BUENOS AIRES - Last month, at the magnificent Palacio de Aguas Corrientes ("Palace of Flowing Waters") in Buenos Aires, representatives from 12 Latin American countries came together to discuss something so basic, and so vital.
How can we work together in our region to make best use of that priceless resource: water?
I had the pleasure to be the first speaker. For me, the facts speak for themselves globally. More than 800 million people on our planet live without drinking water. More than 2.5 billion (that's one third of humanity) don't have toilets. Between six and eight million people -- all of us have to ponder those numbers -- die every year because of catastrophes and illnesses related to water.
And then there's tomorrow. What will the battle for water be like when our global population goes to 9 billion in the middle of this century? Consider this fact and then we will stop with the statistics. The world will need 70% more food produced in the year 2050, when we have that number of people. And no one cares more about water than the farmer.
Such facts can overwhelm the spirit, and the brain. But this past week we heard, at all levels, from the large, state water companies and the private sector alike, a determination to confront the challenge, not to walk away from it. In the words of the Argentine leader of the Latin American Association of Water companies (ALOAS): “We have to invest, invest, and then invest some more, and do it today, for peace and security tomorrow”.
By common consent, the same call for action emerged at the Palace of Flowing Waters. Countries that are proud -- and rightly so -- of what they have achieved in recent years nevertheless admit how far they still have to go. A delegate from Mexico offered the official figure that 90 per cent of its population has drinking water, but then revealed that millions in rural areas still live without it.
Buenos Aires' Palace of Flowing Waters - Photo: HalloweenHJB
A senior manager from Peru diagnosed the tension that emerges when mining companies want to invest and create jobs, but seek water 24/7, in a country where 30% of the population still lives without it.
A water company CEO from Colombia ventured the thought that 100% coverage of his country may simply never be possible because of its extraordinary topography. “But at least today, we are talking across borders about how to best deal with this”.
Indeed, Latin America does offer some examples of best practices, certainly for us at the United Nations, in this year of International Water Co-operation. Look at the Guarani Aquifer, bringing together Argentina, Brazil, Paraguay, and Uruguay to preserve and guarantee the best use of that rare water resource with a vast reservoir. Or take a look at Bolivia and Peru. They have created a binational umbrella organisation to safeguard Lake Titicaca, even though they are not always such close friends.
At the UN, our Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has pointed to such as evidence of the way the world must go. The stakes are high. Co-operation in terms of water is crucial when it comes to security, social justice, gender equality, and the campaign against poverty, not to mention the protection of our global environment.
“Climate Change, coupled with the needs of a population growing at such a pace, seeking prosperity, means that we must work ceaselessly at protecting and managing water: such a fragile and limited resource”, concludes the Secretary-General.
One number cried out to all of us this week in Buenos Aires. It came from a colleague at the Pan-American Health Organisation, PAHO. We were told that for every dollar we invest in water, infrastructure, and sharing this vital resource across frontiers, we will save 34 dollars currently spent on the consequences of inaction.
We would transform the lives of those who suffer every day. Be it a mother walking for kilometres to find dirty water, a child who ends up in hospital after drinking it, or the elderly facing dehydration. Spend one dollar today to save 34 tomorrow. Now there's a statistic worth contemplating.
*David Smith is the Director of the UN Information Centre for Argentina and Uruguay
Local villagers in western India have been forced to live with a mining waste site on the edge of town. What happens when you wake up one day and the giant mound of industrial waste has imploded?
BADI — Last week, when the men and women from the Bharwad community in this small village in western India stepped out for their daily work to herd livestock, they were greeted with a strange sight.
The 20-meter-high small hill that had formed at the open-cast mining dumpsite had suddenly sunk. Unsure of the reason behind the sudden caving-in, they immediately informed other villagers. In no time, word had traveled far, even drawing the attention of environment specialists and activists from outside town.
This mining dumpsite situated less than 500 meters outside of the Badi village in the coastal state of Gujarat has been a matter of serious concern ever since the Gujarat Power Corporation Limited began lignite mining work here in early 2017. The power plant is run by the Power Gujarat State Electricity Corporation Limited, which was previously known as the Bhavnagar Energy Company Ltd.
Vasudev Gohil, a 43-year-old resident of Badi village says that though the dumping site is technically situated outside the village, locals must pass the area on a daily basis.
"We are constantly on tenterhooks and looking for danger signs," he says. Indeed, their state of alert is how the sudden change in the shape of the dumpsite was noticed in the first place.
Can you trust environmental officials?
For someone visiting the place for the first time, the changes may not stand out. "But we have lived all our lives here, we know every little detail of this village. And when a 150-meter-long stretch cave-in by over 25-30 feet, the change can't be overlooked," Gohil adds.
This is not the first time that the dumpsite has worried local residents. Last November, a large part of the flattened part of the dumpsite had developed deep cracks and several flat areas had suddenly got elevated. While the officials had attributed this significant elevation to the high pressure of water in the upper strata of soil in the region, environment experts had pointed to seismic activities. The change is evident even today, nearly a year since it happened.
It could have sunk because of the rain.
After the recent incident, when the villagers raised an alarm and sent a written complaint to the regional Gujarat Pollution Control Board, an official visit to the site was arranged, along with the district administration and the mining department.
The regional pollution board officer Bhavnagar, A.G. Oza, insists the changes "aren't worrisome" and attributes it to the weather.
"The area received heavy rain this time. It is possible that the soil could have sunk in because of the rain," he tells The Wire. The Board, he says, along with the mining department, is now trying to assess if the caving-in had any impact on the ground surface.
"We visited the site as soon as a complaint was made. Samples have already been sent to the laboratory and we will have a clear idea only once the reports are made available," Oza adds.
Women from the Surkha village have to travel several kilometers to find potable water
A questionable claim
That the dumpsite had sunk in was noticeable for at least three days between October 1 and 3, but Rohit Prajapati of an environmental watchdog group Paryavaran Suraksha Samiti, noted that it was not the first time.
"This is the third time in four years that something so strange is happening. It is a disaster in the making and the authorities ought to examine the root cause of the problem," Prajapati says, adding that the department has repeatedly failed to properly address the issue.
He also contests the GPCB's claim that excess rain could lead to something so drastic. "Then why was similar impact not seen on other dumping sites in the region? One cannot arrive at conclusions for geological changes without a deeper study of them," he says. "It can have deadly implications."
Living in pollution
The villagers have also accused the GPCB of overlooking their complaint of water pollution which has rendered a large part of the land, most importantly, the gauchar or grazing land, useless.
"In the absence of a wall or a barrier, the pollutant has freely mixed with the water bodies here and has slowly started polluting both our soil and water," complains 23- year-old Nikul Kantharia.
He says ever since the mining project took off in the region, he, like most other villagers has been forced to take his livestock farther away to graze. "Nothing grows on the grazing land anymore and the grass closer to the dumpsite makes our cattle ill," Kantharia claims.
The mining work should have been stopped long ago
Prajapati and Bharat Jambucha, a well-known environmental activist and proponent of organic farming from the region, both point to blatant violations of environmental laws in the execution of mining work, with at least 12 violations cited by local officials. "But nothing happened after that. Mining work has continued without any hassles," Jambucha says. Among some glaring violations include the absence of a boundary wall around the dumping site and proper disposal of mining effluents.
The mining work has also continued without a most basic requirement – effluent treatment plant and sewage treatment plant at the mining site, Prajapati points out. "The mining work should have been stopped long ago. And the company should have been levied a heavy fine. But no such thing happened," he adds.
In some villages, the groundwater level has depleted over the past few years and villagers attribute it to the mining project. Women from Surkha village travel several kilometers outside for potable water. "This is new. Until five years ago, we had some water in the village and did not have to lug water every day," says Shilaben Kantharia.
The mine has affected the landscape around the villages
Resisting lignite mining
The lignite mining project has a long history of resistance. Agricultural land, along with grazing land were acquired from the cluster of 12 adjoining villages in the coastal Ghogha taluka between 1994 and 1997. The locals estimate that villagers here lost anything between 40-100% of their land to the project. "We were paid a standard Rs 40,000 per bigha," Narendra, a local photographer, says.
The money, Narendra says, felt decent in 1994 but for those who had been dependent on this land, the years to come proved very challenging. "Several villagers have now taken a small patch of land in the neighboring villages on lease and are cultivating cotton and groundnut there," Narendra says.
They were dependent on others' land for work.
Bharat Jambucha says things get further complicated for the communities which were historically landless. "Most families belonging to the Dalit or other marginalized populations in the region never owned any land. They were dependent on others' land for work. Once villagers lost their land to the project, the landless were pushed out of the village," he adds. His organization, Prakrutik Kheti Juth, has been at the forefront, fighting for the rights of the villages affected in the lignite mining project.
In 2017, when the mining project finally took off, villagers from across 12 villages protested. The demonstration was disrupted after police used force and beat many protesters. More than 350 of them were booked for rioting.
The villagers, however, did not give up. Protests and hunger strikes have continued from time to time. A few villagers even sent a letter to the President of India threatening that they would commit suicide if the government did not return their land.
"We let them have our land for over 20 years," says Gohil.