The Environment and Human Rights (4): A Right to Water

The United Nations General Assembly recently voted in favor of an international human right to water. It’s only appropriate that people have a right to the most basic resource. Only a few countries (e.g. South Africa) have already instituted this right. The recognition of this right of course doesn’t mean that the water crisis has magically disappeared. Like the right to free speech doesn’t mean that there’s no more censorship. The real work of bringing water to people who don’t have enough still needs to be done, and some serious thinking and debating is required. Opponents and proponents of privatization, of the introduction of a water market and of other possible policies (including the policy of setting water prices high enough to discourage waste and low enough to help the poor) will continue to disagree and it will have to be settled empirically which water policy provides the best access to all.

On the other hand, the water crisis seems to be abating:

some 5.9 billion people, or 87% of the world’s population, enjoyed access to drinking water from an “improved” source in 2008. In other words, those people had water piped to a dwelling, or got it from a public tap or a protected well. Back in 1990 only 77% of the world’s population enjoyed such a luxury. Yet in some parts of the world, notably in Africa, great improvements in water supply are still needed. Some 884m people are still not using an improved water source, more than a third of them in sub-Saharan Africa. Eastern Asia has seen the greatest recent progress: 89% of the population in that region now have access to an improved water source, up from just 69% in 1990. (source)

The Causes of Poverty (32): Overpopulation

How can I say, as I so often do on this blog, that overpopulation isn’t a very important problem, and certainly not the main cause of such human rights violations as famine, war, poverty etc.? Especially when we know that there will be 9 billion people on the earth in 2050, that with the almost 7 billion living now we can’t manage to properly feed one billion everyday, that many resources (water, fish, arable land in certain places etc.) are already overexploited, that rising incomes will mean rising consumption of food and water (especially meat, a water-intensive commodity), and that because of all of this green house gases will increase?

How can you be so stupid not to believe that overpopulation is a problem, I’m often asked in comments on this blog. Maybe it’s got something to do with the fact that people have been sounding the alarm about the “population bomb” for over 200 years now, and it still hasn’t gone off. Of course, it’s not because people have been wrong for 200 years that they will continue to be wrong. But there are some indications in this paper that they will continue to be wrong.

The paper explains how we can feed 9 billion people, and argues that we’ll need to change the food system. Agricultural waste is a huge problem. Up to 40% of the world’s food ends up in the garbage bin, because of deficiencies in the food-chain infrastructure, transportation and storage. Farmers produce more than they can sell because they receive financial penalties from wholesalers when they can’t deliver fixed quantities throughout the year irrespective of climate conditions. Add to this excessive quality selection (shops throw away perfectly edible food because it’s not visually appealing, and apply overly zealous use-by dates) and consumer waste, and you have mountain ranges of wasted food that could be used to feed many more billions of people.

We could also promote vegetarianism, or at least a reduction in meat consumption, since meat production is very costly in terms of water use, land use, deforestation, green house gases etc. (see here). A side effect would be that we reduce factory farming and are a bit nicer to animals.

Stricter systems to reduce overfishing are also required. And let’s not forget that on a global level, the arable land is underused.

Most countries are only using a bare fraction of their available agricultural land. The United States, for example – one of the world’s top producers – is using only 5.5 percent of its available agricultural land. According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, only 5.6 percent of the world’s arable and permanent cropland and permanent pasture is under irrigation. That gives humanity a lot of room to grow.

Mother Earth actually has the capacity to feed her people, even the billions that live on her now. As more and more people need to be fed, more and more people can be put to work farming, planting, and engineering new food management solutions. (source)

But not just the quantity of agriculture can be boosted, also its quality. Crop yields can be improved, perhaps by way of genetically modified crops but other techniques are also available: farmer training and financing for example, or more efficient irrigation, which would also solve the problem of water shortages, another “consequence” of overpopulation.

This shows that when you improve the food system, you automatically lessen other types of environmental population impact: not only water shortages but also global warming (because of less waste and less meat production), desertification (because of more efficient land use and again less meat production) etc.

Of course, focusing on food production and consumption is just part of the job. An increasing population also means increasing energy consumption. But here as well, there are many things that can be done short of population control. It’s the way energy is used, not the number of people using it, that is the problem. 85% of the people living on this planet consume below the world’s average energy use. Adding many more people isn’t likely to add substantially to energy use.

The Environment and Human Rights (3): Water and Human Rights

We obviously need water to survive, and no human rights without survival. Inadequate water supplies also cause diseases, violating our right to health. We need water – and clean water – to drink, but also to eat. Or rather, to produce our food. And we need a lot. People drink on average just a few liters a day, but they consume thousands of liters a day if we count the water required to produce their food. And evidently we should count it. Many areas of the world face already now face water shortages. A fifth of the world’s population already lives in areas short of water. A global water crisis waits around the corner, and one likely consequence is famine, another human rights violation.

If we want to do something about the water crisis, we should be aware of the effect of food production on water shortages. Especially the production of meat requires huge amounts of water, compared to the production of grains or even rice. People in the West eat a lot a meat, and therefore contribute substantially to water shortages. As incomes in the developing world increase, people there will consume more meat. Hence, global water consumption will also increase. Combine this future increase with the fact that there are already shortages and that these shortages will get worse with global warming, desertification etc., and you get a real crisis.

What are the solutions? Or how can we prevent things from getting worse?

  • Jokingly we could ask people to become vegetarians. That would also be better for greenhouse gas emissions, by the way.
  • More realistically: food production, and especially agriculture and farming, represent 70% of global water consumption. That number could be cut down significantly with better irrigation; “more crop per drop”. There’s incredible waste going on there. 70% of irrigation water is lost in the process. One reason: farmers rarely pay their water bills at market prices, hence no incentives to cut waste. Unfortunately, pricing water at market prices would drive up food prices, pushing many consumers into poverty. And many poor farmers already can’t pay for expensive irrigation systems. More expensive water surely wouldn’t help them. Moreover, market prices may mean the privatization of water, and that’s dangerous. You might as well privatize oxygen.
  • Other solutions: cut waste in households and industries. Here, everyone can help. Also more recycling efforts are needed. Desalination, although expensive, is an option. As are better water storage facilities, especially for poor families in developing countries. All these efforts will not only reduce the risk of a major global water crisis, but will also improve crop yields, thereby reducing the price of food and hence the risk of poverty and famine.