Today, March 22nd, is World Water Day, in which a host of international agencies such as the United Nations attempt to raise awareness of the vital significance of – but also the many threats to – this precious resource. For those interested in natural resource justice, water occupies a very special place. Along with air, it is unquestionably necessary to any human existence. But whereas air raises relatively few issues – people are rarely deprived of air, although sometimes its poor quality impairs their health – across the world access to water is patchy at best. Many people – most commonly women – find accessing water every day time-consuming, expensive and in many cases dangerous.
Some communities – like the UK – consume huge amounts of water, and rarely even have cause to think about its ready availability (short of the occasional hosepipe ban!). On closer inspection, though, this is not because we have plenty of water within our borders. The UK actually has a massive ‘external water footprint’ – which means that more than two-thirds of the water used to produce the goods, services (and most importantly food) that we consume is actually used to produce those goods overseas. This makes us a major net importer of ‘virtual water’, indirectly consuming water from a series of countries across the world. We are deeply embedded in, and dependent upon, this global trade in ‘virtual water’ – although most of us have no idea of it.
Our deep involvement in the movement of virtual water across the globe, and the fact that water itself is not produced by anyone but in fact circulates through a global hydrological system which we all benefit from but over which we have little control, means that we ought to sit up and take notice of the costs associated with the virtual movement of water. We also should recognise the situation faced by those whose access to water is much less secure. Strikingly, people living in slums in the Philippines pay more for their water than do people in Britain. Belatedly, we are recognising that access to water and sanitation is a human right, and a basic one at that. So there is an urgent need to enhance the infrastructure needed to transport water cheaply and effectively to where people actually need it. And given that agriculture accounts for about 80% of global water usage, there is a further need to spread efficient technologies which would wean countries off environmentally unsustainable forms of irrigation.
The UN has declared 2013 the International Year of Water Cooperation, highlighting the work that remains to be done. Individuals can give to charities such as WaterAid which share these twin projects of developing infrastructure and improving agricultural efficiency. They can try to educate themselves to consume less water-intensive products. But other opportunities could also be explored. Through the pioneering work of Wereld Waternet, every time a resident of Amsterdam runs their tap or fills their bath they pay a small surcharge ring-fenced for improving water infrastructure in countries like Egypt, Morocco and Suriname. On World Water Day, is it time to explore such ideas closer to home?