The future of water is tenuous. Isn’t water a human right? After all, every human needs water to survive, as the human body weight is approximately 60% water. The human body requires water in all cells, organs, and tissues to regulate body temperature and maintain bodily functions. Then why is water under threat as a commodity to be bought and sold by corporations and investment firms?
Editor’s note: The United States does not share the view that a “right to water” exists under international human rights law.
A bill introduced concurrently this week in the US Congress and Senate — H.R.7182: Future of Water Act of 2022 — would prevent Wall Street from speculating on life-sustaining water resources. It would protect water from current and projected scarcity under fossil fuel-intensified drought conditions. The bill anticipates how excess concentration in water markets could become a trigger for physical water hoarding and price increases, with those affected ranging from farmers to families and others.
The proposed legislation would circumvent attempts to profit and “prioritize human needs over corporate profits,” according to one of the bill’s sponsors.
Water scarcity plagues two billion people around the world. It is a tremendous opportunity for profit, sadly.
Water Scarcity & Profit Opportunities
Water scarcity occurs when demand by all sectors, including the environment, cannot be satisfied fully. Yes, in some sectors lack of water is seen as a social construct — that is, a product of affluence, expectations, and customary behavior, according to the UN. It can also — and most importantly — result as the consequence of altered supply patterns and stem from the climate crisis.
In 2010, the United Nations General Assembly explicitly recognized the human right to water and sanitation and acknowledged that these are essential to the realization of all human rights. The Resolution called upon States and international organizations to provide financial resources, help capacity-building, and technology transfer to help countries — in particular developing countries — to provide safe, clean, accessible, and affordable drinking water and sanitation for all.
Two million in the US currently lack access to running water and basic plumbing.
Water as a Commodity
In 2020, water began to be traded on Wall Street, with market participants able to bet on or against potential water scarcity.
“Climate change, droughts, population growth, and pollution are likely to make water scarcity issues and pricing a hot topic for years to come,” RBC Capital Markets managing director and analyst Deane Dray told Bloomberg Sunday.
Indigenous rights defender and journalist Ruth H. Hopkins noted that, in addition to rising global temperatures and the prevalence of drought, water supply is negatively affected by fossil fuel projects which “continue to poison it.”
Water is joining gold, oil & other commodities traded on Wall Street, revealing new scarcity.
Water is life, we said. While fresh water becomes rarer, extractive industries continue to poison it with wasteful projects & leaky pipelines. We warned you. https://t.co/PnAZ7PZQwu
— Ruth H. Hopkins (Red Road Woman) (@Ruth_HHopkins) December 7, 2020
The 2022 Congressional Democrats’ bicameral legislation would amend the Commodity Exchange Act to affirm that water is a human right. It must be managed for public benefit, say sponsors Representative Ro Khanna (CA) and Senator Elizabeth Warren (MA). The trading of water rights on futures markets has been called “dystopian” by 130 civil society groups, who have demanded that federal regulators shut down the Chicago Mercantile Exchange’s water futures market.
“Every American should agree: Clean, drinkable water is one of our most basic human rights,” Khanna said in a statement. “Large companies and investors should not be allowed to use an essential public resource for their own gain. We have to stand together to protect our water.”
The Future of Water Act, which Khanna said would “prioritize human needs over corporate profits,” comes in response to ominous ecological and economic developments.
Warren added that “Wall Street shouldn’t be allowed to use this vital resource to make profits at the expense of hardworking Americans.” The newly unveiled bill, she said, would “protect water from Wall Street speculation and ensure one of our most essential resources isn’t auctioned off to the highest bidder.”
Musks’ Efforts to Help Flint, Michigan’s Water Quality
In 2014, the city of Flint switched its residential water supply from the Detroit Water and Sewage Department to the Flint River. The water was treated inadequately, resulting in lead leaching into the water. It’s taken years, but now students in Flint, Michigan, are able to drink clean water from school water fountains, thanks to a Musk family charitable effort. A $480,350 donation announced in October, 2018 was used to pay for the water filtration systems.
In February, 2022, Flint students were able to drink from clean water fountains for the first time since 2016 after hydration systems, funded by The Elon Musk Foundation, were unveiled at the district’s schools. A total of 136 hydration stations at 12 buildings throughout Flint schools now have fountains that filter for lead, chlorine, bacteria, and have a chiller to keep the water cold, Michigan Live reported.
Laura Sullivan, a Kettering professor of mechanical engineering, has been working to get these hydration systems installed since 2016. Sullivan said the hydration system filters were not only tested by Kettering researchers, but again by Arc Environmental, a Flint schools environmental consultant.
“One issue that residents have been raising from very early on is that corrosive water from the river didn’t just damage service lines and water mains; it also damaged the plumbing within people’s homes,” says Benjamin Pauli, a social scientist at Flint’s Kettering University, who has been involved in clean water activism efforts, told Wired. “And not just pipes but fixtures and also appliances that use water. That would include washing machines and dishwashers and hot water heaters.”
Clearly, filters are only a starting point for the pervasive water quality problem that Flint and other communities experience. Getting more contractors on the ground replacing service lines is an important subsequent step to the filters, as is additional investment in the community.
The Musk Foundation was established in 2002 by Elon Musk with his brother Kimbal. It has included $423,600 for the Flint school district to buy Chromebooks for middle school students as they move into the former Flint Northern High School as part of a secondary school restructuring plan.
(Note: CleanTechnica is not aware whether the Musks have investments in water futures or not.)
Several House Democrats have co-sponsored the Future of Water Act, including Reps. Jamaal Bowman (NY), Cori Bush (MO), André Carson (IN), Chuy García (IL), Jahana Hayes (CT), Eleanor Holmes Norton (DC), Mondaire Jones (NY), Brenda Lawrence (MI), Barbara Lee (CA), Andy Levin (MI), Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (NY), Ilhan Omar (MN), Ayanna Pressley (MA), Jan Schakowsky (IL), Rashida Tlaib (MI), and Bonnie Watson Coleman (NJ). Senate co-sponsors include Ed Markey (MA), Jeff Merkley (OR), Bernie Sanders (VT), and Sheldon Whitehouse (RI).
Common Dreams notes that the bill has been endorsed by more than 260 progressive organizations, including Public Citizen, the Indigenous Environmental Network, and the National Family Farm Coalition.
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