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Privatizing water: Democracy in danger

As Sandra Postel noted in a Worldwatch Institute paper, the amount of available and renewable freshwater on the earth’s land area, through annual precipitation, is the same as when the first civilizations emerged thousands of years ago. Of all the water on the “blue planet” as seen from space, it makes up less than one-tenth of one percent.
It is a life-essential element – for millions of plant and animal species in the natural world as for people, whose well being is intimately bound up with nature’s proper functioning.
Clean water is among the Universal Human Rights which United Nation’s member governments are obligated to assure for their citizens.
Its access and future sustainability face some serious, physical and management-related threats. Among them are growing droughts, or flooding and heavy-downpour runoff under changing climate, pollution from many sources, short-sighted land-use and economic planning, and opposition in political circles in recent decades to national water-law standards. Among a few examples are undemocratic water management, its privatization for business profit, its degradation through our still dominant sources of energy production, and current efforts to impede or derail Clean Water Act protections for small source-water bodies.
In Michigan, under a GOP governor who touted family values to get elected, tens of thousands of Detroit households had their water cut off for inability to pay in 2014. With a governor-appointed emergency manager taking local authority away from elected officials and the city water system switched to a highly polluted river, Flint’s residents’ and their children’s exposure to lead poisoning and other serious health consequences was condoned for many months.
A happy counter example comes from Asheville, North Carolina. There, during the 1998-2002 drought and with a new water plant needed, the people were against sourcing from the French Broad River. With the water level in their preferred, pristine mountain reservoir getting precariously lower day by day, they adopted system-wide conservation measures which would later, when rains replenished the reservoir, save them water-and-sewer bill costs. There, the people’s will regarding their water, under their elected government, prevailed.
The growing trend in water service privatization, as the Statesman newspaper reported from Texas, “brings higher water rates, little recourse for consumers.” It documented almost yearly price increases, often by 40 to 60 percent, where the water comes from “large private corporations owned by investors seeking to profit off the sale of an essential resource.”
Atlanta’s reversal, after four years, of its water-service privatization experiment is a hopeful counter example.
A nuclear power plant, the Palm Beach Post reported, is newly contaminating Biscayne Bay, from whose aquifer 3 million South Floridians get their drinking water, with “dramatically” high levels of phosphorus and ammonia. Hot summer temperatures and drought conditions over several years, the plant operator says, are the cause of the problem.
Climate change may indeed be the greatest threat to this precious resource, water, which we all need. Effective solutions are available, and Congress should adopt them, such as the market based approach for rapid carbon-emissions reduction proposed by the Citizens Climate Lobby organization.