While Europe may take better care of its water resources than other continents, it in fact uses larger quantities via imports of goods such as cotton, beans or wood, which often come from regions that already suffer from water scarcity, argues a UN expert in an interview with EurActiv. The notion of "virtual water" embedded in a commodity or a product, is an essential part of the 'water footprint' theory but has not yet received much attention, argued Maude Barlow, a special adviser on water issues to the president of the UN General Assembly.
While Europe may take better care of its water resources than other continents, it in fact uses larger quantities via imports of goods such as cotton, beans or wood, which often come from regions that already suffer from water scarcity, argues a UN expert in an interview with EurActiv.
The notion of "virtual water" embedded in a commodity or a product, is an essential part of theÂ 'water footprint' theoryÂ but has not yet received much attention,Â argued Maude Barlow,Â a special adviser on water issues to the president of the UN General Assembly.Â
However, she warned:Â "You are going to hear about this virtual water trade a lot more in the next few years."
A water footprint is the total amount of water a country needs to sustain its population and industry. But while Europe tries toÂ take good care of its own resources, itÂ uses water from other placesÂ via its agribusiness imports. "I think it is important to find out about each country's footprint, how much of your water comes from outside the country and what was the energy needed to bring that water here,"Â she said.Â
BarlowÂ called into question European consumers' way of life, with some wantingÂ strawberriesÂ all year round. Meanwhile,Â African lakesÂ are dying, because the berries suck upÂ waterÂ which is thenÂ shipped out of the country, she said.Â Great Britain alone "imports two thirds of its water footprint. And it imports it from Africa, Latin America and from places which don't have any water," she noted.Â
As for biofuels, she noted that while there isÂ a drive to grow biofuels to combat CO2 emissions,Â "we don't stop and ask what biofuels might do to other parts of nature. They are water guzzlers. Biofuels andÂ corn ethanol use a huge amount of water".Â
Water and climate change
Barlow thinks that theÂ chanceÂ of getting water highÂ up the agenda ofÂ the UN climate change negotiations in CopenhagenÂ are "slim", as "Copenhagen is already so contentious andÂ there are so many issues". However, she thinks that water may well become part of theÂ post-Copenhagen talks once people become more water conscious.
"The water crisis is where climate change was five years ago. It is just starting to get into the media and people's heads, and in five years it will be what people talk about," sheÂ said.Â
BarlowÂ also argued thatÂ the water crisis must no longer be considered a result of climate change, but rather asÂ another sideÂ to the equationÂ ofÂ whatÂ causesÂ climate change. "You've got to get the analysis right if you're going to get the answer right," she said.
Water as a human right
Regarding calls to establish access to water as a human right, Barlow said itÂ is possible "to begin the process toward the notion that no-one should be denied water because they can't pay for it". She explained: "This clearly does not mean the right toÂ fill one'sÂ swimming pool, but it is about the right to life and to water for your daily needs, and aboutÂ the right to local sustainable food production."Â
However, this will not happen overnight and some countries have different reasons to oppose it, sheÂ underlined. According to Barlow, inÂ Canada and the United States, for example, serious water crisesÂ are hitting indigenous reserves andÂ neither governmentÂ wants toÂ face litigation over such aÂ right.Â At the same time, governments of poor countries fear thatÂ theirÂ populations will use itÂ to sue them,Â Barlow said.Â
Need for water pricing
While she supports water as a human right, Barlow saidÂ she also supports water pricing,Â on three conditions:Â
- That the water is public, delivered by government not-for profit agencies so that the money collectedÂ goes back into protecting source water andÂ infrastructure re-building, etc.;
- that one does not buy the water butÂ pay for the service, so it is not about people owning water, and;
- that 'blocÂ pricing'Â guarantees a certain amount of water for free or inexpensively for basic needs, and thenÂ the price would go up at next levels of usage.
"There is a commercial role for water but it would always have to be done by permit andÂ with the ability for the governments to re-control the water" if theÂ permitsÂ are not being used sustainably.Â Â
"I don't think we need private companies to run water services, water delivery and waste water, because governments can do that perfectly wellÂ on a not-for-profit basis. So I'm opposed to companies like Suez and Veolia running water services," because private companies should not beÂ making decisions about water allocation, Barlow said.
However, she doesÂ see a role forÂ businesses in puttingÂ together and upgradingÂ infrastructure and hardware thatÂ is out of theÂ governments' control. She said businesses can also help with theÂ expertise, consulting and innovation to help industry cutÂ its water footprint orÂ invent water cleaning techniques.