Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Water, water, water

As published in The Fiji Times - Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Recently the Fiji meteorological office announced that the latter part of this year would see another El Nino event similar to 1998. The result of the last El Nino event was a severe drought around the country. Producing a documentary on the 1998 drought in Fiji, I witnessed firsthand the effects the suffering of people whose wells and springs had dried up, the impact on the farming communities and livestock. If this year's El Nino event is anything like 1998, water conservation and an efficient supply of water to all will be a national priority.

The establishment of a Water Authority of Fiji as part of the Government's reform program has been welcomed by many as a sign of improved water services.

Anyone who has had to wait by the side of the road for the water truck to bring water for drinking, cooking and washing will appreciate the sentiment behind the idea. However, as we sail down the river of reforming the Water Department into the Water Authority of Fiji for more efficient services, it is important that we do so cautiously.

In our national experience, government departments that become statutory organisations often become corporations that are then privatised. It is not far-fetched to say that a worldwide crisis over water is brewing.

According to the United Nations, 31 countries are now facing water scarcity and 1 billion people lack access to clean drinking water. Water consumption is doubling every 20 years and yet at the same time, water sources are rapidly being polluted, depleted, diverted and exploited by corporate interests ranging from industrial, agriculture and manufacturing to electricity production and mining.

The World Bank predicts that by 2025, two-thirds of the world's population will suffer from a lack of clean and safe drinking water. Fortune magazine has predicted that "water is the oil of the 21 century".

As a basic need for sustaining life, access to water is a fundamental human right enshrined in the right to life and dignity. In 2002 the United Nations adopted water as a human right. However, if Fiji takes the plunge in corporatising and then privatising the water service, this common resource, a public good, will become a commodity. This is already the case in squatter settlements and some rural areas around Fiji where people do not have access to public water supply and are forced to pay those who are fortunate to have a tap, borehole or well to receive water.

Those who cannot afford to pay end up either walking long distances to find access to water or get their water from unsafe sources such as polluted rivers and streams, or even drains.

On a national level it may be argued that switching from publicly owned and operated utilities to private sector firms will lead to greater economic efficiency, stabilised rates, reduced public debt and improved budgetary management.

Daily, the right to water is violated - according to the World Health Organisation an estimated 1.7 billion people still lack access to clean water and 2.3billion people suffer from water-borne diseases each year. Water-borne diseases occur due to the inability to provide clean water, but increasingly due to pricing of water. Pre-paid water meters are installed in poor areas in order to ensure profitable supply and services are cut-off if citizens fall behind on their payments.

For example in Cochabamba, Bolivia, in 1999, the privatisation of water services saw rates rise from 30 to 300 per cent. It will leave poor persons basically bereft of water. That deal involving the Bechtel corporation reputedly even banned area residents from collecting rainwater. The Cochabamba deal was eventually scrapped in 2000 owing to mass protests and strikes.

In their recent statement on Water for Life, the World Council of Churches, for example, comprising over 340 Christian denominations in over 100 countries, notes that, biblically speaking, water is the symbol of life and is to be "shared for the benefit of all creatures".

It is of foundational spiritual significance, the source of health and wellbeing, and is thus used liturgically in baptism, the Eucharist, healing ceremonies and devotional rituals. As both source and symbol of life, the statement claims, water is a wellspring of God's creation.

Access to water is both an issue of social justice and a call for human compassion. The prophet Amos called for justice to roll like waters and righteousness like an everflowing stream. (Amos 5:24).

I appeal to our nation's leaders not to dive into water reforms without checking to see what lies under the surface. All cultures and religions in Fiji hold water as sacred. As El Nino approach, bringing with it at the possibility of severe drought, as rising sea levels threaten the water tables of the islands we call home, each one of us is called to allow others to drink from our cup.

* Reverend Bhagwan is a member of the Faculty of the Methodist Davuilevu Theological College and an Associate Minister of the Dudley Methodist Church in Suva. All opinions expressed in this article are personal and do not necessarily reflect the opinion and policies of the Methodist Church in Fiji or any organisation that Mr Bhagwan is affiliated with. Email: padrejamesgmail.com

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