In this article, we shall discuss the issue of water degradation (or water depletion) in the international system. It is difficult to discuss international relations, and in particular environmental issues such as natural resource depletion without a detailed discussion and analysis of water degradation in the world today. In this article, we will define water degradation, discuss what causes water degradation, look at cases where water degradation is taking place, as well as examine possible solutions to water depletion and water degradation.
What is Water Degradation?
Water degradation is the misuse and also the pollution of water supplies. Often, individuals throughout the world have to deal with either limited water supplies, or polluted water, often causes by human actions.
What Causes Water Degradation?
While there are a number of factors that causes water degradation, among the main actors responsible are humans.
What are the effects of water degradation?
A lack of water, as well as worsening conditions of water are just some of the effects of human behavior as it pertains to the world’s water supply. In fact, as pollution and mismanagement of water continues, there will continue to be many implications of these activities on water degradation. Specifically, “Decreased water quantity results in a reduction of water available for such uses as drinking and irrigation. Because there is less water, there is usually a greater concentration of pollutants and salinity in the water. This causes the quality of the stream bed to deteriorate, resulting in a reduced biodiversity of plants and animals.” In addition, Human health is at risk with the degradation of our water supply. Pathogens concentrated in our water can cause serious health problems to both humans and animals. Higher standards of living and longevity are directly related to the reduced incidence of certain diseases. Many of these diseases are related to the quality of water (including cholera, diptheria and typhoid)” (disweb.rmit.edu). In fact, “the United Nations reports that over half of the world’s hospital beds are occupied by people suffering from illnesses linked to contaminated wage, and more people die each year from polluted water than are killed in all forms of violence including wars” (Rowntree, Lewis, Price, & Wyckoff, 2015: 57). Plus, the issue of water degradation has also impacted children. Take the case of Haiti, for example. Scholars point out that “even before the 2010 earthquake, almost 20% of all deaths of children under five were directly tied to waterborne diseases”. The same authors also argue that the figures could be higher, given the issue of limited clean water at internally displaced persons camps within Haiti (Rowntree, Lewis, Price, & Wyckoff, 2015).
In addition, we need to be mindful of other effects of water degradation. For example, “With a reduction in water quality comes additional costs – the cost of treating the water to a standard that is acceptable and the cost of acquiring alternative water if treatment of the current water supply is not possible. In the event of our water supplies being degraded to an unacceptable level or reduced, we need to consider reuse and recycling options. Such options would include biological toilets and air cooling” (disweb.rmit.edu).
Moreover, if clean water is not accessible nearby, this can place additional strains on individuals who not have to go look for clean water sources. As some point out, “[w]omen and children, for example, often bear the burden of providing water for family use, and this can mean walking long distances to pumps and wells and then waiting in long lines to draw water. The result is that their daily time budget for other activities, such as school or work, is severely curtailed…” (Rowntree, Lewis, Price, & Wyckoff, 2015: 57).
In the United States, the country is facing serious water degradation issues. Here, communities not only have water pollution that they have to deal with, which could impact their health, but despite laws to counter pollution, the challenges of water degradation continue to exist. Some companies, in their work, are polluting waters with toxic chemicals (Rowntree, Lewis, Price, & Wyckoff, 2015: 72).
Mexico City is another location with water problems. Rowntree, Lewis, Price, & Wyckoff (2015) discuss the water issues that Mexico City is facing, when they write:
“When Vincente Fox was president of Mexico, he declared water (both scarcity and quality) a national security issue, not just for the capital, but for the entire country. Ironically, it was the abundance of water that made this site attractive for settlement initially…Today approximately 70 percent of the water used in the metropolitan area is drawn from the valley’s aquifer. There is troubling evidence that the aquifer is being overdrawn and at risk of contamination, especially in areas where unlined drainage canals can leak pollutants into the surrounding soil, which then leach into the aquifer. To reduce reliance on the aquifer, the city now pumps water nearly a mile uphill from more than 100 miles (160 kilometers) away” (107).
So, when one thinks about human action, we have to analyze the entire set of possibilities of what might happen to the water. Not only will there be less biodiversity in the world, which can affect things such as potential cures for diseases, among many other needs of biodiversity, but there will also be additional harmful effects to humans such as our health; with concerns of cholera and typhoid, for example. Therefore, it is urgent that we ensure we are not ensure that we are not contributing to water degradation.
How can we stop water degradation?
There are a number of ways in which actors can come together to try to stop water degradation, both in their local communities, in neighboring communities, as well as internationally. For example, in the realm of policy, the World Health Organization and the United Nations Development Program have set out a list of principles when working on reducing water degradation policy document. They have set out to provide “guiding principles” related to water pollution control, or water degradation control. They argue that it is imperative to focus on prevention, as opposed to merely reacting to water degradation after it has happened. Speaking on this issue of water degradation prevention, they say:
Prevent pollution rather than treating symptoms of pollution. Past experience has shown that remedial actions to clean up polluted sites and water bodies are generally much more expensive than applying measures to prevent pollution from occurring. Although wastewater treatment facilities have been installed and improved over the years in many countries, water pollution remains a problem, including in industrialised countries. In some situations, the introduction of improved wastewater treatment has only led to increased pollution from other media, such as wastewater sludge. The most logical approach is to prevent the production of wastes that require treatment. Thus, approaches to water pollution control that focus on wastewater minimisation, in-plant refinement of raw materials and production processes, recycling of waste products, etc., should be given priority over traditional end-of-pipe treatments.
They also point out that in instances of where water degradation is occurring due to other issues not related to the ones mentioned above, such as fertilizers, then, “the principle of “best environmental practice” should be applied to minimise non-point source pollution. As an example, codes of good agricultural practice that address the causes of water pollution from agriculture, such as type, amount and time of application of fertilisers, manure and pesticides, can give guidance to farmers on how to prevent or reduce pollution of water bodies. Good agricultural practice is recognised by the United Nations Economic Commission for Europe (UNECE) as a means of minimising the risk of water pollution and of promoting the continuation of economic agricultural activity (UNECE, 1993).” Furthermore, they also advocate implementing “the precautionary principle,” when is to take care when disposing of substances that might be hazardous to the environment and to the water supply, even if that is not yet proved in the scientific community (since it might take years or decades to fully establish this causal relationship).
However, there have been some challenges to ensuring that water degradation does not happen. One of the biggest problems has been the issue of water as it relates to a community resource. With water historically being granted as a public good, some of this has changed in recent years, particularly with the activities of international organizations such as the World Bank and the IMF. These international entities, in their attempts at working on international economic development and state economic stability (respectively), have at times tied privatization of water to their loans that they are providing. This in turn has led to a price increase of water, something that many in the Global South may not be able to afford. There have even been times when people have got into conflict over this issue; “In Cochabamba, Bolivia, for example, the privatization of the water system resulted in a 35 percent increase in water costs. In response, the people rebelled and rioted, with demonstrations that became tragically violent. Eventually, the water system was returned to public control. Reportedly, however, today half the city’s population is still without a reliable water source” ((Rowntree, Lewis, Price, & Wyckoff, 2015: 57).