Water problems lead public concern across the planet

Posted: 21 August 2009

Author: Keith Schneider with Nadya Ivanova and Aaron Jaffe

An international survey, presented this week to the World Water meeting in Stockholm, found that the problems of fresh water pollution and scarcity are driving public concern across the planet. This report from Circle of Blue sums up its key findings.

Valentin Pérez Hernandez, a young gardener from Mexico City, moves daily between the two water realities of the nation's capital. Though the immense city is roiled by fierce water shortages, fecal contamination, industrial pollution, and old infrastructure that too often fails, the posh Jardines del Pedregal section where he works is a green and colourful oasis supplied with unusual water abundance.

By day the 24-year-old gardener tends the borders and beds, the soil and seed, the red-flowering bushes and lushly scented paths that wind through the Jardines del Pedregal, one of the city's wealthiest neighbourhoods. Though his cart is filled with weeders, shovels and shears, Hernandez' most important tool is the clean fresh water that pours from the end of his garden hose.

Gardener, Mexico City
Gardener, Mexico City
Valentin Pérez Hernandez, a young gardener from Mexico City, moves daily between the two water realities of the nation’s capital: where he lives there are water shortages, fecal contamination, industrial pollution, and old infrastructure that too often fails, the posh Jardines del Pedregal section where he works is a green and colourful oasis supplied with unusual water abundance.
By night Hernandez joins millions of Mexico City residents, working and poor, whose lives are disrupted daily by water shortages, sewage spills, contamination and waterborne disease. Public mismanagement and an old and fractured plumbing network are no longer capable of consistently delivering enough clean, safe fresh water to much of the world's third largest metropolitan region.

"I have a lot of indignation for the political leaders for not paying attention to the fact that many of us do not have water," Hernandez said. "We have gone up to 15 days without water. This is not fair because everyone is not doing their part. More than anything, people are not conscious of this."

He added: "I don't have words to describe this problem. Without water we are nothing. Without water this world wouldn't exist. Without water we can't do anything. So it's the most important."

Comprehensive assessment

To a remarkable extent Hernandez' views about Mexico City's fresh water crisis are consistent with those expressed by thousands of people polled in a comprehensive global public opinion survey on fresh water sustainability, management and conservation.

The survey, commissioned by Circle of Blue and conducted by Toronto and London-based GlobeScan was made public in Stockholm, Sweden, on August 18 during World Water Week. It found that people around the world view the fresh water crisis as the planet's top environmental problem.

Schoolgirl drinking from rainwater tank, Nairobi
Schoolgirl drinking from rainwater tank, Nairobi
A schoolgirl in Nairobi, Kenya, drinking from a water tank that collects rain from the schoolhouse roof. Water is a threatened resource and with population growth and expanding urbanization the pressure can only increase. Photo © WWF-Canon/Martin Harvey
The fierce impediments to clean water and sanitation, and the millions of premature deaths from water-related disease are seen as having a greater influence on quality of life and the planet than air pollution, species extinction, depletion of natural resources, loss of habitat and climate change.

More than 90 per cent of those polled expressed a conviction that access to clean, fresh water is fundamental, not only for themselves but for all people. Across the globe, respondents to the survey also said education was essential to help people understand the dimensions and the urgency of the crisis.

Polluted Yamuna

Supported by Molson Coors Brewing Company, the poll was conducted from June 24 to August 3, 2009. It involved a representative sample of 1,000 people in each of 15 countries with a focus on Canada, China, India, Mexico, Russia, United Kingdom and the United States, where 500 adults in each of the seven countries were asked more specific questions. The Circle of Blue/GlobeScan survey is the most complete assessment of global opinion on fresh water conducted to date.

Yamuna
Yamuna
The 22 km stretch of the Yamuna in Delhi contributes 70 per cent of the total pollution load of the river. © CSE
In response to the survey data, Circle of Blue commissioned some of the world's best photojournalists to document in pictures and words various facets of the conclusions in seven countries.

In Delhi, India, photographer Anita Khemka of Contact Press Images captured people bathing, cooking and washing their clothes right next to the open drains outside their homes and along the banks of the Yamuna River, a holy waterway that is among the most polluted in the world.

"There was this one kid. I think he was 14," Khemka said. "For the last two years, he has been coming to this part of the Yamuna after school. He spends time in the water trying to look for coins. He knows that it's dirty. He doesn't like to do it. He hates it because under water he ends up swallowing some water, which he doesn't like at all."

Shrinking Sea

In Russia, James Hill, another Contact Press Images shooter, illustrated the rubbish and pollution along the Volga River, in western Russia, as well as the formidable place the "mother river" holds in the region's culture. "Often in Russia there's a sort of a double-edged issue," said Hill in an interview with Circle of Blue. "On the one hand, they love this thing, and on the other hand they totally abuse it."

Greg Girard, a Contact photographer, shot from the banks of the Yellow River where it flows through Inner Mongolia north of Beijing. His pictures show a heavily industrialized river, where paper mills, one of the world's largest steel factories and fertilizer plants pour effluent into a river heavily fished by people for recreation. "There's this kind of resignation, a sense of fatalism about having to live near such a place," Girard said.

Brent Stirton, a photographer with Getty Images, covered irrigation and farm production in southern California's Coachella and Imperial valleys. The two desert areas depend on the Colorado River via the All-American Canal, the Imperial Dam and local aquifers to supply enough water to support crops valued at nearly $2 billion.

"When you are driving across these fields - and it's the low season - there's a very obvious pride how people in both the Coachella Valley and the Imperial Valley have utilized the water resources that they have," Stirton said. "These are people who are dealing with a very scarce and valuable resource. Anyone will take as much as they can get. So it's a contentious issue all the time."

Stirton also found that the manmade Salton Sea, formed as a result of an accident in 1905 when water from the Colorado River burst through an irrigation canal, is steadily evaporating and growing more toxic from farm chemicals and trace metals leaching from the soil. Both are causing a once-storied recreational economy to gradually retreat just like the shoreline.

Massive amounts of water are usedto irrigate cropland in California© Inga Spence/Holt Studios International
Massive amounts of water are usedto irrigate cropland in California© Inga Spence/Holt Studios International
Massive amounts of water are usedto irrigate cropland in California© Inga Spence/Holt Studios International
"The Salton Sea is this place that 30 years ago must have been something," Stirton said. "It's quite beautiful to look at, but when you get closer, it's nasty. This is a place that is 25 per cent saltier than the Pacific."

Stirton added: "And it might be a huge health issue when dust storms form, as the sea is getting smaller and smaller."

Mexico's dilemma

Janet Jarman, a Contact photographer, covered the many dimensions of Mexico City's fresh water crisis - including a sewage flood that prompted an epidemiological emergency - and spent a good bit of time getting to know gardener Valentin Pérez Hernandez. "One feels helpless like they can't do anything or they don't know what they can do," Hernandez said. "We should be talking to everyone in the world about this to raise consciousness."

Hernandez' perspective comes from his immersion in two of Mexico City's dominant cultures - the rich Jardines del Pedregal and the poor neighbourhoods. "Where I work is a residential zone, and there is never a water shortage there," Hernandez said in an interview with Jarman. "There are a lot of rich people there, and they pay a lot in taxes. For this they never have a shortage."

Hernandez, though, lives in a rented apartment that like most others in the nearby and poor Tlalpan district has space for buckets, tubs, basins and jugs to not only store drinking water, but also to recycle the grey water from bathing and dish washing to flush the toilet.

Just three times a week water arrives from the public water system to Hernandez' tap. It's not enough to supply his needs. Once, the city didn't supply water to his home for 15 straight days. Though he keeps an aquarium in the apartment for his tropical fish, the water level in the tank is steadily diminishing and may soon be incapable of supporting aquatic life.

The survey found that Mexicans expressed the most urgency about the severity of the pollution and water scarcity issues they face, but also the most optimism about an individual's ability to solve the problems. More than six in 10 Mexicans believed individuals could make a difference in responding to shortages of water.Americans were almost as optimistic.

Pessimistic Russians

Meanwhile, India - where water scarcity hinders farm production - and Russia, haunted by the Soviet legacy of industrial water pollution, were the most pessimistic about whether people could play a role in solutions.

"If we aren't conscious about how to conserve water, who will be?" Hernandez said.

A close look at the survey results found considerable consistency, as well as significant variability, in how people view the global fresh water crisis. Among the other consequential findings:

  • People around the world view water pollution as the most important facet of the fresh water crisis; shortages of fresh water are very close behind. Concern about both issues tended to be higher in developing countries than in developed nations.

  • People in Mexico and India, which are growing rapidly and rely heavily on agriculture for jobs and economic development, expressed the highest level of concern about water shortages in the farm sector.

  • In all seven countries, respondents consistently said that governments were the most responsible for ensuring clean water.

  • The respondents said that large companies were nearly as responsible as governments for ensuring clean water; nearly eight of 10 respondents from the seven nations said that solving drinking water problems "will require significant help from companies."

  • In an expression of the results of $1 trillion dollars invested in regulations and water delivery and treatment infrastructure in the last two decades, Americans said they were less worried about safe drinking water and pollution than people in most of the other countries, though more than half still expressed concerns.

  • Except for India, where 60 per cent of respondents said they were "very concerned," well under half of the respondents in the six other nations surveyed said they were not terribly worried about the "high cost" of water.

Big Story

"There are a couple of big stories here," said Rob Kerr, vice president of GlobeScan, and one of the survey's principal researchers. "People would reluctantly accept higher cost to solve the problems. Cost is not the issue with polluted water and lack of safe drinking water.

"And strong majorities see a huge role for government and large companies in solving the fresh water crisis. It's a collaborative role, a multi-sectoral partnership and cooperation."

Such collaboration has not occurred in Mexico City, which by many measures is the most polluted city in the Western Hemisphere. In the Burro neighborhood on Mexico City's outskirts, Jarman reported, families draw 200 litres of water a day from a public tap and transport it on the backs of the mules to their homes. In the Chalco district, so much water has been drawn from the underground aquifers that the ground has dropped and houses have caved in.

Families in the El Molino neighborhood have built homes alongside the Rio de la Compania, once a natural stream and now an immense fetid sewage canal. Rain causes the canal to overflow, producing regular floods of raw filth.Families in the El Molino neighborhood have also built homes alongside the Rio de la Compania, once a natural stream and now an immense fetid sewage canal. Rain causes the canal to overflow, producing regular floods of raw filth. At the beginning of August, the Mexican government issued a health alert and dispatched federal troops to rescue people and clean up.

Meanwhile, gardeners in the city's Jardines del Pedregal district gain easy access to ample quantities of fresh water. Hernandez likes his job and feels he is making a difference in one small way. "I am giving life to the planet more than anything," he said, "since I'm creating green spaces that will generate oxygen for the planet."

Still, he acknowledges being offended when he sees people in wealthier neighborhoods use water that is so scarce to wash their cars. He blames municipal leaders for water shortages and contamination.

Hernandez, though, is not a pessimist. He sees opportunities to conserve water and to provide more public education about the immensity of Mexico City's fresh water crisis. "Every one needs to be conscious," Hernandez said. "There are so many people wasting water, and then so many who don't have any. For me this is very significant, because this is our world."

Survey analysis was provided by GlobeScan in cooperation with Circle of Blue. Download the complete GlobeScan/Circle of Blue Report [pdf]here