By Barbara Kessler
Green Right Now

This past week, about 300,000 people in West Virginia got to sample what life is like when you can’t just turn on a tap and draw out a stream of clean water for drinking, cooking or bathing.

Water-HiRes PROMOIt’s a taste of what some communities around the world deal with routinely. In parts of Africa and Asia, access to clean water is not at all assured. Sometimes the village well goes dry, and then people must travel to another town or cast about in the wilderness to find the elixir of life. Other times the local water supply is so contaminated by pollutants that the once-usable river has been abandoned, leaving nearby towns high and dry, parked astride an inky wasteland of moving sludge.

Just now I read an article in Alternet about the “most terrifying” things concerning the ongoing water contamination event in West Virginia, where a chemical used in coal processing slipped into the Elk River without anyone noticing last Thursday. Once the leak was discovered, officials could only warn the affected Charleston-area residents to not drink, cook or bathe with their tap water.

The terrifying aspects cited about this chemical spill included the facts that regulators didn’t seem to know much about the chemical (a solvent called 4-methylcyclohexane); they weren’t certain how much had spilled (maybe 5,000 gallons or maybe more) and did not know when it might be sufficiently diluted to declare the river’s water safe for use again.

These are all scary aspects of this environmental accident  – maybe even “terrifying” in today’s SEO-pumped vernacular. But the truly frightening thing is the big picture: What the heck happens when there’s no clean water?

Do we want to find out, even a little bit?

The Charleston, W.V., folks haven’t seemed too keen on it. Businesses such as restaurants and hotels had to close down almost immediately. Businesses that didn’t grind to a halt remained staffed by employees who had to dart around looking for a place outside of the contamination zone to take a shower before the work day. Photographs captured people running crazily through grocery stores to stockpile bottled water.

Most everyone was pretty much FREAKING OUT. And honestly, that seemed like an appropriate response. When there’s no potable water, it is freak out time!

Water Shortage Map

States with predicted water shortages.

Water is not just any commodity. It doesn’t even fit into most cost analysis models, even though it’s got a price tag levied by public and private providers, it’s also strikingly, absolutely and without caveat, always poised to become the next precious thing. Unlike gold, or corn or heating oil or any staple or valuable you can think of, water is necessary at all times and in all places, for human survival.

It seems however that because water falls from the sky – though not so darn often anymore in certain desertifying and droughty places – and laps along in mighty rivers, that we’re lulled into taking it for granted.

And yet, clean water really is priceless and should be considered among the public commons, conserved for the good of all.

Bottled Water, at Lowes 3.97 a case

What businesses do with water is not reassuring.

Naturally, in our capitalist world, that’s not where we’re heading. We hear about corporations buying up water rights , especially from cities trying to raise cash. In the short term, this might make financial sense and it’s true that private companies still must follow the sanitation rules. But what happens during water shortages or when there’s a contamination event that challenges the profit-seekers? Will private companies be as cautious and conservative with this vital commodity as we need them to be? Already some of those who are buying up water are in the business of selling it in plastic bottles, with and without sweeteners, an unsustainable and environmentally indefensible business.

Now consider the water-strapped states like Colorado, Texas and Arizona. There officials and residents are tangled up debates over who should control water and whether people should have exotic turf lawns (probably not) or even rain barrels. States argue that the water belongs to them. Businesses and farmers and cities say they depend on it, and own a piece of the rivers and reservoirs too. Who gets access when private companies own water rights, the ranchers or the fracking companies? Both can argue they provide a public good, food and energy.

In California, served with water from the teetering reservoirs inland, plans are well underway to desalinate ocean water to sate human needs, an idea that private concerns tout as an end run around water shortages (and profitable!), but which will have enormous environmental impacts.

In the Midwest US, the iconic breadbasket and onetime land of plenty rain, we hear reports about how the aquifers, including the giant Ogallala, are being depleted by the incessant demands of agriculture.

A recent New York Times article laid out the grim picture of declining reservoirs in the Southwest.

In the European Union, citizens are rising up to secure the public’s right to water, according to a report this Monday from Reuters. A group called Right2Water has appealed to authorities with a petition asking that water be declared “a common good,” owned by the people. This is in the wake of several states and cities selling off water rights.

Such a declaration would at least make it clear who’s got the greatest stake in clean water, and keep it from becoming another profit center, driven, delivered, and potentially oversold, for short term gains.

Regulation we can improve, and should, given the shameful ease with which the Elk River was polluted.

But private ownership of water. That’s terrifying.

Just something to think about the next time you draw a glass of drinking water from the kitchen tap.

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