Bad weather, bad politics and catastrophic economics


October 14, 2008 20:58 | by Kartika Liotard, MEP

When it comes to water and food, the European Union is part of the problem, not part of the solution

says Kartika Liotard, MEP

The world is facing a serious and deteriorating water crisis. This crisis can be attributed in part to population growth and urbanisation, and also to climate change. The quantity of water on and in planet Earth remains more or less stable, though the amount available may rise or fall with overuse, geopolitical change, changes in climate, and technological progress. At the same time, the number of people is growing, as is their concentration in greater numbers in fewer areas. In many parts of the world, moreover, people have become more prosperous, and their water use has risen with their incomes. A warming world is bringing about changes in water availability which are unpredictable and often quite sudden, posing constant problems for those whose task is to ensure that adequate quantities of water get to where they are needed.

The crisis of water is not, however, simply a natural disaster to which we must respond as passive victims. As the recent UN report Water for People, Water for Life emphasises, this crisis is "essentially caused by the ways in which we mismanage water."

It is often said that water is free, and belongs to us all. This may be the case, but getting it to where it is needed costs money and requires decisions to be made about where that money is to come from. These are political, social, and managerial decisions, and like all such they involve questions of social justice and equity.

Ensuring the extraction of sufficient water from the most appropriate available sources in the face of population growth and changes in economy, technology, politics and climate poses problems for the management of water for drinking, for sanitation, for agriculture and industry, for cooling systems and for a host of other purposes. As things stand, this management is failing, and as a result not only individual human beings but entire communities and their cultures are under threat. It is not failing, moreover, because of human error or incompetence, or because the tasks involved are simply too great or too difficult. It is failing, instead, because of two closely-related phenomena: the subordination of social and environmental goals to the economic interests of powerful corporations; and the failure to develop systems of economic and environmental planning capable of underpinning our survival as a species. This subordination and its accompanying failure of planning are both to a large extent the fault of the European Union. This is true within Europe, but even more so beyond its boundaries, though in the latter case its guilt is shared with that of other representatives of the rich and powerful countries which run the world, and the corporations on behalf of which they run it.

Extreme weather events are increasing in frequency as a result of climate change. Their implications for human societies and the environment of which they form part depend also on political decisions. The effects of climate change are comparable in many ways to the effects of war. It is a violent, disruptive and destructive process, a response to which demands careful decision-making, careful planning, and meticulous implementation of the decisions and plans which result. Total war, in which entire populations are involved, has produced a response in modern times characterised by the socialisation of economic activity and a high degree of state intervention and planning. In addition, in such times, nation and community come to be perceived as unified entities which must be nurtured and preserved. The acceptance of the need for burden-sharing and equitable treatment grows, and economic and social activity becomes directed towards a common goal. Climate change is the result of short-sighted and uninformed economic and political decisions. It is potentially disastrous that it should become manifest at a time when thirty years of propaganda based on distortion of the truth and on downright lies have led to the spread of concepts which reject and contradict such ideas. To the fantasy of "free markets" can be added an individualism and egoism which offers no possible response to the severe problems with which the world is faced.

It is unfortunate that climate change is beginning to have a tangible impact in an era when the huge commitment of public investment and endeavour which would offer the only possibility of a mitigating response are unlikely to be forthcoming. The European Union's promotion of private ownership of water supplies and its failure, internally, to deal with major problems of waste, particularly through inefficient use of water in agriculture, makes it a cause of the problem rather than a body to which we can look for solutions. The dominant economic ethos in Brussels and almost every EU capital is neo-liberalism, an orthodoxy embodied in every treaty since Maastricht. The spread of neo-liberalism in the epoch of climate change has created a dangerous synergy which threatens to undermine global social and economic stability, leading to ecological catastrophe, disorder, epidemic and war.

It cannot be said that the European Union has failed to show an awareness of the urgency of the problem. Measures to ensure the quality of Europe's water resources constitute a major body of EU environmental legislation, covering a range of issues including groundwater conservation, drinking water quality, bathing water quality, chemical contamination, flooding, conservation of wetlands, river and marine resources, and urban waste management. However, the effectiveness of such legislation has been persistently undermined by the overexploitation of freshwater in agriculture, in industry and by the polluting effects of much economic activity. The European Commission believes that 20% of all surface water in the EU is seriously threatened by pollution and that six out of ten European cities overexploit their groundwater resources. Meanwhile, half of European wetlands are classed as "endangered", while the area of irrigated land in Southern Europe has increased by 20% since 1985.

Externally, the EU must share the guilt borne by the IMF, World Bank and World Trade Organisation, all of which have persistently promoted increased private sector participation in water and sanitation services. This fanatical devotion to the 'market' as a solution to the problems involved in organising water supply flies in the face of the available evidence. For it is a fact that, measured by the proportion of the affected population gaining access to clean water, privatisation of water supply and deregulation of the market surrounding it have failed to record a single success. Public ownership does not guarantee that problems will be effectively addressed, but privatisation guarantees that they will not.

The European Union Water Initiative, which governs much of the EU's approach to water policy in third countries, particularly developing countries, is designed primarily to increase the world market share of European corporations. The problem goes beyond this, however, as a whole range of EU policies, including the Common Agricultural Policy, in effect deprive developing countries both of water itself and of the means to tackle water shortages. Seen in this light, the Millennium Development Goal for water, which includes a commitment to halve the number of people in the world who do not have ready access to a clean and adequate water supply, becomes nothing more than a business proposition. Internationally, water supply reflects global inequalities, and in the most grotesque fashion. Extravagant sporting and leisure facilities, many built with European capital by corporations featherbedded by EU policies, are built alongside barrios lacking any safe water supply. The EU has the means to tackle these problems, but chooses instead to transform itself into Fortress Europe, as more and more people from societies squeezed dry of resources, attempt to migrate into Europe to find work.

Water policy, in its many aspects, reveals the real nature of neo-liberalism, the final, or perhaps merely the latest, phase of the sequestration of the world's resources into private hands and their exploitation for profit which has been proceeding for hundreds of years. The only way to solve the crisis of water and the broader crises of climate change, to address hunger and poverty and the unequal distribution of power and wealth which underlie these evils, is to reverse this process and to begin to take vital resources back into public ownership and popular control. This means that, whilst it is important for each and every one of us to conserve water as individual consumers and small producers, to lay too much emphasis on this would be at best to miss the point, at worst to offer a deliberate distraction from that point. Individual behavioural changes are perhaps most important as a constant reminder of the need, at the levels where authority is exercised - locally, nationally and internationally - for the kind of policies we need to ensure are adopted if we are to avert catastrophe and save lives. This can only be achieved, moreover, if the kind of radical thought and action necessary to win the war against climate change, against water shortage, drought and flood, is taken into every area of political, economic and social thought, reordering priorities and creating structures that would make such a reordering effective, undermining those which prevent this from occurring.

Only active and well-informed citizens capable of organising systematic campaigns against the existing power will prove effective in the global resistance so urgently needed. The current global food crisis is entirely a product of the coming together of bad weather, bad politics and catastrophic economics, including the bad politics and catastrophic economics which have been applied to water supply. Water, the supply of which to everyone on the planet poses no insuperable problems and could be achieved with good political will and modest resources within a generation is instead rapidly developing into a major source of international conflict. So-called "free markets" cannot provide the means to address climate change or the problems associated with it, including the problems of water supply, of sanitation, and of drought and flood.

Kartika Liotard is a Member of the European Parliament for the Socialist Party of the Netherlands and the United European Left. She sits on the Environment and Agriculture Committees and is currently writing a book on the politics of water with Spectrezine editor Steve McGiffen.

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