27 March 2010

World Water Day

By Marguerite Finn

Supposing our only water was what we could carry in a bucket from the nearest source two miles away, would we wash our car, the baby or our food? A good question on World Water Day (22nd March).

Although World Water Day usually passes without much comment in the UK, some countries have a three-day celebration of this increasingly precious resource. The theme for this year is "Clean Water for a Healthy World". Clean water has become scarce and will become even scarcer with the onset of climate change. Water affects every aspect of our lives, yet nearly one billion people around the world don't have access to clean drinking water, and 2.6 billion still lack basic sanitation.

UN Secretary General, Ban Ki-moon, issued a statement today highlighting the fact that more people die from unsafe water than from all forms of violence, including war. He made the point: "Our growing population’s need for water for food, raw materials and energy is increasingly competing with nature’s own demands for water to sustain already imperilled ecosystems."

We have assumed for too long that water is freely available and we take it for granted. We have made some bad mistakes along the way. One such mistake was the introduction, in 1966, of the so-called “Green Revolution” in India. India's food security depends on the Monsoon. Recent monsoon failure and consequent widespread drought have impacted two-thirds of the country.

As Vandana Shiva, philosopher and authoress, explains: "the monsoons recharge the ground-water and surface-water systems, but since the introduction of the Green Revolution model of water-intensive chemical farming, India has over-exploited her ground water, creating a water famine. The chemical monocultures of the Green Revolution use ten times more water than the biodiverse ecological farming systems."

Humankind's hubris in thinking they have got the answer to everything brought about this situation. In the 1970s, the World Bank gave massive loans to India to promote ground-water mining. It forced states like Maharashtra to stop growing water-prudent millets, which needed 300mm water and to shift to water-guzzling crops like sugar cane, which needs 2,500mm of water. In a region of 600mm of rainfall, this is a recipe for water famine. Indian aquifers are now dangerously depleted. But that's not all – not only has chemical agriculture mined the groundwater, it has also mined soil fertility and contributed to climate change. Chemical fertilisers destroy the living processes of the soil and make soils more vulnerable to drought - as well as binding the farmer into the system of buying more fertilizer. Science did not get it quite right that time – and have bequeathed damaged soil and empty aquifers to the coming generations.

We are in danger of making a mistake of similar gravity and proportions in Norfolk.

A lot of development is planned for an area to the North-East of Norwich. The greater Norwich Development Partnership (GNDP) has big plans. There is to be an 'ECO-Town' at Rackheath comprising 4,000-5,000 new houses (built on agricultural land). Plans have also been floated for a £300m conference and tourism complex, complete with Jacussi, saunas and swimming pools. Norfolk, being one of the driest counties in England, is least well placed to absorb this level of growth. Despite that, Broadland District Council is determined to go ahead with the ECO-Town.

Broadland District Council leader, Simon Woodbridge, says that engineers will find the water that is needed – as though fresh water is an infinitely available bolt-on 'gizmo'. This is "flying by the seat of your pants" as one of my HMSO bosses once said to me – not best practice!! Fresh water is a finite resource, and using expensively purified tap water on the garden and to flush away our faeces is not living in the real world.

For further information / relevant maps see snubcampaign.org.

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