15 October, 2010

Water stress: part of a global systemic environmental threat

Sergio Abranches

Canadá and Brazil have plenty of fresh water. More than most parts of the world. Brazilian waters are on aquifers, the Guarani aquifer being the largest; and on rivers.

A lot of it, we now know, is also over the Amazon Forest canopy, like flying rivers, formed by humid air currents and clouds. The flow of the flying rivers rival the flow of the huge Amazon rivers. Researchers from the University of the State of Pará have recently found a huge aquifer under the States of Amazonas, Pará and Amapá, in the Amazon region. It may contain as much as 86,000 cubic Km of water. The Amazon is an extraordinary reservoir of water and humidity, about 15% of total world fresh water.

Canadian water is mostly in the form of ice and snow, although a considerable volume also flows in its rivers, or lies on the lakes. Canada holds 14% of total world fresh water.

Both Canada and Brazil have faced water shortages and water crises for different reasons. The drought in Northeastern Brazil is paradigmatic of the country’s water quandary, but there are several other recurring water stress situations in the country. Canada faced water crises in Walkerton, Ontario, and North Battleford, Saskatchewan. In all cases there is a lot to blame on governments.

Two years ago my wife and I spent a few months in Toronto, Canada. While there, I bought a book, edited by Karen Bakker, called Eau Canada -The Future of Canada’s Water. Reading the book I was immediately stricken by the fact the the two richest countries of the world, in terms of water wealth, both see their waters in peril. Yet, the attitudes are quite different.

David Schindler says in his foreword that “Canadians feel very strongly about water governance.” A 2004 Ipsos-Reid poll found that 97% of Canadians agree with the statement: “Canada should adopt a comprehensive national water policy that recognizes clean drinking water as a basic human right.”

Karen Bakker tells us that “Canadians’ relationship with water is rife with contradictions.” They are fiercely protective of their water, she says, “yet hugely wasteful with it, using more water per capita than any nation in the world, except the United States”.

She also says that Canadians “are highly resistant to the notion of exporting water, yet Canada is one of the largest diverters of water in the world for hydropower”.

So are we in Brazil. There was recently a lot of fuss on the media about water being stolen in the Amazon and bottled abroad. Yet we divert even more water for hydropower projects than Canada. We are right now doing it to benefit ill-planned and economically flawed Amazon hydropower projects like Santo Antonio, Jirau and Belo Monte. Their environmental and carbon costs are far greater than the benefits from the power they will yield. Their environmental impact is huge and the amount of emissions of methane and CO2 is very significant, due to the high volume of organic sediment and algae formation found in those rivers. But we also divert our river waters to irrigate croplands, we log riparian forests and we pollute our rivers. Most of our riverine cities have been built with their backs to the rivers.

Karen Bakker argues that Canadian contradictions in their approach to water have become increasingly difficult to sustain, “and the ‘flush-and-forget’ mentality that characterized” their relationship to water “for much of the twentieth century is giving way to increased concern”. Concern would very likely lead to better water governance.

In Brazil we are definitely still dominated by the ‘flush-and-forget’ mentality. We still think that our water is interminable. But most of our large rivers are endangered by pollution from agricultural toxic effluents, lack of sanitation, and urban waste. Our aquifers, especially the Guarani, are being depleted and contaminated. Surely our use of water outpaces the rate of renewal. We are still far from the tragic situation of China or India. But we are at risk. So far, most of the attempts at water governance have failed. The present government has derailed the whole system of water governance to approve the diversion of the São Francisco river. Community participation through the river basin committee system was discredited. The government has simply ignored the committee’s opinion. In spite of community opposition and sound scientific warnings about the dangers of the diversion, the government was adamant in pushing the project forward.

Our hope is that water stress leads Brazilian progressively to abandon the ‘flush-and-forget’ attitude and start looking for better water management.

Time is running out for everybody: water and biodiversity rich and poor countries. Climate change, water stress and biodiversity loss are one single systemic problem, not three independent risk situations. Managing this three-pronged systemic risk is what environmental governance means today.


Tags: BAD10, , Canada, water