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“Water is Life”

by The Washington Office of Public Policy


Contact: Office of Public Policy GBGM-Women's Division 100 Maryland Avenue, NE Room 530 Washington, DC 20002 (202)488-5660 Fax:(202) 488-5681
Office of Public Policy
GBGM-Women's Division
100 Maryland Avenue, NE Room 530
Washington, DC 20002
Fax:(202) 488-5681

January 2006

“…water connects and regulates planet earth as the sacred mat of life by nourishing the land and all living organisms including human beings.”    - Indigenous Environmental Network2

In the 21st century, because of its scarcity, WATER is increasingly viewed as a commodity.  The potential scarcity of water, has caused some to proclaim that access to drinkable water is the right of all human beings, and should be provided at cost as an obligation to society.  Others reject the notion of a moral right to water; they point out that given the scarcity of water, it should be available as an economic good available to the highest bidder. 

Since the 15th century the demand for scarce commodities has led to violent invasions and created inequities.  While 70-75% of the earth is comprised of water, only a small portion is freshwater located in rivers, lakes and the ground.  Two million cubic miles of water is found in the earth within a one-half mile surface of earth; seven million cubic miles of water can be found in glaciers and ice caps; and only 60,000 cubic miles of water is in the lakes, rivers and seas.  Author Lester R. Brown writes that “70% of the world’s water use is for irrigation, 20% is used by industry and 10% for residential purposes.  As urban water use rises…farmers are faced with a shrinking share of a shrinking water supply.”3  The supply of water is “falling in countries that are home to more than half of the world’s people, including China, India and the US-the largest grain producers.”4  “But only China-with nearly 1.3 billion people and an $80 billion annual trade surplus with the United States-has the near term potential to disrupt world grain markets.  In short, falling water tables [surface underground at which water is at atmospheric pressure…below the water table water is free to move under the influence of gravity5]  in China could soon mean rising food prices for the entire world.”6 

Last year more than one billion people, one out of every six people on earth, could not drink, play or bathe in fresh clean water.  Over half of the world’s people live without “adequate sanitation.”  The demand for freshwater is increasing both from industry and the expanding urban areas: both are placing additional pressures on freshwater resources.  As agriculture continues to grow so does its freshwater needs.  It will be necessary to double world food production over the next 25 years using essentially the same land area and more than three billion people will face water scarcity.7  This reality challenges us to think about why the developed countries now use 85% of all freshwater supplies.  In the developing world where most people are poor and “subsist on family agriculture,” only 15% of the world’s freshwater is available.  How will the world decide on just water and food strategies?  How will technical approaches to shifting water to make it available in dry places fit into a holistic mix with the socio-economic and political elements?  The Indigenous Environmental Network has pointed out that sharing water is not solely a matter of sharing resources, but “an ethical imperative and expression of human solidarity.”

According to the first Intergovernmental Treaty to promote integrated water management practices known as the Ramsar Convention, “water was the critical element for the appearance of life on Earth, and it’s essential to maintaining the important goods and services that these ecosystems provide.”  The report further states:

Water is key to sustainable development.  Water supplies of good quality are also fundamental to poverty alleviation.  But water supplies are dependent on the protection and sustainable use of ecosystems that naturally capture, filter, and store and release water, such as forests, wetlands and soils, including their biodiversity.  Changing biodiversity may increase poverty, increase risks to human health, and undermine livelihood security (including food and water security).  Water resource management schemes should be based on this integrated approach.  Only then will human livelihoods, including food through agriculture and fisheries, access to clean water and adequate sanitation, be properly ensured.”

Both the 2002 United Nations Summit on Sustainable Development in Johannesburg, South Africa and the more recent United Nations Millennium Development Goals declared the need to assure the availability of drinkable water as a priority for the entire world. 

The term “sustainable development” was first used in 1987 at a meeting of the World Commission on Environment and Development.  In its report, Our Common Future, the concept of sustainable development is described as: “Economic activity that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.”  Five years later, most governments of the world sent representatives to the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.  Thousands of non-governmental organizations (NGOs) also participated in the Summit.  The Summit adopted a far-reaching Program of Action referred to as Agenda 21.  The Agenda created an international consensus on the meaning of sustainable development.  Governments also agreed to halt and reverse the negative impact of human behavior on the physical environment.  The Agenda is considered a blueprint for protecting the earth’s resources, including water. 

By the time of the 2002 Johannesburg Summit that reviewed progress on achieving the original goals of the Earth Summit, “the understanding of sustainable development was broadened…particularly in regard to the important linkages between poverty, the environment and the use of natural resources.”8  For writer Andres Edwards, “the sustainability revolution offers the possibility of a much broader coalition for positive change within and among societies.”9  Edwards proposes a movement built around the three E’s:  Ecology/Environment, Economy/Employment and Equity/Equality.  Central to this movement he suggests is education.  “Education is the catalyst for helping everyone understand the dynamic interrelationship of the three E’s.”10  What can you do to educate your community on the scarcity of water and its causes?

Recent events, such as the devastating tsunami in the Indian Ocean, were on the minds of those attending a recent meeting of Small Island Developing States (SIDS) in Mauritius.  In reviewing the commitments of the Earth Summit and their impacts on small islands, the relationship between local economies, jobs, health, climate change and water was no longer an abstract concept.  The human toll of excess water thrust upon small island communities were as vivid as the faces we now see of women and children dying in the deserts of Niger and Darfur, where water is absent.  Speculators are busy seizing watersheds that produce drinkable water, creating monopolies to exact huge profits from selling water to areas without adequate supply.  The United States government along with leaders of other world nations make major decisions which can determine whether “water is life” for all.


  • Work to pass resolutions on Water as a Human Right in your local community or state.  Urge your Congressional    representatives to support House Concurrent Resolution 120 (H.Con.Res. 120), “Water for the World.”  For more information about this bill contact your Representative at the Capitol Switchboard at (202) 224-3121.  You may also visit http://thomas.loc.gov/ to read a copy of the bill.
  • Host a community dialogue with elected officials to examine water issues in your area.
  • For further information on Sustainable Development, please contact Esmeralda V. Brown, guest contributor to this alert, Women’s Division at the United Methodist Office at the United Nations. 

Telephone:  (212) 682-3633  E-mail: ebrown@gbgm-umc.org

  • Read Book of Resolutions 2004 #7 Environmental Justice for a Sustainable Future (pg.83-89), #10 Environmental Stewardship (pg. 97-103), and #13 Protection of Water (pg. 106-107).

1 Indigenous Environmental Network.  www.ienearth.org.  PO Box 485, Bemidji, MN 56619.  Tel: (218) 751-4967
2 Ibid.
3 Brown, Lester R.  Outgrowing the Earth: The Food Security Challenge in an Age of Falling Water Tables and Rising Temperatures.  pg. 11-12. W.W. Norton & Company.  January 2005.
4 Ibid.
5 The McGraw-Hill Concise Encyclopedia of Environmental Science & Technology. pg. 59
6 Brown, Lester R. Eco-Economy: Building an Economy for the Earth.  W.W. Norton & Company. November 2001.
7 Discussion paper submitted by Farmers’ organizations as a Major Group to the Commission on Sustainable Development at the CSD-13 Session at the United Nations April 24-30, 2004.
 8   http://www.un.org/esa/agenda21/natlinfo/
9 Edwards, Andres R. The Sustainability Revolution: Portrait of a Paradigm Shift.  New Society Publishers. June 15, 2005
10 Ibid.

Date posted: Jan 20, 2006