California's Drought: The Canary in the Coalmine?

Water runs along a farm irrigation ditch in Richvale, Calif. (Credit: Jae C. Hong/Associated Press)

California's Drought: The Canary in the Coalmine?

'There is no place on earth that can be safe, secure or healthy in a world that is running out of water.'

On April 1, 2015, California Governor Jerry Brown ordered officials to impose mandatory water restrictions in his drought stricken state for the first time in history. The news was carried around the world. "Climate change" was named as the culprit -- and it is.

Glaciers are melting in the arctic and drastically-reduced snowfall in the Sierra Nevada Mountains has lowered the amount of run-off that the state depends on for water renewal. But there's another side to this story and it's this: human abuse and mismanagement of water is actually a cause of climate change, and that needs to be placed at the center of our thinking about environmental destruction and regeneration.

"Water is the common heritage of humanity and of future generations."

In this sense, California is the 'canary in the coalmine' of a growing water crisis, and what's happening there shows why all of us must transform our thinking, action, and relationships to this most precious of resources.

For decades, there has been massive engineering of the state's water supplies through pipelines, canals and aqueducts in order to supply a small number of powerful farmers in California's Central Valley. Eighty percent of all water in California goes to agriculture, much of it to grow water-intensive crops for export. Alfalfa hay, for example, which is mostly exported to Japan, uses 15 per cent of the state's water. Almonds (80 per cent of the world's production) use another 10 per cent.

Absent renewable water supplies, [industrial] farmers have taken to mercilessly mining groundwater to produce their crops. If the rains don't come soon--and there is no sign that they will--groundwater will be depleted in many parts of the state.

But instead of challenging these practices, California's new restrictions only apply to urban centers and not to the big agricultural producers who hold powerful political sway in the state. For years, there has been a free for all as large industrial farms turned a renewable resource that belonged to the people into a commodity owned and controlled by private interests. Having secured their own 'water rights,' some of these corporate agribusinesses also hoard, buy and sell their water on the market.

The restrictions also don't apply to the many fracking and bottled water operations throughout the state that are harming and depleting local water supplies. In 2014 alone, oil producers in California used about 280 million liters of water for fracking.

The problem in California, as in so many parts of the world, is that water is seen as a resource for convenience and profit, and not as the essential element of an ecosystem that gives us life. Water is increasingly treated as a form of private property, and powerful forces resist any attempt by governments to limit their consumption and trading.

By contrast, fighting for water justice has changed my own personal relationship to water. It has taught me not to take water for granted, and to be responsible for my own and my family's water footprint. To save water for people and the planet, we must all find a new relationship to water, consuming much less and taking care of all water everywhere as if it were the next glass we ourselves are going to drink. The world's water is a commons that must be more justly shared, that's true, but it must also be protected fiercely by everyone.

Against this background, it doesn't help that most people are raised on the 'myth of abundance,' believing that we can never run out of water. Like most myths, this one is wrong. The United Nations now says that we have 15 years to avert a full blown water crisis, and that by 2030, demand for water will outstrip supply by 40 per cent at the global level.

Five hundred scientists brought together by UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon have concluded that the collective abuse of water has already caused the planet to enter into a "new geologic age"--a "planetary transformation" akin to the retreat of the glaciers more than 11,000 years ago. A majority of the world's population lives within a 30 mile radius of water sources that are badly impaired or running out. More children die of water-borne disease than all forms of violence put together, including war.

How are world leaders and global institutions dealing with this threat? Very badly, and without a plan. When water is discussed at world gatherings it is seen as a by-product of climate change. There is little understanding that removing water from water-retentive landscapes affects the climate in dramatic and negative ways. Cutting down the Amazon rainforest has led to a perilous drop in rainfall, for example. For the first time in living memory, the once water-rich city of Sao Paulo in Brazil is experiencing severe drought.

Legal systems in most countries don't protect the earth because they aren't meant to. In fact our legal and political establishments perpetuate, protect and legitimize the continued degradation of the earth by design, not by accident. Most laws to protect the environment and other species only regulate the amount of damage that can be inflicted by human activity.

But communities around the world are creating a new form of civil rights movement to deal with these failings. They are passing local laws that assert their right to protect their local environment from harmful mining, fracking, pipeline and other invasive practices. In this process, "communities will become true stewards of their ecosystems, protecting and upholding these natural rights" as Shannon Biggs puts it, the founder of US-based group Movement Rights.

The solutions to water security in California and the wider world must be based on the same fundamental principles. Communities must be given more authority. Water plunder must stop. And governments have to stand up to the powerful industries and other private interests that are destroying water right across the globe.

Private industry should not be allowed to own or control water, and anyone found polluting water must be denied future access. Water is the common heritage of humanity and of future generations. It must never be bought, hoarded, sold or traded on the open market. Water services must be publicly-owned and delivered on a not-for-profit basis. Governments must place priorities on access to limited supplies, especially of groundwater.

Water is also a human right, and lack of access to clean water and sanitation is the greatest human rights issue in the global South. But lack of access to water is no longer confined to poorer countries. In the name of austerity, thousands of people in the USA and Europe have had their water services cut off -- in Detroit, for example, because they cannot afford the high price of water imposed as part of plans to balance the city's budget.

To combat these problems we need a global plan of action that includes:

  • Watershed protection, conservation and restoration;
  • National and community programs to replenish water-retentive landscapes;
  • Watershed sharing and governance;
  • Models of food and energy production that do not harm water;
  • Strong laws to prevent eutrophication;
  • Consideration of the impact of trade agreements on water; and
  • Strong local, national and international commitments to put water protection at the heart of all laws and policies.

Most importantly, we must learn a new reverence for water and understand that nature puts water where it belongs. We destroy watersheds at our peril.

Will the people of California take enough measures to protect and restore their water? Let us hope so. But there are entrenched and powerful interests standing in the way of the necessary action, and it will take courageous officials and citizens to call them out.

These same interests are operating all around the world where governments are gutting every law that once protected water. We must not be fooled. California is the 'canary in the coal mine.' There is no place on earth that can be safe, secure or healthy in a world that is running out of water.

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