The Price of Thirst | Karen Piper

Summary of: The Price of Thirst: Global Water Inequality and the Coming Chaos
By: Karen Piper


Welcome to the world of ‘The Price of Thirst: Global Water Inequality and the Coming Chaos’, a vital read to understand the pressing issue of water scarcity. Here, we will explore the many factors contributing to the lack of drinkable water, its unequal distribution, and the consequences of privatization of water resources. Delve into the complications of water pollution, groundwater depletion, melting glaciers, urbanization, and the exploitation of water resources as a profit-making commodity. Through this book summary, learn about the challenges faced by populations across the globe and the potential threats that may lead us to chaos.

Global Water Scarcity

Lack of Potable Water is Becoming a Great Challenge

70% of the Earth’s surface is covered with water, yet scarcity of drinkable water is a growing concern worldwide. Access to potable water is further compromised due to pollution and the high prevalence of waterborne diseases resulting from poor sanitation. Underground water reserves, known as aquifers, are another source of drinkable water. However, over-extraction for water supply depletes the underground water reserves and leads to subsidence, causing the land to sink. Climate change has also come into the equation, causing glaciers to melt at alarming rates and posing a threat to freshwater rivers, which may disappear over time. Unequal distribution of potable water is also a major concern, with cities facing greater demand than ever, while the supply of groundwater and surface water is diminishing.

The Profits of Water

Private water companies profit from treating, delivering, buying, and selling water, deviating from public water utilities that focus on common good.

Water is fundamental for human survival, prompting an increasing demand for potable water worldwide. Private water companies have found a new way to exploit this basic need by profiting from water treatment and delivery. Unlike public services, these companies prioritize profit by arbitrarily increasing prices, cutting infrastructure and labor costs by firing employees, and neglecting infrastructure repairs.

Another way to earn profits from water is marketing, that is, buying and selling water rights. Water, whether from a river, stream, or lake, can be bought and sold separately from the land where it is situated. These companies can purchase consumptive or non-consumptive rights, such as delivering to a private tap, building dams, and producing hydroelectric power.

Chile was the first country to privatize all its water resources, opening the door for corporations to purchase non-consumptive rights for rivers. Endesa, a former public utility company, was privatized in 1989, and controls non-consumptive rights for the Baker River. In regions where water scarcity is recurrent, water can be deposited in water banks. In “wet” years, farmers may withhold a portion of their water allocation and store it in an aquifer to sell or reserve it.

All these practices have one thing in common: profit maximization. Private water companies deviate from public water utilities, centered on the common good, to generate revenue by treating, delivering, buying, and selling water rights, creating a precarious cycle that causes prices to skyrocket.

The Privatization of Water

The outsourcing of public water utilities to private contractors is a common practice, but it has a questionable history. In the nineteenth century, privatization was widespread in the US and Europe, but the numerous outbreaks of waterborne diseases and lack of access to potable water led to its return to public management. Despite this dismal record, the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund promote water privatization for developing countries, tying it to critical loans. However, privatization is just part of their goal to promote deregulation and downsizing of governments. Additionally, the World Bank owns shares in major water companies such as Veolia. This approach has led to diminishing access to clean water for South Africa’s poorest after accepting IMF loan conditions. As a result, water privatization has not delivered on its promise to improve access to clean water, and yet it is being forced, bypassing public control and accountability, onto developing countries.

The Profitable Business of Water

Multinational water companies have found a way to generate significant profits by catering to the poorest people in developing countries. Privatization projects supported by the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank operate on the grounds of full-cost recovery, which means that private companies cover the costs of laying pipes and updating infrastructure through added fees paid by water users. As a result, a consumer’s water bill includes fees paid to the company for installing and maintaining water supply in addition to the price for using water. Private companies invest in public water utilities in exchange for a profit rate of 15 to 30 percent, while the cost of water for citizens increases substantially. However, to fulfill promises of consistent profits, governments often pay subsidies to poor citizens who cannot afford the rising cost of water. Therefore, financially speaking, the private companies are the only ones winning in water privatization schemes while cities and citizens lose steady income sources and pay higher prices.

Water Inequality

The consequences of unequal access to clean water are explored in Cairo, with privatization causing skyrocketing prices and broken promises of improving water quality. The unequal distribution of water also leads to social unrest, with water deprivation playing a role in the revolution that toppled Hosni Mubarak’s government. The consequences of unequal water distribution are not limited to national borders and can lead to international conflict, as seen with Turkey’s World Bank-funded Greater Anatolia Project threatening the access of Syria and Iraq to the Euphrates and Tigris rivers.

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