The theft of water: an economic model that dries up life

The theft of water: an economic model that dries up life

To extract and transport all these “products”, more and more land must be hoarded and polluted, which means that water - in constant movement and rooted in the territories - is being increasingly cornered, uprooted, overexploited and contaminated.

Those same "products" also require large amounts of water at almost all levels of production.

Thus, the economic model of over-production and consumption directly affects local populations' access to drinking water and their livelihoods.

Water, essential for life and considered "sacred" for many traditional peoples, is being usurped from the territories.

Forests and water

Wherever we are, in the city or the country, we are always within a river basin. A watershed is the territory where all the rain and snow water drains downhill to form bodies of water, such as a stream, river, lake or wetland.

Basins are an essential part of the water cycle. This cycle allows that, through evaporation and condensation, the salty water of the oceans turns into fresh water and falls in valleys and mountains, descending through the basins superficially or underground. A healthy watershed protects the water supply, feeds communities, forests, plants and animals, and keeps the soil fertile (1).

Destroying forests also destroys their ability to balance the water cycle, since living soils can retain water and sustain currents.

Many scientists claim that deforestation has a direct effect on water scarcity in urban centers.

According to Antonio Nobre, a Brazilian scientist who collaborates with the intergovernmental panel on climate change that advises the UN, the destruction of forests also destroys the local climate system (2).

In other words, the perspiration of a large tree in the Amazon, with a ten meter crown radius, steams more than a thousand liters of water in one day. Now let's imagine the entire Amazonian territory. The steam that comes out of the trees is a great source of rain and moisture for other places and is greater than the flow of water that runs in the Amazon River, the largest river on earth.

With the history of deforestation of the “Atlantic forest” (coastal forests) in Brazil and the increasing deforestation of the Amazon, urban centers like São Paulo are facing a serious water crisis.

Cultivating droughts: the agricultural and tree plantation industries

"The river that the villagers used can no longer be used during the rainy season, since it receives all the pesticides applied by the company on the plantation (...) We are slaves in our own land." - Sunny Ajele, community of Makilolo, Nigeria, in front of the expansion of the oil palm plantations of the Okomu Oil Palm company.

The monoculture plantation and agro-industrial model depends on a continuous supply of water.

Investors interested in acquiring large tracts of land almost always seek to also appropriate available sources of water as part of the same buy-sell agreements.

Thus, in Mali and Sudan for example, some investors have unlimited access to all the water they need in their projects (3).

The scale of water plunder, however, can extend far beyond the corresponding land grab.

In the Ica Valley, on the south-central coast of Peru, for example, agroindustrial companies have used various strategies to accumulate water outside their land concessions. Two companies have managed to channel water for their plantations with pipes coming from more than 40 wells located outside their properties.

In the same way, in the Piura valley, in the north of the Peruvian coast, the agribusiness has installed in a strategic point of the river a huge water pumping station, next to canals and artificial lakes, which is "protected" with barbed wire and patrolled with armed guards (4).

Likewise, large-scale monoculture tree plantations are also thirsty crops that devour forests and leave soils eroded and lifeless. After seventy years of hydrological research conducted in South Africa's Jonkershoek Valley, a 2010 study revealed the impact of monoculture tree plantations on groundwater and stream flow (5). Pine plantations were found to use the equivalent of 400 mm of rain, which means that each year there are 400 million liters of water per square km that are not discharged into water courses.

Eucalyptus trees consume even more: 600mm of rain.

According to the study, each pine tree absorbs an average of 50 liters of water per day when they are between 5 and 7 years old.

In the case of eucalyptus, the average can vary from 100 to 1000 liters, depending on where the plantation is located. However, eucalyptus plantations, due to their rapid growth, strongly impact water flows in the first years; When its consumption begins to decrease, it is generally already the period for cutting the trees and a new planting begins. Trees near a stream or river can use twice as much water because they have greater access to it.

Worse still, monocultures deplete soil nutrients and as a result chemical fertilizers must be applied which, in turn, contaminate the soil and still available water sources (6).

A study focused on Indonesia, the country that produces almost half of the world's palm oil consumption, warns of the intensity of the impacts of oil palm plantations on freshwater streams, directly affecting communities in the availability of water to drink, produce food and maintain their life and livelihood activities (7).

The study highlighted that during the deforestation process, the plantation management - which includes the application of pesticides and chemical fertilizers - and the processing of fruits to generate oil, many sediments and other harmful substances seep into the streams that cross the rivers. plantations, concentrating up to 550 times more sediments than in those that cross forests.

Temperatures in streams where young and mature palm plantations drain are almost 4 degrees Celsius warmer than forest streams, negatively affecting the life cycle of the many species that inhabit the watercourses. The study also recorded that during the dry season there is an increase in stream metabolism - the rate through which the stream consumes oxygen and an important way to measure stream health. The impacts on fisheries, coastal areas, and coral reefs - potentially many kilometers downstream - remain unknown. But what is known is that, as one of the authors of the study put it, "This [palm plantations] can cause the collapse of freshwater ecosystems as well as social and economic adversities in the region" (8) .

The severe consequences of violating the water cycle, of intoxicating and stealing water, are felt by communities and life systems that depend on streams and basin territories.

In other words, from the point of view of water, which is in constant movement and transformation, the impacts of plantations affect much larger areas than the territories that occupy them and, therefore, many more communities are also affected.

Governments, as administrators of water use within their national borders and accustomed to supporting big capital, grant abusive - and often illegal - licenses to corporations that deplete and pollute the sources of water necessary for peoples.

Likewise, governments are also used to ignoring the traditions of water management, protection and use that many communities have preserved for generations.

Even worse, when water scarcity problems become more acute, it is generally the populations that will suffer restrictions and not the industries.

Fossil fuels and their insatiable thirst

“Oil flows, the jungle bleeds” - graffiti in the city of Quito, Ecuador (9).

All fossil fuel extraction projects (i.e. oil, gas and minerals) result in a sharp change in streams, their pollution, and, in most cases, corporate and / or government control of available sources. Oil and gas activities have caused disasters in all areas where they take place: air, water and soil pollution, along with an accelerated process of interventions and impositions, putting forests and indigenous territories at risk. Mining, for its part, requires large amounts of water for the extraction and processing of minerals and produces a lot of waste that contaminates the available sources.

To get an idea, it takes 24 full tubs of water to extract and wash a ton of coal! (10).

Coal plants consume approximately 8% of all global water demand.

A typical 500MW coal plant draws the amount of water that would enter an Olympic-size swimming pool every 3.5 minutes. This water, used to cool the plant, is returned to its original sources but at very high temperatures, which kills aquatic life and ecosystems sensitive to changes in temperature (11).

Similarly, when water and air mix with sulfur deep in the ground (sulfur) creating acids that dissolve heavy metals, acid mine drainage occurs.

This toxic mixture gets into the soil, enters groundwater and ends up in rivers and lakes. Poisons in water slowly make people, plants and animals sick, also destroying life downstream for up to hundreds of years (12).

Consequently, mining projects almost always generate opposition from local communities, who seek to defend their territories, and with them, their water sources.

A recent report by EJOLT, a network of environmental justice organizations, documents 346 cases of social conflict over mining and shows their main impacts.

Among the most mentioned are the contamination of surface and groundwater, as well as the reduction of the water level (13). But the robbery does not end there. Once the minerals are extracted, they must be transported - and not only with the extensive network of roads and highways that also cause deforestation, but also with pipelines that carry the minerals (or oil or gas) to ports.

In Brazil, for example, where there is currently a serious shortage of water to supply the population, the mining pipelines - pipes that carry iron ore in a sandy state mixed with water - carry the metals to the port.

The four mining projects in the state of Mina Gerais that have pipelines to transport iron consume enough water to supply a city of 1.6 million inhabitants. The pipelines operate 24 hours a day, every day (14).

Hydroelectric plants: imprisoning rivers, streams and towns

“The river gives us everything. Fish with which we can make oil, eat and sell; it even covers my studies.

On the margins, we can grow crops, and we know what to do here, really, that's all we know. If they are going to move us away from the river, we are going to suffer ”- the son of a fisherman affected by the Mphanda Nkuwa dam on the Zambezi river in Mozambique (15) The generation of hydropower, strongly pushed by climate policies and financial institutions such as The World Bank also has harmful effects on the water cycle and, therefore, on the forests and the communities that depend on these territories.

The construction of large dams paralyzes the movement of water in the basin systems and imprisons their currents, their fauna and their flora, as well as flooding fertile lands and surrounding territories. The consequences are devastating.

The wall of the dam blocks fish migration and can even separate spawning habitats from nursery habitats. The dam also traps sediments necessary for the maintenance of physical processes and downstream habitats. The free-flowing system of the river upstream of the dam is transformed into an artificial reservoir of water.

Altering or interrupting water currents can be as severe as draining an entire river, its sections, and the life they contain (16). Rivers, lakes, and ponds are the foundation of many cultures and livelihoods, and the backbone of local economies.

By the end of the 20th century, the hydropower industry had already clogged more than half of the earth's largest rivers with some 50,000 large-scale dams, displacing millions of people (17).

In some of the world's remaining free-flowing river basins, such as the Amazon, the Mekong, the Congo, and the rivers of Patagonia, governments and industry are pushing chains of enormous dams; all with the argument of being "clean" energy.

The water cycle for sale

In addition to this insolent capitalist abuse, the water cycle has already entered the process of so-called financialisation.

This presupposes the separation and quantification of the cycles and functions of nature - such as the carbon cycle, the water cycle, biodiversity or the landscape - to convert them into equivalent "units" or "titles" so that they can be commercialized in markets. financial or speculation (18).

But water is a symbol of life, and therefore water unites and mobilizes.

Deforestation, pollution, and the construction of large-scale infrastructure damage watersheds and their water sources, altering the ability of territories to sustain living beings, including human communities.

It is essential to support the struggles in defense of the territories. Territories that are more than their lands, rivers, trees or villages; but a whole, where one element depends on the other and where life is sustained.


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