The theme of this year’s World Water Day – marked annually on 22 March – is ‘Nature for Water’, which, as the website of the United Nations Environment Programme informs us, “explores nature-based solutions (NBS) to the water challenges we face in the 21st century.”
The challenges are clearly dire; as the UN notes, 2.1 billion people currently “lack access to safely managed drinking water services,” while an estimated 1.8 billion “use an unimproved source of drinking water with no protection against contamination from human faeces.”
In theory, of course, nature-based solutions are the obvious answer to problems in nature. The UN advises planting more trees, restoring wetlands, and reconnecting rivers to floodplains.
But while the whole ‘NBS’ campaign will no doubt generate handsome revenues for a UN system that specialises in self-enrichment, no solution to water or related challenges is possible within a global capitalist system that is itself destroying nature.
And even if water is considered a basic human right under international law, there isn’t much room for ‘rights’ in a neoliberal milieu of comprehensive commodification and the eradication of any sort of terrestrial harmony in favour of the financial tyranny of an elite minority.
Let’s start with the 2.1 billion people reportedly lacking access to ‘safely managed drinking water services’. Horrifying as this figure is, it would appear to be an egregious underestimate in light of the findings of various recent scientific studies.
Last year, for example, scientists discovered microplastic contamination in tap water around the world. The Guardian’s environment editor noted some of the tragicomic details: “The US had the highest contamination rate, at 94 percent, with plastic fibres found in tap water sampled at sites including Congress buildings, the US Environmental Protection Agency’s headquarters, and Trump Tower in New York”.
Now, a new study has additionally found microplastics in 93 percent of worldwide samples of popular bottled water brands – leaving humanity with the question of what, exactly, we are supposed to drink. In other uplifting water news, new research suggests that the earth’s oceans are severely more polluted with plastic than previously thought.
Even before this revelation, a report by the World Economic Forum had indicated that, if we continue with business as usual, there will be more plastic than fish in the oceans by 2050.
The precise effects of ubiquitous plastic contamination on the human body are as yet unknown – but it’s safe to assume we’ll find out soon enough.
In the very least, plastic itself is a fine symbol of the soulless consumerism and overconsumption the forces of capitalism would have us believe constitutes ‘life’.
In her 2013 book A Human Rights Manifesto, Julie Wark discusses the monetisation (read: neoliberal theft) of resources and rights, highlighting the role of the bottled beverage industry in environmental destruction -none of this damage will be reversed by planting trees or restoring wetlands. The annual production of tens of billions of plastic bottles in the United States alone, writes Wark, “uses 17 million barrels of oil per year and making the bottle takes three times more water than that which fills it”.
Oil production, for its part, also requires large quantities of water – to say nothing of the ‘wider water and acid rain pollution’ that attends the process.
In short, on World Water Day, it might be helpful for the world to ponder how water fits into larger contexts of corporate plunder and environmental spoliation – particularly when a certain imperial superpower has been known to wage wars for corporate profit in oil-rich lands, unleashing all manner of human and environmental calamity.
This article has been excerpted from: ‘World Water Day for a plastic world’.