DAILY NEWS CONTRIBUTOR
Monday, February 1, 2016, 6:52 PM
An Indian woman carries a plastic container filled with water in a slum area in New Delhi, India.
The World Economic Forum, which just completed its 2016 meeting in Davos, Switzerland, last year recognized the world water crisis as the most impactful global risk.
The situation is no less complicated or critical today, with California reevaluating its water policies and structures as a result of pervasive drought; with the mega-city Sao Paulo, Brazil, reacting to a failed municipal water system serving millions; with Flint, Mich., confronting the health consequences of a switch to its polluted river as its drinking water source; with communities in the U.S. and Europe rising up to oppose the water pollution and other destructive outcomes of hydro-fracturing; with global warming, continuing drought, polar melt, sea level rise, extreme weather, and other climate impacts affecting the stability of artisanal and industrial farmers; and with the inter-connected and ever-increasing demand for an ever-decreasing water supply worldwide dislocating communities, driving a new and disparate migrations, and creating conflict in many unexpected places between water-haves and water-have-nots.
So the lack of water, or the availability of existing water, is fast becoming a key determinant in the planning for changing demographics, changing economic conditions, changing demands on national and local tax base and budgets, and changing production technologies and prices.
We speak now not so much of “oil rich nations,” but of “water rich nations” where this migration will perforce seek to settle and to integrate into existing patterns of governance, social behavior, and cultural traditions.
Will this global shift be welcomed or resisted? Will the leaders of such places, those left, or those newly come to, be able to manage the consequences of what appears to be a major global adjustment?
A warning buoy sits on the dry, cracked bed of Lake Mendocino in California, as the state’s nearly 40 million people undergo nearly five years of a severe drought.
A traditional response has been expressed in Africa, for example, where water shortages have long characterized the plight of remote villagers reliant on wells — local or sometimes a long walk away — inadequate to either the needs of garden irrigation, herd animals, or the personal needs for drinking water and hygiene.
Two organizations, Water for Good and Charity Water, are among many other well-intended non-governmental organizations that have dedicated their time, energy and limited funds to small but necessary improvements to wells, pumps, filters and other affordable, practical solutions to a critical local need.
This effort, however successful, is surely not enough.
It may seem a long way by any scale from an African village to the ocean. The distance can be measured geographically, of course, but it can also be measured economically and socially by separation between our understanding of the problem and its solution.
A polar bear keeps close to her young along the Beaufort Sea coast in Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, Alaska. The bears have been threatened by melting Arctic sea ice linked to global warming.
To fill this gap we will need a revolutionary rethinking of what we value most. Will it remain oil, the commodity that has shaped our world for the better and the worse?
Or will it be water, the one thing we all need in equal amounts — rich and poor, north and south, of every cultural persuasion — to survive?
Let me emphasize the reality of survival: Without adequate water, no person, no settlement, no nation, no civilization can successfully endure.
I submit that the ocean is the place to which we must turn as the reservoir and distributor of the movement of this water — from the volume of the 70% covering of the earth, into the atmosphere, into the watersheds, into our bodies, and back again, in a global hydraulic cycle and circle of conveyance of what we need now most to live.
We will go there for desalinated water to drink, but also for our irrigation and food production, our alternative energy, our new medicines and essential public health systems, our regional security, our inland and coastal community development, and our most supportive personal and cultural meaning.
A sign on a the front of a building warns residents to filter their water in Flint, Mich., where a federal emergency was declared after lead contaminated drinking water.
It has become clear that the beneficial consequences of the old fossil-fuel system have been overwhelmed by demonstrable negative consequence. The collapse of the energy sector tells us so; it will never return to its former predominance as it no longer pertains to the more compelling realities of climate change, burgeoning population, social dislocation, and our legitimate search for a new system of value, organization and behavior to guide us to a new and sustainable way of life.
We must move to a new paradigm for the 21st century — a new “hydraulic society” — that links our health and welfare to what unites us, not alienates us, to what feeds and succors our families and communities, not what destroys them by poverty and war.
We have much of the technology to make such a paradigm shift today, many means to achieve these ends, but we have not yet the social realization and political will to make the necessary change.
The ocean was barely a footnote at the Paris Climate Summit, and yet it is the one place left with the capacity for a global solution.
Oil and water do not mix, and there is now no choice but to abandon one for the other. I am optimistic that we, as worldwide “Citizens of the Ocean,” will choose water; even the elders at Davos are beginning to understand.
Peter Neill is the director of the World Ocean Observatory and author of the forthcoming “The Once and Future Ocean: Notes Toward a New Hydraulic Society (Leete’s Island Books) to be published in April.
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