
Who pays for it? It's about five thousand dollars to put the pump and roundabout in. Most communities are too poor to install a pump.
But the trick is that the community's water tower is used as an advertising board. Major advertisers pay the roundabout company a monthly ad rental, enabling the roundabout company to effectively put the equipment in for free. It's a win-win situation.
They're even using the towers to put up messages about the danger of HIV/AIDS infection. Places that have problems with water often have problems with HIV.
The technology is transferable all over the world. To me, it's a case of necessarily reinventing the wheel.
It's my belief that worldwide initiatives focus too much on large-scale funding and not enough on small-scale efficiency gains that could reap rewards through community initiatives such as rainwater harvesting. And most World Bank funding still goes towards providing water and sanitation in urban areas where richer people live.
These rain harvesters which filter rainwater are one of the pricier low-tech solutions but a lot cheaper and more effective than bigger projects.
In Nigeria, they cost US$16,000 but they reduce the need for dams and have a longer life span. In Tanzania US$16,000 will pay for the salaries of two local engineers - cheaper than flying in an expert from abroad.
And while we're comparing costs - how about the US$90m cost of holding last year's Earth Summit in Johannesburg? In Ethiopia that would buy 121,000 public water points, at US$750 each, each providing enough water for 500 people. Enough water for Ethiopia's entire 67 million population.
When it comes to private utilities, the reputations of big water companies have been badly damaged by high-profile failures. And the poor are to blame. The fundamental problem is that the poor are not profitable. They cannot afford to pay for the connection or to consume enough water to cover operating costs.
In the face of all this failure and inertia, many of the real innovations are taking place at the community level, often spontaneously, or through dynamic cooperation between voluntary groups, small-scale entrepreneurs and officialdom.
In a small southern Indian project, small vacuum pumps are attached to bicycles. Operated by two or three people, they are used to clear out septic tanks, using affordable and locally appropriate technology. This develops local capacity to solve problems and stops wealth leeching out of the area when foreign consultants, water and civil engineering companies come knocking.
Organisations like the Intermediate Technology Development Group in Britain advocate small-scale solutions to the problems of poverty. Its approach achieves what is impossible for the big water companies, who must answer first to their distant global shareholders.
It tries to understand water from the view of poor people who make no distinction between the water they need for drinking and cooking and the supplies they put to productive uses, such as watering livestock, gardens or crops, or put on sale.
Small-scale solutions are what is needed.
Water - the 21st century conflict
People say that there will be wars over water. Will be? There always have been. There are lots of references in the Bible to water. Back then, as now, the power politics of the Middle East is still centered on religious men. And, more than ever before, water.
We forget that the immediate cause of the Six Day War in 1967 between Israel and the Arab States was over access to water.
Some say the Palestinian conflict is about land, others say it is about water. To Israel, water is a matter of national security.
Since seizing the West Bank, Israel has been using 79 percent of the water from the Mountain Aquifer and all of the water from the Jordan river basin.
Although some would rather see it as a leftover from the last century, Palestine is very much a 21st century conflict. And it's over water.
And this is true also for the wider world.
"Water is one of the great business opportunities," notes Fortune magazine. "It promises to be for the 21st century what oil was for the 20th." Not forgetting that water was also the major issue back in the 1st century. We still live in Biblical times.
And finally, I've had a great time gathering creative and nobel attempts to overcome water shortages, here are some of them:
- One family in the USA bought a king-size waterbed and filled it with distilled water. During water shortages they will have 1,500 litres of drinking water on reserve.
- In Stigomta, Sweden, they hold an annual 'Pee Outside Day' which saves 50 percent of the water normally used to flush a toilet.
- In Warsaw, Poland, many people wait until water is cheaper (from 10:20pm to 6:20am) to shower and clean.
- In Kunming, China, residents cover outdoor taps with metal boxes and lock them to prevent theft.
- Hungarian farmers prefer raising chickens and pigs instead of cows, as cows needs too much water and land.
We have to accept it. We're in trouble. The water you flush down the toilet in Amsterdam will end up in your raspberry sorbet in Paris or be the morning dew in Cairns. It's all the same water.
And maybe this is what the future will look like - depleted water supplies will have changed everything: fresh, naturally clean water will be so rare it will be guarded by armies. Water vendors will be selling faded snapshops of water. Turkish baths will be containment areas for nuclear waste when there's no more sea to dump it into. Ammunition for a toy water pistol is more expensive than platinum, riot police squads negotiate instead of firing water cannons (no bad thing!). And there'll be no more umbrellas! The death of naturally clean water is approaching and we need to do something about it now.