How much water is enough ?

Saturday morning tends to be a little less stressful than the rest of the week. I get to stay in bed a little longer. Promptly at 7.00am my radio tunes in to the weekly France Culture; eco-magazine. It is called Terre à Terre, introduced by theme music that is a blending of earth sounds with the ethereal sound of a Bulgarian love song (the same one that you hear on the soundtrack of The English Patient).

This morning the programme focused on water, specifically on the issue of a right to water. My ears pricked up. Human rights is my territory. Is there a right to water? Of course, there is. That is a given. But, of course, whenever one enters upon the territory of rights, a more complicated landscape opens up strewn with jurisdictional, legal and definitional obstacles. And the first minefield one encounters is the absence of universal legal system that would permit a person to vindicate his or her right to water. And, then, there is the alternative earthrights perspective that would argue that water, too, has its rights. Who gave you the right to use and squander this precious resource? To which the human-centred legal economic and legal response is: water is a precious resource primarily because it is exploited by humans. And, so it goes on.

On this morning’s show we had about 35 minutes of legal discussion from a French Canadian jurist, a discussion dense enough to really frighten the horses. Law empowers, but law also tends to render what is, at first, basically simple and understandable, into a discourse that is arcane, opaque and disempowering. As the French say, “on baisse les bras”; we throw up our hands in powerlessness before the apparent impossibility of gaining justice through legal means.

And, yet, the law is the only instrument we have. International law and covenants. The international courts. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The European Charter of Rights. The Earth Charter.

So, let’s go back to basics for a moment. How much water is enough? How much water constitutes a ‘right’? Enter the economists. And we had an economist this morning for the second half of the show.

Well, it seems, that economists have calculated that the fulfillment of human basic human needs requires an average of 31 litres of water per day. That includes your basic food, drink, washing and food production requirements.

Did you know that you need that much as you walk around with your one-litre bottle of Vittel? And, did not your doctor tell you to drink two litres of water per day? But now you know that your actual use (as opposed to direct consumption) of water is 31 litres per day.

Now, get ready for the real shocker. Your actual use of water if you live in the West, drive a car, live in a modern house, use electricity, buy cheap food in the supermarket that has come from, say, Spain, go on holidays in foreign countries, read newspapers, and watch TV is closer to 160 litres of water per day. How so? Because, to take just one example, the Spanish tomato that you bought for your salad in February was grown in an agro-business facility that requires massive amounts of irrigation. And, yes, the tram that you rode to work requires equally massive amounts of hydro-power. And, that’s the ‘clean’ energy. Don’t even think about the amount of water needed to manufacture cars, plastics, and synthetic clothing.

So what is your ‘right’ to water really worth? Is the two litres you drink from your Vittel bottle? Is it the five or six litres of water you use in cooking? Is it the 31 litres of water that the economists say is your actual full use entitlement? Or, maybe, is it the consumer economy full whack of 160 litres of water per day? You choose.

But, this is where the economists join with the human rights folk. My radio economist was adamant on this point. By all means consume your full 160 litres of water per day, but don’t expect society to subsidise that consumption. Enter on stage the magic formula, “full cost recovery”. It appears that the European Union has signd up to a policy of “full cost recovery” for all water use beyond the “basic” (No, don’t go there! Like what is “basic”). Water, said the economist, should never, never, be a business. But the products that use water and have economic value should be priced at market value. Which means, doesn’t it, that no matter what Detroit does about its cars and no matter how many Nanos TATA in India produce, we are still a long way off from paying the real cost of the impact of cars on our planet.

We are still a long way off from really understanding how the answer the question: how much (water) is enough?

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