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Water

April 22, 2011

Lessons for Africa's carbon exchange

Later this month, carbon market investors will gather in Nairobi at a meeting hosted by the World Bank's International Finance Corporation. The meeting will connect heavy hitters in the carbon market world like Barclays Bank, JP Morgan, and the German bank KfW with African project managers.

Part of the reason for the meeting is the March 24 launch of the Africa Carbon Exchange (ACX). The ACX is positioning itself as the hub of climate change business on the African continent. But as IATP's Shefali Sharma writes in a new commentary, "existing and attempted carbon emissions exchanges in Europe and the United States have suffered one blow after another—fraud, carbon credit theft, poor legislative design, even profits for some major polluters—all at the expense of ordinary citizens and the environment." Due to these failures, Bloomberg recently characterized carbon trading as "a backwater of the global commodities market."

Shefali writes, "There is a real danger that carbon offsets will become a major policy distraction and capital diversion from the real climate change challenges that Africa faces: the urgent task of climate change adaptation and ensuring resilience of communities." You can read the full commentary here.

 

 

Ben Lilliston

March 23, 2011

World Water Day statement from the Water Justice Movement, March 22, 2011

World Water Day is observed every year on March 22 as a day of action to draw attention to the role that fresh water plays in our world and lives, and the challenges that lie ahead in realizing right to water for all. The past year has been momentous as far as the advancement of right to water goes. There have been two developments in the U.N. system in 2010, both of which uphold the state’s responsibility in ensuring the right to water. The first was the United Nations General Assembly Resolution of July 28, 2010 and the second has been the U.N. Human Rights Commission Resolution of September, 2010.

Acknowledging these and other developments around the world as well as outlining the broad contours of the challenges communities face in realizing the right to water, the following statement has been prepared for this World Water Day by all who are part of the water justice movement.

World Water Day Statement from the Water Justice Movement March 22, 2011

On World Water Day 2011, with water justice activists around the world mobilizing to assert the right to water and sanitation for people and communities, to preserve water as part of an ecological trust and to ensure that water is democratically controlled by the people in the public interest, we issue this short statement to reflect on both recent victories toward implementation of the right to water as well as the challenges and threats that remain ahead.

We are heartened by passage this past year of two resolutions within the U.N. system that have further affirmed the right to water and the obligations governments must fulfill to uphold this right. The first resolution, passed in July 2010 in the U.N. General Assembly was championed by leading countries in Latin America, including Bolivia, as well as other countries in the global South, and its passage marked the first time this body had gone on record formally acknowledging the right to water and sanitation.

The passage of a resolution within the U.N. Human Rights Council acknowledging states’ obligations to fulfill the rights to water and sanitation just three months later is demonstrative of the momentum that has been built over the past year. Even those countries in the global North, reluctant to support the resolution, have been compelled to shift their positions, recognizing that the time when governments must truly recognize this right is at hand.

We also wish to express our solidarity with the communities and individuals struggling in their own countries to push for national recognition of the right to water, such as in Colombia where an effort to enshrine the right to water as a constitutional right shares wide popular support despite resistance from elected officials.

We find the imminent decision of the U.N. Human Rights Council to extend the position of the U.N. Independent Expert on the Rights to Water and Sanitation a promising step toward honoring the commitment governments need to make toward advancing the right to water. We are pleased that as a result of the resolution authorizing this extension, communities whose right to water is being violated or hindered may now raise specific complaints with the Independent Expert, now the Special Rapporteur on the Rights to Water and Sanitation.

We also look forward to efforts in the coming year by champions of the right to water in the global South to move U.N. Member States to pass a resolution that would call on states to guard against the privatization of water resources and systems, which would be further evidence that governments are prioritizing their obligation to protect the right to water from interference by corporations intent on exploiting water resources for profit at the expense of people and nature.

The ongoing tragic events in Japan demonstrate how even in countries where the majority of people have adequate access to water and sanitation, a natural calamity can quickly put millions in desperate situations where access to water quickly vanishes. This profound reminder of our fragility and dependence on this fundamental resource should strengthen our resolve to ensure there are strong protections for people’s right to water, so that it is prioritized when emergencies occur, and so that the billions of people whose lives are a constant struggle for access to water and sanitation might finally find reprieve.

The long struggle for free expression and self-determination that has recently flowered in Egypt, Tunisia and elsewhere, provides a profound analogy to the ongoing struggle we have seen to protect and fulfill people’s right to water. For too long, some governments have failed to respect the rights of their people. This negligence has included not only the denial of people’s civil and political rights, but in some cases their rights to water as well.

Governments now have a choice. They can honor these rights and take full responsibility. They can prioritize the right to water by fully funding these systems and by protecting the water sources that provide people with access, especially the poorest who are in greatest need. They can support the public water systems and workers that run these systems by enhancing their capacity and supporting sustainable jobs for those who are entrusted with running these systems. They can foster truly democratic institutions that give people and communities the power to make decisions about how their water sources and public water are governed, with full transparency, participation and accountability.

Or, they can abdicate that responsibility, whether by closing their eyes to over-extraction and pollution of water sources or by handing over control of the water systems to the private sector, rationalizing their decisions in the name of narrow economic efficiency.

So, today, on World Water Day, we call on the United Nations and its member states to continue to take concrete action to fully realize the right to water for people and nature. The momentum built this year must not be delayed by further inaction or by attempts to co-opt such efforts into just another means by which to maintain the status quo for the benefit of entrenched corporate and political interests.

Countries must not only lend their weight to these international efforts, but must also take greater responsibility for full implementation of this right within their own borders, such as by developing comprehensive national plans for democratic governance of water resources, public water and sanitation systems. Communities should have the power to decide how to organize their common resources, especially one as vital to survival as water.

As people around the world over strive for greater transparency, accountability and participatory democracy, governments must heed these voices, not just that of bankers and corporations. Let us together revive our commitment to democracy and democratic institutions so that together we can fully realize and implement the right to water.

Shiney Varghese

February 24, 2011

Reflections on right to water

This week, the U.N. Independent Expert on the issue of human rights obligations related to access to safe drinking water and sanitation, Ms. Catarina de Albuquerque, will visit the United States, giving us an opportunity to pause and reflect: What does right to water entail?

In early February, addressing the World Social Forum, the  Bolivian President Evo Morales said “We are going to go the U.N. to declare that water is a basic public need that must not be managed by private interests, but should be for all people, including people of rural areas."1

While some might disagree with his assertion that water should not be managed by private interests, few would challenge the idea that water should be for all. President Morales is calling for an expansion of right to water on two fronts, both in terms of its reach (to larger numbers) and in terms of its scope (to support life).Coming from the president of a nation, this is a very important statement in the international campaign towards the right to water. It seeks to connect the right to water to the right to life, which is central to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948, Article 3.)

Given that nearly three-quarters of the “water poor” belong to rural communities, it is high time that international deliberations around the right to water focus on rural communities access to safe water. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948) obliges states to protect all human rights, but first and foremost, the right to life. It also obliges states to protect its citizens' cultural diversity, and their right to an adequate standard of living, including the right to food. For rural communities, realization of each of these rights is dependent on their ability to access water in their immediate environment.

However, over the last decade, the right to water has increasingly been understood rather narrowly as an individual human being’s right to have access to safe and affordable water for drinking and sanitation. It is based on the idea that individuals, as members of households, are hooked up to centralized water supply and sanitation schemes.2

In this understanding of the right to water, there is a lack of comprehension of the history and cultures of communities in the global south. In many traditional societies, access to water was realized through the protection of community water sources. Sanitation habits varied from community to community. Production methods and habits varied too, but as low-consumption societies, they did not deplete their resources and could manage their waste without polluting their land and water resources.

This is no longer the case. Even where rural communities continue the ways of their ancestors, they are no longer able to control the fate of their land and water resources. A case in point is the more than decade-long experience of the Kalahari Bushmen: denied the rights to their ancestral land, water and way of life.3

We all depend on rural resources to continue with our high-consumption lifestyle. We need the food they produce, the cotton they plant, but also all kinds of metals and minerals, precious stones and oils for the goods we use every day. In order to meet these needs, private and public corporations enter into rural areas and often displace communities, destroy their sources of livelihoods, and deplete or pollute their water resources.

Sand mining in Tamilnadu, as in other parts of India and the world, is an example of the violation of the right to water of rural inhabitants living in the watershed of the river.  Here, sand is removed from riverbeds in order to support the principally urban construction boom. This reduces the ability of the riverbed to retain water and replenish surrounding lands that is already strained by chemical- and water-intensive industrial agricultural practices.4

It is not as if these stories are confined to India, Asia or developing countries such as Botswana. Similar issues affect Indigenous communities in North America.5

These initiatives can cross national boundaries. For example, the U.S. Commercial Service is organizing a Water Trade Mission to India from February 28 to March 4, 2011. According to their analysis “India faces a critical shortage of reliable, safe water for personal consumption and for industrial use. In recent years rapid industrialization and a growing population have placed increasing demands on the country’s limited water resources. [….] most of India’s water resources are allocated to the agricultural sector, leaving little or no resources for other uses.”6

While these facts cannot be disputed, what the U.S. Commercial Service sees in India is an opportunity to “expose U.S. firms to India’s rapidly expanding water and waste water market and to assist U.S. companies to seize export opportunities in this sector.”7 The assumption here is that the water problems in India can be resolved with the help of technology and investments. This kind of quick fix may end up disregarding (or even worsening) the real issue behind the water crisis, which is the ecological crisis caused by unfettered consumption habits.

It does not seem to occur to the U.S. Commercial Service that the diversion of water from rural areas, for industrial water use and/or for urban water supply, may result in water scarcity and livelihood insecurity for rural communities. The rural people who could be affected by these investments should have a role in decisions on whether or not to allow such investments, and a democratic process where they can figure out ways to address the ecological crises in ways that can help realize the right to water of both urban and rural communities.

As the Independent Expert on the issue of human rights obligations related to access to safe drinking water and sanitation, Ms. Catarina de Albuquerque, visits the United States this week, I hope she is able to help define the right to water in a broader sense so as to help bring the majority of the often neglected rural communities under the protection of right to water.


1. San Francisco Chronicle with Bloomberg, Bolivia's Morales Seeks African Support for UN Water Proposals, February 6, 2011

2. Even though the advocacy work of organizations such as WaterAid has helped increase the awareness of the challenges of realizing right to water in rural areas, an area of increasing interest to the organizations it partners with, much of the responses are still focused on the gap in finances.

3. http://www.survivalinternational.org/tribes/bushmen

4. Women at the Center of Climate-friendly Approaches to Agriculture and Water Use, Annex 1: Sand mining, governance and right to water, http://www.iatp.org/iatp/publications.cfm?refID=107914 

5. http://www.epa.gov/SoCal/tribes.html and  http://www.winnipegfreepress.com/local/first-nations-to-alert-un-to-water-woes-116296654.html
 
6. U.S. commercial service: Mission Statement (Commercial Setting), Water Trade Mission to India, February 28 – March 4, 2011, Trade Mission Flyer Accessed February 15, 2011

7. http://www.buyusa.gov/india/en/indwatertm.html

 

 

This week the UN Independent Expert on the issue of human rights obligations related to access to safe drinking water and sanitation, Ms. Catarina de Albuquerque, will visit the United States, giving us an opportunity to pause and reflect: what does right to water entail?

 

In early February, addressing the World Social Forum, the  Bolivian President Evo Morales said “We are going to go the UN to declare that water is a basic public need that must not be managed by private interests, but should be for all people, including people of rural areas."[1]

 

While some might disagree with his assertion that water should not be managed by private interests, few would challenge the idea that water should be for all. President Morales is calling for an expansion of right to water on two fronts, both in terms of its reach (to larger numbers) and in terms of its scope (to support life).Coming from the president of a nation, this is a very important statement in the international campaign towards right to water. It seeks to connect the right to water to the right to life, which is central to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948, Article 3.)

 

Given that nearly three-quarters of the “water poor” belong to rural communities, it is high time that international deliberations around the right to water focus on rural communities access to safe water. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948) obliges states to protect all human rights, but first and foremost right to life. It also obliges states to protect its citizen’s cultural diversity, and their right to an adequate standard of living, including the right to food. For rural communities, realization of each of these rights is dependent on their ability to access water in their immediate environment. 

 

However, over the last decade, the right to water has increasingly been understood rather narrowly as an individual human being’s right to have access to safe and affordable water for drinking and sanitation. It is based on the idea that individuals, as members of households, are hooked up to centralized water supply and sanitation schemes.[2]

 

In this understanding of right to water, there is a lack of comprehension of the history and cultures of communities in the global south. In many traditional societies, access to water was realized through the protection of community water sources. Sanitation habits varied from community to community. Production methods and habits varied too. But what was common to them all was that, since they were low-consumption societies, they did not deplete their resources, and could also manage their waste without polluting their land and water resources.

 

This is no longer the case. Even where rural communities continue the ways of their ancestors, they are no longer able to control the fate of their land and water resources. A case in point is the over-a-decade long experience of the Kalahari Bushmen, who are denied the rights to their ancestral land, water and way of life.[3]

 

We all depend on rural resources to continue with our high consumption lifestyle. We need not only the food they produce, and the cotton they plant, but also all kinds of metals and minerals, precious stones and oils for the goods we use every day. In order to meet these needs, private and public corporations enter into rural areas, often displacing communities, destroying their sources of livelihoods, and depleting or polluting their water resources.

 

Sand mining in Tamilnadu, as in other parts of India and the world, is an example of the violation of the right to water of rural inhabitants living in the watershed of the river.  Here, sand is removed from riverbeds in order to support the principally urban construction boom.  This reduces the ability of the riverbed to retain water and replenish surrounding lands that is already strained by chemical and water intensive industrial agricultural practices.[4]

 

It is not as if these stories are confined to India, Asia or developing countries such as Botswana. Indigenous communities in California, USA and Canada face similar issues from domestic policies in these countries.[5]

 

These initiatives can cross national boundaries. For example the U.S. Commercial Service is organizing a Water Trade Mission to India from February 28 to March 4, 2011. According to their analysis “India faces a critical shortage of reliable, safe water for personal consumption and for industrial use. In recent years rapid industrialization and a growing population have placed increasing demands on the country’s limited water resources. [….] most of India’s water resources are allocated to the agricultural sector, leaving little or no resources for other uses.”[6]

 

While these facts cannot be disputed, what the US Commercial Service sees in India is an opportunity to “expose U.S. firms to India’s rapidly expanding water and waste water market and to assist U.S. companies to seize export opportunities in this sector.”[7] The assumption here is that the water problems in India can be resolved with the help of technology and investments. This kind of quick fix may end up disregarding (or even worsening) the real issue behind the water crisis, which is the ecological crisis caused by unfettered consumption habits.

 

It does not seem to occur to the US Commercial Service that the diversion of water from rural areas, for industrial water use and/or for urban water supply, may result in water scarcity and livelihood insecurity for rural communities. The rural people who could be affected by these investments should have a role in decisions on whether or not to allow such investments, and a democratic process where they can figure out ways to address the ecological crises in ways that can help realize the right to water of both urban and rural communities.

 

As the Independent Expert on the issue of human rights obligations related to access to safe drinking water and sanitation, Ms. Catarina de Albuquerque, visits the United States this week, I hope she is able to help define right to water in a broader sense so as to help bring the majority of the often neglected rural communities under the protection of right to water.

 



[1] San Francisco Chronicle with Bloomberg, Bolivia's Morales Seeks African Support for UN Water Proposals, February 6, 2011

 

[2] Even though the advocacy work of organizations such as WaterAid has helped increase the awareness of the challenges of realizing right to water in rural areas, an area of increasing interest to the organizations it partners with, much of the responses are still focused on the gap in finances.

 

[4] Women at the center of Climate friendly Approaches to Agriculture and Water Use, Annex 1: Sand mining, governance and right to water, http://www.iatp.org/iatp/publications.cfm?refID=107914

[6] US commercial service: MISSION STATEMENT (Commercial Setting), Water Trade Mission to India, February 28 – March 4, 2011, Trade Mission Flyer Accessed February 15, 2011

Shiney Varghese

February 09, 2011

Women at the center of climate-friendly approaches to agriculture and water

Extreme weather events consistent with climate change are already playing havoc with the livelihoods and food security of much of the world’s poor. This is particularly true for arid and semi-arid areas of the global South. Yet, most proposals for agriculture being discussed at the U.N. global climate talks and elsewhere focus on new technological developments, like genetically engineered crops. But these approaches are based on still unproven claims and do not fully consider their impact on the natural world.

In a new paper, IATP’s Shiney Varghese examines proven agricultural practices that reduce greenhouse gas emissions and strengthen resilience to climate change through a case study of the Tamilnadu Women’s Collective in India. The collective, a federation of village-level women’s groups with over 150,000 members—the majority of which belong to the lowest caste—follow three principles for food security: 1.) empowerment of women; 2.) democratic local governance; and 3.) multifunctional agriculture.

Shiney will present her findings at the United Nations in New York on February 22 as part of a workshop, titled “Climate Adaptation Challenges from a Gender Perspective.” The workshop is expected to contribute towards the fifty-fifth session of the U.N.’s Commission on the Status of Women. You can learn more about how the Tamilnadu Women’s Collective is using traditional knowledge and practices to increase food security and climate resilience by reading the full paper here and at www.iatp.org.

Ben Lilliston

November 24, 2010

The cost of adding carbon credits to clean water

In a recent NYT opinion piece Clean Water at No Cost? Just Add Carbon Credits, Tina Rosenberg argued that one of the best ways to ensure that the world’s poorest have access to water is through carbon trading. Having spent “more than two decades reporting on social problems around the world, and where possible, exploring new models to address them,” in October 2010, Rosenberg and David Bornstein began a series, entitled Fixes, that proposes to help spread knowledge about solutions (or potential solutions) to real-world problems, and how they work.

But in this case, her solution rests on a simplistic understanding of the two central issues: the water crisis and carbon trading. There are a many of reasons for the water crisis and the large numbers of water-poor, and working through them is like peeling the layers of an onion. The most apparent reason for not having access to safe water is the lack of public financing to build a water infrastructure. So, for a while, multinational-led water privatization was promoted as the solution, with these companies leveraging the financing for building and maintaining the water infrastructure. However as the article acknowledges, “for-profit water multinationals such as Bechtel and Suez” have been critiqued “for the way they treat rural people and slum dwellers.” 

These companies “have little incentive to lay pipes to reach people who are far away, and if they do, they charge very high prices.” In the absence of water infrastructure, the next best solution is decentralized water treatment systems. The article tells us about a technology that can help individuals and households clean their own water! LifeStraw, an instant micro-biological water purifier, is a “point-of-use water purification system that can filter up to 18,000 liters of water,” which is estimated to last for about three years (at  the rate of 16.43 liters of purified drinking water per day). It is as simple as having a straw for an individual, or a slightly bigger "LifeStraw Family" with a spout that can be hung from the wall of a household. Point-of-use water purifiers have been called more effective compared to cleaning the original water source, especially when it comes to poorer environments.

Several U.S. government organizations including the Center for Disease Control (CDC) and the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), as well as Coca Cola, have been involved in the testing and promotion of this technology in a number of countries in Africa. It is understandable that the organizations would want to test it in sub-Saharan Africa where access to clean drinking water is seen as a challenge. Vestergaard Frandsen, the company that developed LifeStraw, plans to provide the technology at no cost to water poor people! So far, so good!

How would they pay for it? Vestergaard Frandsen is multinational leader in making what they call "profit for a purpose." They plan to raise money by charging those who emit greenhouse gases (GHG) in exchange for an allowance of GHG emissions, or put in simpler words, in exchange for an allowance to pollute more.

The argument goes thus: If there were no LifeStraw, poor people would have to boil their water. This would contribute to GHG emissions. Thus, access to LifeStraw potentially leads to the reduction of an activity that would have otherwise contributed to global warming. All this sounds very good, but there is a big “if” involved here. What this imagined scenario ignores is the fact that along with lack of access to water, the poor also lack access to other resources, including firewood. Boiling water is neither a common practice, nor a priority for poor households in most parts of the world. It is mainly those with easier access to resources, and the ability to spare resources for doing that additional chore who take up the practice. This has been my repeated experience across two decades of interactions with poor communities.

It is at this point that one might want to peel the next few layers: Why are our water resources polluted and depleted? Most obviously, because of several causes, including: lack of sanitation facilities; improper disposal of untreated human waste; discharge of untreated industrial effluents into rural and urban waterways that sometimes double as drinking water sources; excessive use of agrochemicals that seep into underground waters; and agricultural runoffs that pollute surface waters.

Peel once more and you come to the core of it all: Our consumption-driven economies require water-intensive, high-output agricultural and industrial production as well as energy generation, that takes water for granted. There is no doubt that technologies like LifeStraw may be necessary (and much better than, say, bottled water) in water-stressed situations, or emergencies such as floods. But it would be misplaced to fund them through carbon trading. Carbon trading has emerged as a response to our refusal to cut down or reduce actual emissions. Instead it is a mechanism to provide emitters with a cheaper option: continue with emissions by buying permits to pollute rather than incur cost to replace the GHG-emitting technology with better options. In order for carbon markets to function, there is, first, the need to create a demand for carbon credits. 

As and when national governments introduce an upper limit (also known as a "cap") to allowable emissions, such a demand will be created. Companies and countries that exceed the limit—largely in the North—will need to buy credits from elsewhere—largely, the South. Second, there is the need to create carbon credits that can be bought by carbon polluters. According to current mechanisms—such as the Clean Development Mechanism (CDM)—these credits can be accrued only if the condition of "'additionality," (amongst others) is fulfilled. 

For example, credits may accrue when farmers switch their practices from fossil-fuel intensive to organic, or when governments provide policy incentives to nudge a shift in consumption patterns. In both cases, if GHG emissions are less compared to what would have happened in the absence of the project, they would be eligible for carbon credits. But there are problems with such mechanisms. To begin with, they do not take existing conservation practices into account. For example, in many of the poorer regions of the world, natural farming is practiced as part of local traditions. There is also the possibility of dubious claims where carbon credits may be granted to hypothetical activities. For example, the provision of LifeStraw is expected to reduce the GHG emissions associated with the (non-existent) practice of boiling water. Additional problems associated with the carbon derivatives markets is yet another issue.

Even if problems associated with carbon trading practices and carbon markets were to be fixed, some fundamental problems would persist. First of all, when carbon credits are allocated to GHG-reduction activities, often practiced by communities and countries in the South, it is a means for passing on the responsibility of GHG reduction to those countries whose climate footprint is limited but whose climate vulnerability is high. In the case of water poor, they need finances, and are willing to carry the burden in order to have access to funds to help climate-proof their nation. Second it allows polluting communities and companies to continue with their current GHG-emitting practices at almost no cost to themselves. Thirdly, carbon trading becomes a means for generating profit from doing almost nothing, or close to nothing.

For example, when Vestergaard Frandsen provides access to clean water for free to water poor, is the company trying to fulfill their corporate responsibility? As far as I can make out, it is far from it: Vestergaard Frandsen is hoping to cash in on the possibility of emerging carbon markets. Ostensibly promoted as a win-win mechanism to reduce GHG emissions, carbon trading and carbon markets have created spaces where companies such as Vestergaard Frandsen can accrue carbon credits worth billions for themselves for claimed GHG-reduction practices. However, as my colleague Steve Suppan, an expert on carbon derivatives pointed out: “Carbon markets cannot exist without governments creating both the demand [cap] and the supply [billions of dollars of emissions permits given to industry and offset credits]; the collapse of the Chicago Climate Exchange is just more evidence of this fact.” The NYT article had him remarking: “So now carbon marketers are looking for a lifeline in water. My, what a surprise! And what a surprise that the carbon market–besotted NYT fell for this ruse!” No doubt, financial incentives should be available to continue with, or shift to, practices whose GHG-emission footprint is lower than the alternatives. But the model cannot be that of carbon trading; it has to be that of climate financing.

Similarly, adaptation funds should be made available for communities to access appropriate technology that can help meet their basic needs, like safe drinking water. At COP 16, negotiators should explore viable alternatives for climate financing that promote real solutions to real problems.

Shiney Varghese

September 24, 2010

Trouble Waters' balancing act

The University of Minnesota back-tracked yesterday on its decision to stop the premiere of the documentary “Troubled Waters: A Mississippi River Story” on October 3 at the Bell Museum. IATP, the Land Stewardship Project, and dozen other Minnesota groups called out the U (see our letter and press release) for what appeared to be an attempt to staunch academic freedom. The film explores the connection between agriculture and pollution in the Mississippi River and the Gulf of Mexico. The U’s reasons for trying to stop “Troubled Waters” are still not entirely clear, although Agriculture Dean Allen Levine at one point said the film “vilifies agriculture” and that he considered it unbalanced.

Bringing “balance” into the equation when you’re talking about agriculture and the Mississippi is more than a little ironic – our industrial agriculture system is the definition of unbalanced. The way we produce corn and soybeans requires vast quantities of fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides, a lot of which, along with sediment, get washed out of farm fields, trickle into the Mississippi, and eventually wash into the Gulf of Mexico. The end result: a river and its tributaries contaminated with high levels of nitrates, atrazine, and other health- and eco-hazards, and a dead zone in the Gulf the size of Massachusetts (this year).

What’s curious about Dean Levine’s statement is that the film, in fact, highlights the efforts of Minnesota farmers like Tony Thompson who are working hard to decrease their impacts downstream. From riparian buffers, to cover crops, to more perennials, to better calibrated fertilizer application – there are lots of ways farmers can decrease the nutrient load they send down the river. This, one would think, would be exactly the kind of important, “balanced” information the U would want to promote.

We’re still waiting to hear if the film will be shown as previously scheduled on Twin Cities Public Television on October 5, and we’ll continue to insist on transparency from the U around this and similar decisions in the future. In the meantime, if you're in town, get your tickets to the show, they’re going fast. See you there.

By Julia Olmstead

Ben Lilliston

September 02, 2010

Flooding might be the ‘wave’ of the future

This commentary by IATP Senior Fellow Dennis Keeney originally appeared in the Ames Tribune. It is republished with permission.

“Living with floods involves two broad activities: better managing the risks and taking steps to reduce our vulnerability, and better managing the landscape to reduce the magnitude and destructive power of floods.” — Connie Mutel, Epilogue, “A Watershed year: Anatomy of the Iowa Floods of 2008.”

In the spring of 2010, The University of Iowa Press published “A Watershed Year: Anatomy of the Iowa Floods of 2008.” Connie Mutel edited this outstanding book. It should be required reading for those concerned with policymaking to address our recurring big floods. But we continue to battle day-to-day and event-to-event. Iowa State University officials talk of shoring up University Avenue in Ames, and the university and businesses clean up the damage. Who’s really hurt are the hundreds who have major property damage; basements, valuables and feelings of security are destroyed.

Are the Iowa cities that sit on large- or medium-sized river basins doomed to relive the experience of large floods regularly? No matter how much infrastructure we build to withstand the onrush of streams and rivers, flooding might be the “wave” of the future. In June 2008, the rivers of eastern Iowa created floods of epic proportions. In August 2010, the rivers of central Iowa did the same. What is going on? After the unprecedented statewide flooding of 1993, Iowans assumed we had seen the worst and returned to business as usual. How wrong can we be?

Rivers are not static. They are constantly eroding and reshaping their channels. When water flowing into the river exceeds the capacity of the channel, rivers use the naturally created floodplain to store the extra water. When rivers are denied access to the floodplain, or structures are built in the floodplain, we have a flood. Floods are natural, part of the water and biodiversity cycles. When we get in their way, damage occurs.

The climate of the Corn Belt is conducive to violent weather: high winds, tornadoes, blizzards, drought and intense rainfalls. The rainfalls seem to be the cause of much of our angst, especially recently. Reasons for the “unprecedented” floods include the possibility of major climate shifts, changes in land use, especially in agriculture, and lax urban building codes and poor storm management. I will take a quick look at these as space permits.

Probably the most sensible way to avoid flood damage is to get out of the way. But cities are not easy to move. Removing homes and businesses is a slow, expensive process, complicated by the private property ownership and by a multitude of government regulations. When public buildings are involved, such as Hancher Auditorium in Iowa City and Hilton Coliseum in Ames, public funds must be used to restore the buildings, diverting resources that are desperately needed for education and research.

A recent news release indicated a new Hancher will be built, presumably out of harm’s way, and Hilton Coliseum and presumably also the Scheman Center will be protected by higher flood barriers (levees), though the latter is not clear.

ISU’s proposed solution—deny the river its flood plain—is not really a solution. No doubt this would lessen flood damage to the ISU complex, but it would certainly increase flooding in other areas of the flood plain with unpredictable results. The river will have its way.

A better alternative, but one that might now be impractical, is to increase storage on the land. Laura Jackson, a professor of biology at the University of Northern Iowa, and I discuss this approach in chapter 24 of the book I referred to earlier. Most of the watershed above Ames is agricultural. It has been altered in ways that lower the retention of water and hasten flash floods. Tile drainage, wetland and prairie destruction, stream channeling, and, of course, the annual corn and soybean cropping all hasten the movement of water through the watershed.

Similarly, Ames, and most other cities, was not designed with floods in mind. Water runoff must be decreased relative to infiltration in both urban and rural landscapes. Our manicured, reconstructed lawns are nearly as impermeable as the concrete they drain into.

Changing our urban and rural landscapes is daunting. Some regions have gone together to plan for flood mitigation. A regional flood control effort for the Story-Boone County region could identify new roads and bridges that could be designed to provide storage and locate flood plains where flood levees could be removed, giving the river a chance to recover its flood plain.

Finally, are flood frequencies and intensity partly a result of climate change? Eugene Takle examined this question in a remarkably clear manner in his chapter of the “Anatomy of the Floods” book mentioned previously. Cedar Rapids’ average annual rainfall has increased more than 9 inches over the past 113 years and now stands at 37 inches per year. More rain is falling in the late winter, spring and early summer and rainfall events are becoming more intense. These trends were predicted by climate models, and they likely will continue in the foreseeable future. Takle writes that “the dice have been loaded toward a higher probability of extreme flood events.” Now with three major floods in 17 years, it would seem public and private decision makers should take heed.

In summary, floods will happen. Climate change will likely cause further increases, and our rural and urban landscapes have been so modified as to make lessening the impacts of floods difficult. History tells us we will recover from the floods, get enough federal aid and insurance money to repair the damage, and move on with little thought to the next flood. We deserve better.

Dennis Keeney was the first director of the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture and is an emeritus professor at Iowa State University. He resides in Ames and can be reached at earthwatch@mchsi.com.

Ben Lilliston

July 29, 2010

UN General Assembly declares access to safe, clean drinking water and sanitation essential

On July 28, 2010, the UN General Assembly declared that "the right to drinking water and sanitation was essential for the full enjoyment of life."

The resolution was introduced by Bolivia, and was co-sponsored by 39 countries.1 There were 122 states in favor, 0 opposed and 41 abstentions.

This declaration by the general assembly is an important step towards the recognition of the right to water and sanitation, and will strengthen the rights already established in General Comment 15 on the right to water. General Comment 15 is an authoritative interpretation of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, ratified by 160 States.

Interpreting the Covenant, the UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights clarified (in 2002) that the use of the word “including”2 indicates that the right to an adequate standard of living is not limited to food, clothing and housing. It indicated that the right to water is also included within the right to an adequate standard of living since water is fundamental for survival. Since 2002, when the general comment was adopted, a large number of states have accepted the view elaborated in General Comment 15 that the right to water is legally binding. However, a few countries led by the United States have so far prevented the recognition of right to water in UN bodies such as the Human Rights Council and General Assembly, which operate by consensus.3

Yesterday's unanimous declaration by the UN General Assembly will give a boost to those governments that have made an effort to recognize water as a basic right, and to other multilateral efforts to promote the  realization of right to water and sanitation.

This is indeed a huge step forward.

However there is much more to be done. The first step, of course, is to make the right to drinking water and sanitation a reality. This is particularly true for rural areas where 84 percent of water poor live.4 While the resource requirements for meeting the drinking water needs of 884 million people and sanitation related water needs of 2.6 billion people are well within the collective means of our 21st-century world, water remains a mirage for the water-poor. A commitment to help realize the right to water on the part of the rich governments of the world could help save the lives of 1.5 million children under age five who would otherwise die from water-related illnesses. To help meet Millennium Development Goals on water (to halve the number of water poor by 2015) poorer countries need a mere $18.4 billion annually, which they are hard pressed to raise. Yet we have seen that bank bail-outs of much higher magnitude come about easily.5

Equally important is recognizing that the realization of several other rights, such as right to food and right to livelihood, is contingent on reliable access to water. This is especially true in the case of the large number of rural people who are directly dependent on land-based activities such as agriculture, animal grazing and other related activities for meeting their food needs. Climate change is already impacting and will continue to impact these peoples’ food security. Ensuring clean water to help them realize their right to livelihood is of utmost importance.

At the moment, it is commendable that the declaration acknowledges "the importance of equitable, safe and clean drinking water and sanitation as an integral component of the realization of all human rights."

A universal recognition that extends this by acknowledging "the importance of equitable, clean water as an integral component towards the realization of all human rights, especially right to food, and right to livelihood" would be of additional help, especially in the changed context of climate crisis.


1. Angola, Antigua and Barbuda, Azerbaijan, Bahrain, Bangladesh, Benin, The Plurinational State of Bolivia, Burundi, Central African Republic, Congo, Cuba, Dominica, Dominican Republic, Ecuador, El Salvador, Eritrea, Fiji, Georgia, Guinea, Haiti, Madagascar, Maldives, Mauritius, Nicaragua, Nigeria, Paraguay, Saint Lucia, Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, Samoa, Saudi Arabia, Serbia, Seychelles, The Solomon Islands, Sri Lanka, Tuvalu, Uruguay, Vanuatu, The Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela, and Yemen 

2. In Article 11 (1) of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, States parties “recognize the right of everyone to an adequate standard of living for himself and his family, including adequate food, clothing and housing...”

3. Afshaq Khan, e-mail communication, July 2010.

4. World Bank: Global Monitoring Report 2010, The MDGs after the Crisis, http://siteresources.worldbank.org/INTGLOMONREP2010/Resources/6911301-1271698910928/GMR2010WEB.pdf

5. http://www.alertnet.org/thenews/newsdesk/IRIN/767d200266c1ab5956e7148ad2f52b03.htm

Shiney Varghese

April 23, 2010

Water and the climate connections

Last week, the Feria del Agua—a water festival and fair—marked the 10th anniversary of the water wars that thwarted attempts to privatize water services in Cochabamba, Bolivia. Celebrations were kicked off April 15 with a parade from downtown Cochabamba to the Complejo Fabril (home of the Cochabamba Federation of Workers).

Nationally, the water wars not only paved the way for blocking privatization attempts of other natural resources in Bolivia, but also helped change the balance of power there, leading to the successful election of its first indigenous president. Globally, the Bolivian water wars called attention to attempts to privatize water in Asia, Africa and elsewhere in Latin America. In their wake, it became increasingly acceptable to claim water as a basic right.

In 2001, IATP used the Bolivian water privatization case study to successfully persuade the UN office of the Special Rapporteur—who was conducting a detailed study towards the formulation the U.N. General Comment 15 on right to water—to remove overt references to privatization as a strategy for ensuring the water supply and sanitation in realizing the right to water. IATP also made the case that the General Comment must include water for farming and other subsistence livelihood practices to help establish the right to adequate food as a necessary component of realizing the right to water.

The struggle for the right to water continues even now in Bolivia. As several bloggers from the international water fair have pointed out, the gains of the water war have yet to reach la zona su—a wide swath of poor communities at the southern edge of the city that are highly organized and militant—some of the principal protagonists of the struggle in 2000 that led to the expulsion of the multinational Bechtel. Hence the need for small, autonomous water committees that continue to serve the needs of the local population. La Feria del Agua was thus not only a celebration of the 10th anniversary of the water wars, but also a  public event celebrating the work of these water committees.

Earlier this week, thousands more arrived in Cochabamba to participate in the People's Conference on Climate Change, at the invitation of Bolivian President Evo Morales and civil society groups. In an attempt to draw attention to the fact that water is in the eye of the climate storm, one of the days at the Feria was celebrated as a climate and water day. It was planned as a day to question the political processes that promote market-based solutions as an answer to the water and climate crises, and to advance alternatives. IATP, along with On the Commons and several other groups from around the world that work on water justice issues, came together to develop a fact sheet, “Water and Climate Change: What’s the connection?” and a draft declaration “On the Connection between Water and Climate Justice: Reviving a healthy climate through commons-based water management practices.” These were presented at the Feria. The purpose was to reach out to other constituencies and to show that their struggle is our struggle too—since water permeates climate, forests, agriculture and life itself.

As a participant at the climate forum pointed out to Jeff Conant (read him at Climate Connections), “The most important outcome of this meeting would be a stronger people’s movement on the climate crisis. It’s not about documents, it’s not about policy, it’s about standing up together against the climate criminals.” It is also about showing the world that there is an alternative.

Shiney Varghese