Is Water Sacred or a Commodity? How We Answer That Question Will Define Our Future

The widely recognized call-and response chant at oil pipeline protests is “Mni Wiconi … Water is Life.” It reflects the view that water is sacred and essential. Others view water very differently, treating it more like a tennis shoe or a soft drink — something that can be bought and sold.

There does not appear to be common ground. If we say that water is both “life” and a “commodity” subject to the marketplace, we essentially are saying we are OK with life being sold to the highest bidder.

This week, Central Lutheran Church in Minneapolis hosted a Water Justice Conference, including a webcast bringing in international speakers. Among them was Archbishop Thabe Makgoba from St. George’s Cathedral in Capetown, South Africa. Clean water is an issue that unites those who are working on environmental issues and those working to help the poor, he said.

“We must stand against industrial policy that threatens water,” Makgoba said. “We must understand the issues and language of clean water. [We must] engage those who are willfully or mindlessly polluting to face [these issues].

There are any number of reasons we all should be concerned about significant threats to clean water, from oil pipeline leaks to water futures markets.

Consider the following.

Water as Commodity

There is no question that many people see clean water scarcity as a profit center rather than a looming humanitarian crisis (which already has arrived in some countries).

The language we use to talk about water says a lot about our value systems. For instance, the Investopedia’s webpage Water: The Ultimate Commodity puts the issue in plain, if disturbing, terms: “Like any other scarcity, the water shortage creates investment opportunities,” it said.

The Forbes magazine article Climate Change Spurs Growing Investment In Water Stocks gave me a chill. It said investing in the water sector is a good idea, because of its relative safety, water’s increased scarcity, and the contamination of some public water supplies.

The article cites the World Economic Forum’s annual report, which listed the water crises as the third greatest risk facing the world and ninth most likely to happen.

“Climate change risk will, in practice, flow through either excess or lack of water with the potential for severe impacts to societies globally,” the report said.

From there, the article didn’t talk about how to stop climate change, but instead recommended specific water-related investments.

From the purely financial perspective, some people might want to invest in companies that sell bottled water, or those that make water filtration systems, or desalinization units. The Investopedia analysis concludes:

Recent years have seen an upswing in the demand for investments that seek to profit from the need for fresh, clean water. If the trend continues, and by all indications it will, investors can expect to see a host of new investments that provide exposure to this precious commodity and to the firms that deliver it to the marketplace.

But who in the marketplace is investing in protecting water?

Water Pollution: A Problem or Financial Opportunity?

Using the “commodity lens” to look at water, it seems as if some people see pollution as a good thing (or at best a neutral thing) because it creates a market opportunity. According to Investopedia:

Pollution also highlights the need for clean water. In the U.S., the dead zone off the Gulf Coast highlights the impact of fertilizer runoff, and methyl tertiary butyl ether (MTBE), an additive in unleaded gasoline, can be found in well water from California to Maryland. … Of course, fouled water supplies further limit the amount of fresh water available for human use.

Food & Water Watch reports on another alarming trend, regulatory schemes in Pennsylvania and Ohio that allow companies to pay to pollute. It is explained in the report: Water Quality Trading: Polluting Public Waterways for Private Gain.  (Note: This report came out in 2015, before the recent attacks on the EPA.)

The pollution credit program “seriously undermines the Clean Water Act, allowing previously accountable pollution dischargers to hide behind pollution credits and discharge without any real limits,” the report said.

If we look locally, about 40 percent of Minnesota’s lakes and streams are contaminated by pollutants, according to the MPR story:  Minnesota worries about what’s in the water. The principal contaminant is mercury, found in 36 percent of all water bodies.

Water Affordability

In Third World countries, the lack of sanitation and clean drinking water is fatal. Around the world, about 2,200 children under the age of 5 die each day from diarrhea, primarily from unsafe drinking water, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control,

Access to clean drinking water will become challenging even in First World countries, as the example of Flint, Mich. brings home. The Huffington Post article Water Could Soon Be Unaffordable For Millions Of Americans adds the following:

Recent analyses have confirmed that water bills have been on the rise in many U.S. communities for a variety of reasons — water utilities’ cost to repair and improve their crumbling infrastructure systems, the added strain of climate change impacts to those systems and declining customer bases in certain urban areas. …

The study measured affordability based on the Environmental Protection Agency’s recommendation “that a household’s water and wastewater spending should make up no more than 4.5 percent of a household’s income.” It concluded that “more than one-third of U.S. households could struggle to pay for water within the next five years.”

Using water to create energy

Oil and water don’t mix, but the issues are intertwined. The fracking process is a good example. Fracking injects large quantities water into the ground at high pressure to fracture the rock and release trapped oil and natural gas. (The water is mixed with sand and chemicals.) This process is used in North Dakota.

While the amount of water used is relatively small compared to farming and other community needs, small changes can make a difference in dry areas. According to Water Use Rises as Fracking Expands, published in the Scientific American in 2015:

Oil and natural gas fracking, on average, uses more than 28 times the water it did 15 years ago, gulping up to 9.6 million gallons of water per well and putting farming and drinking sources at risk in arid states, especially during drought…

Though some of the water used for fracking is recycled, most of it is disposed deep underground, almost entirely removed from the water cycle and never to be used again.

That is just one example. The Argonne Laboratory provides a broader summary in a 2011 article titled: CONSUMPTIVE WATER USE IN THE PRODUCTION OF ETHANOL AND PETROLEUM GASOLINE. Its summary states:

The production of energy feedstocks and fuels requires substantial water input. Not only do biofuel feedstocks like corn, switchgrass, and agricultural residues need water for growth and conversion to ethanol, but petroleum feedstocks like crude oil and oil sands also require large volumes of water for drilling, extraction, and conversion into petroleum products. Moreover, in many cases, crude oil production is increasingly water dependent. Competing uses strain available water resources and raise the specter of resource depletion and environmental degradation.

The article notes that technology improvements are reducing water use. Still, we have the technology to use renewable fuels to replace fossil fuels. We do not have the technology to reduce our need for water.

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