Who Gets Water, Who Gets Sewage?

Malka Howley, Student
Thursday, November 19, 2009

If we accept that the right to life is a basic human right, which we must if we believe in any other rights, then we must also accept that the right to clean, safe water is also a basic human right. We need water to drink and to grow food, among other things. Water is a fundamental human need, that is indisputable, and to deny someone clean, safe water is to deny them life. Yet that is happening all over the world. Pollution and man-made drought are affecting many people in all sorts of places, sometimes impacting huge industries or economies, but the people who are disproportionally affected are the poor. For the present, and the foreseeable future, the world’s richest people (which includes people that we in the United States would consider “middle class”) will always be able to buy clean water or food imported from far away, even if those things become much more expensive. And it is the people with money who can simply move away if there is a severe water crisis of some kind. But it is those who cannot afford to do those things who are the most affected by water crises.
Fred Pearce’s When The Rivers Run Dry is full of examples of poor or disenfranchised people being hurt by different kinds of water crises, but here is one that seems to encapsulate several common issues. In Gujarat, India, and in many other parts of the developing world, farmers have to irrigate their crops with raw sewage. Like many places, water is scarce and in great demand. And while the irrigation canals are virtually always empty and the water table is dropping rapidly, the flow of effluent is never-ending. This is the case in many other places; Pearce reports that a tenth of the world’s irrigated crops are watered with sewage.
But this doesn’t just mean human waste, which would be bad enough, but also toxic chemicals dumped by factories, which aren’t just poisonous to consume, but also kill the soil. Farmers are forced to water their crops with pathogenic, toxic waste because it’s the only water available. And the people in towns, similarly, have no choice but to buy those crops.
Of course, there can be benefits to using sewage for irrigation, but only if it is an officially recognized and regulated practice, and measures are taken to make it safe. As it is, the practice is harmful and dangerous. The situation demonstrates how water crises (in this case, both drought and pollution, although globally there are other problems too), trap the world’s poorest people. Good water shouldn’t be something only some people can afford.

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