Issue 72 - 5 October 2021 (8-min read)
Every time I heard William Gibson’s famous quote: "The future is already here — it’s just not very evenly distributed," I thought of rich people tinkering with their new gadgets while the poor ones struggled to survive without a light bulb until, eventually, the poor will get their gadgets even if that light bulb still doesn’t work.
But looking at the water crisis threatening major cities around the world, forcing all the residents of Cape Town to ration their daily water consumption, much like the poor residents of its surrounding townships who have always had to line up for their drinking water, I’m thinking perhaps I understood his quote wrong. Maybe, all along, he was telling us that the future won’t pull up the poor but bring down the rich as well.
This week in The Global Tiller, we take a look at how bad the water crisis is and which areas are most at risk. We examine what the consequences of this crisis could be on peace and stability, and if the upcoming COP26 in Glasgow offers any signs of hope.
The water crisis is bad. In 2020, around one in four people lacked safely managed drinking water in their homes and nearly half the world’s population lacked safely managed sanitation. Covid-19 made it necessary that everyone had access to water and soap to maintain good hygiene but, at the onset of the pandemic, three in 10 people worldwide could not wash their hands with soap and water within their homes.
According to the World Resources Institute, 17 countries face "extremely high" levels of water stress, while more than two billion people live in countries experiencing "high" water stress, which means that the demand for safe, usable water has exceeded the supply. By 2040, one in four children worldwide will be living in areas of extremely high water stress.
We can see what it looks like in realtime. Cape Town was projected to run out of all drinkable water in 2018. Thankfully, they received a lot of rainfall and their conservation policies worked that allowed them to avoid Day Zero. A similar situation happened in Chennai, India - one of the world’s wettest major cities that ran out of water. There are several other major cities around the world that are projected to face similar crises: Mexico City, Jakarta, Cairo, Sao Paulo, Beijing, Dhaka and even Melbourne. In this visualisation developed by the World Economic Forum, you can see glaring instances of disappearing surface water around the world.
Not all of the water crisis stems from climate change or unpredictable rainfalls — although a significant part of it does. In my hometown Karachi, a lot of it comes from resource mismanagement and corruption. Even in Chennai (which coincidentally was my late grandfather’s hometown), haphazard construction over flood plains and rapid urbanisation has contributed to water scarcity.
Fighting over water is not new. In fact, humans have fought over water resources as early as 3000 BC. But there are renewed concerns that water stress will cause major security threats. UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres told the UN Security Council last month that conflicts may arise as climate changes affect access to clean water throughout the globe. He pointed out that 90% of refugees come from "countries that are among the most vulnerable and least able to adapt to the effects of climate change."
Apart from climate migration, water stress also impacts the global flow of goods. For instance, wildfires and drought in 2010 wiped out Russian crops, which resulted in a spike in commodities prices and food riots in Egypt and Tunisia at the start of the Arab uprisings.
This is a problem that concerns everyone, be it a city running out of water, or a country unwilling to take in the inevitable flow of climate refugees. The upcoming COP26 in Glasgow will have a draft resolution declaring that “access to safe water and sanitation are basic human rights for all”. The draft declaration would commit signatories to taking all necessary steps to reach zero water pollution, to focus on sustainable withdrawal of water and protect ecosystems.
Speaking of COP26, don’t miss Pacific Ventury Media’s coverage of the summit. Starting next week, our newsletters — The Global Tiller and Te Hoe — and our podcasts —Pacific Toks and Pacific Hoe — will be focusing on what to look out for during the upcoming global climate summit. You’ll be able to hear from experts around the world and will catch glimpses of the summit live from our partners in Glasgow.
Until next week, take care and stay safe!
Hira - Editor - The Global Tiller
If you’d like to read our previous issues, you can access our archives here.
Stan Wolfgramm on Storytelling, Climate Change and Entrepreneurship in the Pacific
Don’t miss the latest episode of our podcast Pacific Toks with Stan Wolfgramm. Stan is a storyteller from our region and he’s also the founder of Te Ara, Cook Islands Museum on Cultural Enterprise. Stan is also an actor and the cofounder of Moana Pasifika. All his projects focus on giving our communities a voice in the challenging times we’re facing. In this episode, Stan talks about the role that entrepreneurs can play in regards to climate change and how to build narratives that can make the Pacific voices heard as well as putting our region in the leadership position to tackle climate change.
…and now what?
"This year has also brought widespread death and devastation from the borderless climate crisis. The extreme weather events that we have seen in every part of the world — and you all know it and feel it — represent what the secretary-general has rightly called 'code red for humanity’.”
These are the words of US President Biden at the UN General assembly two weeks ago.
Indeed, we are now living in an era where the challenges that we face are playing with borders. How can you stop a fire at the border? How can you stop a cyclone coming from another part of the world to come to your country? How can you stop water from flowing to your neighbour's country which may be using too much of it? China tried it with the Three Gorges Dam but is now facing major challenges.
The thing is, climate is a global dynamic. So when climate changes, it impacts everywhere and doesn’t care about borders and power limitations of our countries and governments. You’re going to tell me that this is an obvious claim. And it is, but it doesn’t seem to be for our governments.
Let’s go back to Biden’s statement. This comes from the leader of a country that, just a few years ago, withdrew from an international commitment, the Paris Accord, which was supposed to help coherent decision-making at the global scale. And from recent geopolitical events, it does not seem that the US, even under Biden’s presidency, seems willing to accept global decisions.
The US is famous for dismissing the international mechanisms since a long time. Many other major powers have done so as well… pretty much all those sitting permanently at the UN Security Council.
So yes, it’s a borderless crisis. But the tools and institutions that could help us to implement decisions and policies at the global scale, not being limited by borders, are not being used properly.
There’s a clear need to change the governmental approach to dealing with climate change. If it’s a borderless crisis, why do we continue to stick so much to borders? Why are borders still defining who gets and who doesn’t get? Why are they so dear to us that we are willing to have them guarded by horsemen ready to whip people away if needs be?
It’s a problem to be solved by leaders of governments in the way they appreciate power and the way they reinforce their power. But it’s also a problem of the population. Recently Germany had its elections to replace the long-lasting Chancellor Merkel. During this election, environment was mentioned as a key challenge by the Germans but it still did not end up as the first driver of choice. What were those drivers? Economy and other 'national' issues.
We have been living with borders for so long that it’s hard for our leaders, as well as us, to think beyond them, and to find ways to envision issues without them. The same went for the pandemic.
But water and air, the fundamental pillars of our existence, are not contained by borders. It’s not about each country having its own quota to manage. It’s a collective resource. So it should be managed globally. No country should have the right to regulate air, water, oceans.
I’m currently reading Bill Bryson’s The Body - A Guide for Occupants and I learned that, because of the quantity of oxygen atoms in the planet, every time you breathe in, you inhale atoms of oxygen that have been breathed by every human being since our species exist. We do share the same air! So how about we decide together how to protect it?
We can no longer agree on deciding on our own when it comes to global problems. We need to update our mindset and require our leaders to do so too. We need to ask them to re-organise their power. Because the current version is an illusion of it.
We may not have the power to stop air and water from flowing everywhere but we do have the power to work together to manage them for the good of everyone, including other living things that have no say in the decision. And, those who will breath the same oxygen atoms in centuries.
When it comes to climate change, and many other related issues, what matters is not the flag you bow to, it’s the breath you share. While doing the 'Hongi', our Maori brothers and sisters remind us of this idea. It’s now up to us to implement it in our systems of decision-making. Because if we can’t agree on how we manage our air, we’ll feel breathless watching any flag, but that won’t be out of patriotism.
Philippe - Founder - Pacific Ventury