Using Up Earth's Fresh Water Supply

Corporations want to divert Canada's rivers south to irrigate a few years of profits.

by Don Malcolm

By 2025 the earth's population will have increased by an additional two billion people. What we do in the next twenty-five years will determine whether we are moving toward civilization or chaos. The first three decades of the 21st century will bring change difficult to imagine by many from to-day's perspective.

Already global population support systems are showing signs of strain. Of chief importance among those systems is the planet's usable fresh water supply.

The Yellow River in China often runs dry before reaching the sea. China's industrial revolution of the past 50 years, coupled with artificial irrigation as the country strives toward self-sufficiency in food production, has placed a heavy burden on the country's rivers. The population's new-found relative prosperity has resulted in a shift away from grains to more meat in the diet. The heavily water-reliant meat industry places even greater strain on water resources. In 1997 the Yellow River stopped flowing for 226 days.

From its beginning in Colorado almost 13000 feet above sea level the Colorado River begins its journey to the Gulf of California in north-west Mexico. Despite its 13,000 ft. head, the river seldom reaches its destination. It has been, over and over again, dammed, directed through tunnels, reservoirs, aqueducts, siphons and canals to irrigate thousands of hectares of market gardens. It has created temporary paradise and profits in the deserts of California and Arizona. It waters thousands of lush golf courses and lawns, fills swimming pools beside a warm ocean, and lights neon jungles in cities such as Las Vegas, Phoenix and Los Angeles. The river reaches the ocean as a mere trickle, but only in the wettest seasons.

In California there is no regulation to control ground water pumping. By the 1930s farmers of the Sacramento, San Joaquin and Central valleys had pumped dry the aquifer. Faced with the threat of collapse of the state's biggest industry and the wrath of the powerful farmer groups, the state and federal governments sacrificed the Colorado River to the world's largest irrigation project.

But there would not, in the long run, be enough water to quench the greed of the farmers. Their lust to become the market garden to the world drove them to press into production more crop land than they could water. Today, after drilling tens of thousands of wells in recent years, to supplement the water of the Colorado River, they are again drawing down the groundwater. Now they would turn their dream to a nightmare by redirecting the Eel, Klamath and Columbia rivers to their garden paradise. Bringing the Yukon River through Canada's Rocky Mountain Trench to join the Columbia has not escaped their dream catchers.

Beginning now, we must realistically face the issue of the planet's usable fresh water supply. Canada and other countries must be ready to share water on an emergency temporary basis with those unfortunate populations living where getting enough water to sustain life is a daily struggle. Water sharing should be complemented with assistance in enhancing or improving water resources or, if necessary, relocation of populations.

Obviously the world cannot rescue China or the United States from their particular situations. Certainly, diverting rivers to artificially irrigate a market system that destroys itself through expansion and success is a dead end. Perhaps it's time to question the wisdom of trying to satisfy a world market with heavily water-dependent food crops grown in a desert. Emphasis should, instead, be placed on growing food crops suitable to a particular geoclimatic zone.

In the years just ahead we are going to hear more than we really want to know about the coming world water crisis. The North American Water And Power Alliance (NAWAPA) has begun to stir from its nearly four decade nap. Giant corporations want to divert Canada's north flowing rivers south to irrigate a few more years of profits, and similarly meddle with all the rivers worldwide. Corporations, under the new global trade laws, have no national or geographic loyalty. They are "monopoles sans frontieres." We must fight them. We must civilize them, or tear them down.

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[From WS February/March 2000]

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