In “Laudato Si’,” Pope Francis argued that “access to safe drinkable water is a basic and universal human right” (No. 30). It is a view held by most in the world. Yet today, almost one billion people in the world lack access to safe drinking water, hundreds of millions in sub-Saharan Africa alone. Over 2.7 billion face a scarcity of water at least one month a year.
And while significant international effort has gone toward addressing this problem, its seriousness seems only to be increasing. According to a 2013 study by the U.N.’s water agency, by 2025 1.8 billion people will be living in countries or regions with an absolute scarcity of water, and up to two-thirds of the world may be experiencing water shortages.
And not just in other countries. “California Braces for Unending Drought” proclaimed The New York Times in a May 9 story about Governor Jerry Brown’s decision to make some emergency water restrictions permanent as the state enters its fifth year of drought. Currently, 84 percent of the state remains in drought.
The implications of water scarcity are extraordinarily wide ranging. There are the obvious health issues, the sickness spread by non-potable water and inadequate sanitation. (According to the U.N., a child dies as a result of poor sanitation alone every 20 seconds.) But water is also essential to sustaining a secure and stable source of food.
The non-profit Water Project, which aims to address water scarcity issues in sub-Saharan Africa, notes that access to water also improves rates of education, as young people no longer need to spend their days gathering water. The U.N. water group notes that in Africa 90 percent of the water and wood gathering is done by women. A study in Tanzania found that simply reducing the distance to a water source from 30 minutes to 15 minutes increased girls’ school attendance by 12 percent.
One of the more unusual proposals to deal with water scarcity comes from California native John Barbieri. While consulting on energy policy Barbieri had a life-changing conversation with former California governor Pat Brown. “He would tell me frequently, ‘One of these days instead of importing oil into California we’re going to have to import water.’” In fact, Brown confided, a plan had been brought to him to use surplus World War II oil tankers to bring water from Northern California to Southern California. “But it didn’t sit well with agriculture in California’s Central Valley,” Barbieri explains. “They feared that if the main source of water was going to start coming from ships on the coast, the big coastal cities like L.A., San Diego and San Francisco would suck all the water up before it reached them.”
It was an idea Barbieri couldn’t let go of. Instead of shipping oil, what if we were to use tankers to ship potable water to where it is needed? As a concept, it was not all that different from what California had settled on. But rather than moving the water over land, they could create an “aqueduct at sea.” Some cities had actually already done it. During recent years of drought, Barcelona had water shipped in from Marseilles in France along the Rhône River.
What’s more, Barbieri found, in most places it would actually be convenient: “The bulk of the world’s population, 80 percent, is within 15 miles of a coast. So the idea of transferring large volumes of water to support not only villages but entire cities and societies and agriculture is a very doable thing if you can get people to accept it as a logical solution to the problem.”
The challenge then and now lies in a knotty thicket of politics, money and bureaucratic inertia. “The government bureaucracy has mastered the system of land-based water project developments,” Barbieri explains. “They know how to build reservoirs, they know how to build aqueducts, they know how to build pumping stations, but they don’t know really anything about marine transportation or shipping.”
Plus, there are a lot of jobs and dollars wrapped up in the current procedures. “In the U.S., some of those who benefit the most from big development projects, the corporations [that build the projects] and the other corporations that feed off of those corporations, have a vested interest in maintaining the status quo.”
But whether one likes the shipping model or not—and Barbieri insists it is not the sole solution—the current system does not seem sustainable. Barbieri praises California for its conservation efforts; according to The New York Times, Californians have reduced their water usage by 23.9 percent just in the last year. But as population continues to grow, “What’s left when there’s nothing left to conserve?”
Barbieri cites Mark Twain’s famous comment: “Whiskey’s for drinking; water’s for fighting over.” “Some people say the first water war has already taken place,” he says. “The drought in Russia caused them to cut off grain shipments to Egypt [they provided 90 percent of the grain consumed in Egypt]—and people took to the streets with the Arab Spring.”
He also looks with concern on the distinct possibility of some country, company or group of nations setting themselves up as a sort of OPEC of water. “It’s a chilling thought if you think about it,” he says—and not a distant or unrealistic one. “Right now companies are buying up agricultural land all over the southwest just to get the water rights.”
Tremendous water supplies exist in places as disparate as Russia, Alaska and southern Argentina. The need for new options only grows more evident. But Barbieri’s project remains convincing venture capitalists and governments to give his idea a chance:
The technology is there, the financing structures are there, the manpower is there, the know-how is there, everything is there. It’s just a matter of putting something different into the tankers. We have plans and schematics and systems devised for California, for South and West Africa, parts of Southeast Asia, part of the Middle East.
Do you make the profits you make on oil? No. Do you make any profits at all? Maybe not. But I’m not talking about privatizing water; it’s just performing a shipping service for the governments, which don’t want to get into the shipping business themselves.
The pope has warned, if we do not learn to share water, humanity is doomed. And there’s only two ways to share it, on land or at sea.