Thoughts on Laudato si', Part 6: No Market Solutions

July 20, 2015

Water scarcity has become a serious worldwide problem. It affects every continent. “Around 1.2 billion people, or almost one-fifth of the world's population, live in areas of physical scarcity, and 500 million people are approaching this situation.” [1] But that is not all. “Another 1.6 billion people, or almost one quarter of the world’s population, face economic water shortage (where countries lack the necessary infrastructure to take water from rivers and aquifers).” Of course, not all of the people living in those regions actually suffer due to water scarcity, but the number of those who do is still high. That number is around 700 million people in 43 countries.

The main contributors to water scarcity are “growing freshwater use and depletion of usable freshwater resources.” [2] The global demand for water “for domestic, agricultural, industrial and energy purposes is reported to have increased by 300% in the last 50 years,” while freshwater resources across the world have been depleted by disrupted precipitation patterns which have resulted from climate change. Water pollution has also been a factor.

The growing scarcity of water can be expected to adversely impact agricultural output, together with a rise in food prices. Moreover, a shortage of such a necessary resource, can lead to acts of desperation, and “there are fears that water scarcity will lead more often to security concerns within or between countries, and even trigger armed conflict.” 

Obviously, the adverse impact of this situation is felt mostly by the poor, and Pope Francis emphasizes that fact in Laudato si’. He tells us that one “particularly serious problem is the quality of water available to the poor. Every day, unsafe water results in many deaths and the spread of water-related diseases, including those caused by microorganisms and chemical substances. Dysentery and cholera, linked to inadequate hygiene and water supplies, are a significant cause of suffering and of infant mortality. Underground water sources in many places are threatened by the pollution produced in certain mining, farming and industrial activities, especially in countries lacking adequate regulation or controls. It is not only a question of industrial waste. Detergents and chemical products, commonly used in many places of the world, continue to pour into our rivers, lakes and seas.” [3]  

Some will be tempted to confront this problem with existing market based economic models. Right now it is being suggested that water is simply too cheap, which creates “a disincentive for water users to be efficient in their use.” As just as that observation may be, simply raising the price of water would be a remedy that would place an unfair burden on the poor. Water is simply too basic and necessary for human life to allow access to it to be determined by the ability to pay. 

Still, as Pope Francis points out, even “as the quality of available water is constantly diminishing, in some places there is a growing tendency, despite its scarcity, to privatize this resource, turning it into a commodity subject to the laws of the market.” This solution is anti-human at its core. As the pope goes on to say, “Yet access to safe drinkable water is a basic and universal human right, since it is essential to human survival and, as such, is a condition for the exercise of other human rights. Our world has a grave social debt towards the poor who lack access to drinking water, because they are denied the right to a life consistent with their inalienable dignity. This debt can be paid partly by an increase in funding to provide clean water and sanitary services among the poor.”   

In a word, this crisis should not be appropriated by certain business interests for profit. Companies in the business of selling water would benefit from its scarcity, and, if that happens, it is foreseeable “that the control of water by large multinational businesses may become a major source of conflict in this century.” It would be foolish to anticipate world-wide passivity in the face of large corporations controlling the world’s water supply for purposes of selling it to the highest bidders. Hopefully, we will be wiser than that. 

Jack Quirk