Water, Women and War

Water was the biggest buzz at the 2004 Women’s International League of Peace and Freedom Congress in the little town of Kungälv, Sweden. Who has it? Who needs it? Who does it belong to? Is it clean enough to drink? Are we running out of it? Will it be the next excuse for war? During the week-long conference, which included official reports from twelve countries, over 300 sisters from 31 countries discussed the condition, distribution and availability of water in their own countries.

The Congress took place in Nordiska Folkhighschool, situated on one of the many Kungälv hills overlooking sleepy canals and rivers. The school was nestled between huge oaks, firs, pines, and birch trees. Sweet smelling air and magical, misted light filtered onto open balconies and into meeting rooms through long, rectangular windows. Nordiska Folkhighschool is one of 350 schools in a special government-supported school system exclusively “for adult people who long to study something during the winter,” according to the headmaster. “There are no structures here-no exams, no curriculum, no credits and no prescribed courses.” Though some of the legislative business of WILPF (the world’s oldest women’s peace and justice organization) was structured, this beatific school and its informal, patient hosts inspired the process of learning, sharing and rebuilding a unique, collective knowledge which often extended into long, late night discussions.

There was no question that water is a women’s issue. Classically, women are responsible for, and in some countries actually fetch and carry, the water used in households because they do the washing, cleaning, cooking and the bathing of children. The more members learned about the scarcity and misuse of today’s water, the higher the steam did rise. Indeed, over the course of the Congress, the picture of world’s water took on a grim and dangerous face.

A dramatic shift came with the 1991 UN decision-muscled by international corporations and the World Trade Organization–to define water as a human need instead of a human right, meaning that it can now be bought and sold for profit by private companies. Every WILPF delegate I spoke with disagreed with the UN position. Water, they agreed, was the earth’s most precious resource and a human right, meaning that all people must have equal access to it on a not-for-profit basis.

In spite of the eternal floods and droughts, water was taken for granted by most of world’s people until the exploding 21st century demands of population growth, pollution, industrialization, militarization and privatization created the current critical scarcity. The Congress learned from WILPF women in developing nations that the high yield genetically engineered seeds, developed by the US and forced upon their farmers, had actually created an irrigation catastrophe. Indigenous, drought-resistant crops were replaced with crops that required more water. Rivers began to dry up before reaching the ocean. The previous sustainable irrigation methods were replaced with deep wells and large dams were built to compensate for the lack of water, at a rate of two a day for the last 50 years.

“Sixty-three hundred people in the world die every day from lack of water,” announced Regina Birchem, the newly elected President of International WILPF.

Bolivian delegate Katty Pattino said that “only 3 out of 5 people in my country have access to safe drinking water. The lack of clean water is one of the major causes of our infant mortality and disease.” She held up a jar containing water from her home. It was half filled with dirt.

Several presenters confirmed that pollution by industry, herbicides and insecticides is creating serious illnesses such as cancer and birth defects in many countries. “Our rivers, lakes, the surface water and the underground water are 94% contaminated,” said Leticia Paul de Flores from El Salvador. “There is a completely uncontrolled construction. Industry pollutes our rivers.”

There is a high instance of mortality because the contaminated waters are especially dangerous in areas where people have reduced immune systems due to HIV/AIDS. Reports from several countries indicated a critical shortage of ‘safe water’ in the cities and the rural areas, particularly in the countryside. Liss Schanke reported that cholera, typhoid fever and diarrhea are prevalent in Tanzania, a condition echoed by several other speakers, again due to lack of safe water.

Though there was no official presenter on water from the US, the US problems were addressed in continued discussions. In addition to overuse of water, one devastating problem is radioactive waste from years of plutonium production used to build nuclear weapons which is now invading US rivers and streams. Overuse of water was also seen as a problem in Australia, where the average citizen consumes more water than anyone else in the world.

“Just as we fought wars over oil, so will we fight wars over water,” was the threatening mantra hanging over the Congress. Dr. Shusma Pankule of India did confirm, “We have disputes with Pakistan on one side and with China on the other over water.” Israel has stolen the Palestinian water and is selling it back to them at prices they cannot afford,” reported Aliyah Strauss of Israel. “The situation is explosive.”

Privatization is a grave part of the problem. Vivendi Universal (France), Suez Lyonnaise des Eaux (France), Bouygues-Saur (France), RWE-Thames (Germany) and Bechtel-United Utilities (US) have become the water barons who are taking over public utilities. A common practice is to buy the water from a poor community, bottle it and sell it to consumers in the US, thereby leaving the original community without enough water to sustain itself. These corporations also buy up local water rights and sell the water back to the community at much higher rates.

Most WILPF presenters agreed that we must have a sustained investment in water infrastructure in order to protect “safe” or clean water. Private companies’ allegiance is to profit, not to community or to long term solutions. Upgrading or replacing infrastructures is expensive. In order to upgrade they charge more for water or sell out to the highest bidder. Many companies also have profit guarantees in their contracts giving them the right to raise prices if communities use less water than predicted, a practice which stultifies conservation.

The Congress did not, due to time constraints and the enormity of the problem, spend much time in evaluation. However, it became clear that the ultimate solutions lie in the hearts and minds of our communities. NGOs and well funded, well focused governments can provide technical, legislative and economic muscle, but each community must fuse and fight to save its own water.

There are many, many grassroots communities already engaged in taking back their water and in finding long term solutions to the water dilemma. They are evaluating the condition and availability of water in their own communities, including ownership; prices; military, industrial or agricultural pollution; condition of infrastructure; purposes for which water is used in a given community; availability now and predictions of availability in the future. They are fighting back.

We can take our inspiration from the protest movements against the rampant privatization of the world’s water. In Sri Lanka, Dulci de Silva reported that “we are resisting converting water to a commodity for exploitation by international water markets as encouraged by the World Bank. We have established several campaigns to protect our water. We have collected signatures; we have a coalition of 300 women’s groups and NGOs and farmers and everybody who is being affected by the encroaching privatization of water in Sri Lanka.”

The Bolivian people successfully kicked out Bechtel, who bought up the rights to their water and raised the prices higher than people could afford to pay. “Killer Coke” and global “Boycott Coke” campaigns initiated in Columbia are underway. Citizens of Lexington, Kentucky, have organized Bluegrass FLOW to fight to regain control of Kentucky-American Water Co. which had been bought by RWE in 2003. Nestle’s right to local spring water for bottling is being challenged by local citizens in Mecosta County, Michigan. There are countless other examples of the potential power of a community to save its own water.

On one of the last days of the week-long Congress, I sat with a few new Swedish friends, sipping tea and watching the sun set on an old fortress on the hill across the gently flowing river. I asked them about the availability and condition of water in Sweden, as they had been rather quiet about it. I learned that water is plentiful and clean in this small country. The water supply and sewage disposal are, by law, a municipal responsibility. They are not allowed to operate by a profit margin. Sweden also has sound conservation and recycling policies.

The morning after Congress adjourned and everyone was packing their bags, I went for a walk along the river and up to the old fortress on the hill. The surfaces of the walls facing the sky were covered with grass that had edged its way through the dense rock, living testimony to the decision by the Swedish people-190 years ago-to eliminate war as a way of solving problems. Perhaps it really was possible for the rest of us to put war behind us, too, including the predicted water wars. I felt Carl Sandburg standing beside me, breathing in the sweet, damp air and watching the grass, bearing witness to the infinite, resolute power of life.

Later on, I spent an hour sitting in front of the only open store on the main street, a newspaper shop. Having come from a region in the world where nothing ever closes and everything is for sale, I found myself transfixed by the Sunday morning stillness. I saw only two people. A skinny man peddled down the long cobbled street, leaned his old bike against the brick stairs, went in to buy a paper and rode away again. After a while, a gray haired women wearing a flowing blue dress passed by on a bicycle she had probably been riding since she was a child.

It was hard to leave the warm company of new and old friends from all around the world who take life, every life, so seriously. It was hard to leave the quiet, kindly town, its clear-eyed, under-programmed residents, its seductive sanity. The stuff of our collective dreams seemed almost tangible, almost within reach, in Kungälv. I finally found a taxi and made my way to the airport, reconciled that the memories of that time will bubble and spill like tiny, charged tributaries into the daily lives of each of us, creating their own new possibilities.

LAURA SANTINA is a freelance writer and chair of Berkeley/East Bay branch of WILPF. She can be reached at: Lindey89@aol.com