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The Price Of Thirst

The Price Of Thirst, October 2014
by Karen Piper

Univ Of Minnesota Press
286 pages
ISBN: 0816695423
EAN: 9780816695423
Kindle: B00MXI32HK
Hardcover / e-Book
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"Water, water everywhere... so why does it cost so much?"

Fresh Fiction Review

The Price Of Thirst
Karen Piper

Reviewed by Clare O'Beara
Posted October 21, 2014

Non-Fiction Political | Non-Fiction

Water is the new oil. With rising populations, shrinking freshwater aquifers and climate changes reducing snowmelt, the demand for this vital resource is ever rising and supply is ever more costly. THE PRICE OF THIRST sets out the situation around the world today and takes a scary look at the future.

Karen Piper is a geography professor and professor in post- colonial studies in English at the University of Missouri. Over a decade she travelled and studied to research the supply of water. Her first photo is of bored men in suits from the multinational water industry at the Global Water Forum in France, 2012. Like it or not, she says, water is a commodity. A handful of big firms control most of the world's privatised sources of water. Firms moving in on the money include banking, chemical, mining and soft drink firms. While Beijing Enterprises Water's customers all live in China, the French firms Suez and Veolia (in the US they are named US Filter and United Water) mainly serve customers outside France, in a re-enactment of colonialism called development economics. A grassroots organisation FAME, dedicated to water supply without profit, is ignored and unfunded by contrast.

The author looks behind the corporate missions, histories and profits first. Anyone involved in a charity might want to look away. She says that historically, the World Bank lent money to dam and water projects only on the basis of industry and irrigation, seeing no benefit to arise from a healthier population. Attitudes have progressed, but dams still displace millions of people worldwide; in the 1990s the World Bank began forcing private ownership as a requirement for any dams which it funded. Thus water became a corporate profit-maker instead of a civic good. Ironically, says Piper, imposing a cost, such as a coin- operated water fountain in a slum, has forced poor people to drink from streams and caused cholera outbreaks.

Like oil, water that has collected underground for millions of years has been pumped up for use and is rapidly becoming depleted in USA, India and other highly populated countries. One percent of the planet's water is surface freshwater, which today is heavily polluted by urban and industrial sprawl, or abstracted for irrigation. Glaciers, the above ground storage, are melting faster than imagined and the vast rivers they feed - particularly in India and Asia - will soon run dry. Fracking, a tense subject as water is used to force gas fuel from shale rock, can lead to permanent contamination of aquifers. Corporations, however, see a shortage as a reason to regulate supply and charge higher prices, while oil and gas firms are buying up water rights.

Karen Piper visited towns which are not on the tourist map, such as Huron, California, whose water has been abstracted and polluted by other interests. Once a thriving food production area, parts of the San Joaquin Valley are a dustbowl with uncovered landfills, so trash and toxic dust blow on the wind. Native Tachi and Yokut peoples have no fish or food. However, the Kern Water Bank catches rainwater in a marsh, which seeps underground and can later be pumped out and sold to Los Angeles.

Visiting Chile, Piper found that this was the first country to privatise 100% of its water, which ended up in the hands of General Pinochet's friends. They later sold their control to Spain which sold it to Italy. Farmers are refused access to supplies by hydro-electric power firms; indigenous peoples are forced off land. Damming major rivers here will affect the Antarctic Circumpolar Current which balances the Earth's temperature.

Highly populous South Africa is one of the most water scarce countries in the world. Piper tells us that in 2004 more than 10 million people there had their water supply cut off by the firm Suez, while others were unable to afford the seven dollar fee to be connected. She found a shanty town completely unsanitary. Beer is said to be cheaper than water. Giving money to the government or NGOs won't help, as they have no control over water supply.

In India, near the headwaters of the Ganges, glaciers are melting fast and flooding eroded, deforested mountainside; most recently in July 2013 when hundreds died. Piper spoke to activists who had protected trees - and biodiversity - and protested against huge dams for decades. Small, local dams are a much better idea according to them. Down in Delhi, disease and mosquitoes follow the filthy water left to many residents while others pay for treated, piped supplies. Allegations of corruption followed the World Bank's entry to fund the developing market. China is vying to divert one major river to its own use.

The Egyptian revolution against President Mubarak in 2011 was partially a revolution of the thirsty, says Piper; indeed our television screens show a wider Middle East which generally looks incapable of supporting life. Piper found there appears to be no urban planning in densely populated Cairo, and wealthy districts get services while poor ones get none. Wikileaks released CIA cables stating in 2010 that 30 - 40 million people here were living in inconceivable poverty. In Iraq, Piper found that Veolia and Suez had been handed many billions of dollars to run the water system, which is still in disrepair; the World Health Organisation finds that the country now has five percent the quantity of drinkable water that it did before the Iraq War. As Iraqis are unlikely to pay for their water, she claims American taxpayers are funding it.

As water becomes more expensive, so will food. Growing and preparing food uses enormous quantities of water. Desert countries which export food, such as oranges or dates, thus export water. As water costs more for farmers, so food becomes scarce and pricey and countries turn to imports. Piper suggests that an international accord should be reached whereby contracts found to be corrupt, ruinous or racist should be abandoned without financial disaster. At present, she says the opposite appears to be the case. Corporate executives explained to her that they had to act corruptly to gain contracts, because other firms were corrupt and they would get the contracts.

This well-researched book THE PRICE OF THIRST will be of interest to students in many disciplines, including economics, geology, ecology, hydrology, journalism, international affairs and politics. Other interested people will be well advised to dip in to the book and see what catches their attention. As one activist told Karen Piper, young people will revolt against the system eventually, but for now, plant trees. THE PRICE OF THIRST is social unrest, migration and disease. Whether or not you agree with the author's findings, the issue is not going to disappear so I recommend this book for concerned readers everywhere.

Learn more about The Price Of Thirst


“There's Money in Thirst,” reads a headline in the New York Times. The CEO of Nestlé, purveyor of bottled water, heartily agrees. It is important to give water a market value, he says in a promotional video, so “we're all aware that it has a price.” But for those who have no access to clean water, a fifth of the world's population, the price is thirst.

This is the frightening landscape that Karen Piper conducts us through in The Price of Thirst—one where thirst is political, drought is a business opportunity, and more and more of our most necessary natural resource is controlled by multinational corporations.

In visits to the hot spots of water scarcity and the hotshots in water finance, Piper shows us what happens when global businesses with mafia-like powers buy up the water supply and turn off the taps of people who cannot pay: border disputes between Iraq and Turkey, a “revolution of the thirsty” in Egypt, street fights in Greece, an apartheid of water rights in South Africa.

The Price of Thirst takes us to Chile, the first nation to privatize 100 percent of its water supplies, creating a crushing monopoly instead of a thriving free market in water; to New Delhi, where the sacred waters of the Ganges are being diverted to a private water treatment plant, fomenting unrest; and to Iraq, where the U.S.-mandated privatization of water resources destroyed by our military is further destabilizing the volatile region.

And in our own backyard, where these same corporations are quietly buying up water supplies, Piper reveals how “water banking” is drying up California farms in favor of urban sprawl and private towns.

The product of seven years of investigation across six continents and a dozen countries, and scores of interviews with CEOs, activists, environmentalists, and climate change specialists, The Price of Thirst paints a harrowing picture of a world out of balance, with the distance between the haves and have-nots of water inexorably widening and the coming crisis moving ever closer.

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