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Water and the future of humankind. By G. Giacomelli

From its very beginnings, life on Earth has been to a large extent based upon, and been able to evolve thanks to a flexible equilibrium between living things and the environment, and also between cooperation and competition, both within species and between them. At least until human beings compromised these equilibriums by establishing their position thanks above all to their increasingly advanced technology, as the absolute dominator of nature, making it serve their increasing needs and short-term ambitions, but ignoring the collateral effects of their increasingly heavy interventions.


Water, food and energy, which condition our existence according to this order of priorities, have not escaped this myopic approach, the hazardousness of which we have only very recently – indeed, perhaps too late – begun to realise. Taking account, among other things, of the fact that still today, all too often, the attempts made to correct this course conceal selfish interests, whether personal, national or international.

The world is now entirely known in its dimension of our sole territory, while the pressure we exercise on its potential continues to grow exponentially and in a disordered way.

There is therefore a clear need to tackle the problems that we continue to create for this limited sphere to which our survival is bound, with maximum urgency and in their globality.

As regards water, the identification of the global problems it poses is obviously indispensable to any attempt to organise and put into practice a system of coordinated management, on a worldwide scale, of the main element to which we owe life and by which our survival is conditioned. At this stage we can no longer allow ourselves the luxury of selfish interests!

In extreme synthesis, such problems and the relative desirable solutions can be grouped together into the following five goals, to be structured into a whole series of partial targets distributed in space and time.

Let us review them:

  1. to achieve universal access to sustainable sanitation services and drinking water that is really safe;
  2. to improve the management of waste water and pollution;
  3. to favour the integrated management of  water resources and efficiency in the use of water, reducing its waste;
  4. to reduce the impact of disasters associated with water, both natural and caused by humankind due to selfish improvidence (when not, worse still, for the purposes of war);
  5. to resolve the serious, dangerous problems associated with transnational waters.

In order to better understand them, and to understand their scope and urgency, certain factual data must be borne in mind.

In the first place, it must be noted that water, in all its forms and in its perennial cycle, should, at least within predictable timescales, be quantitatively constant and adequate to the needs of the living beings hosted by our planet, whose evolution it has moulded and conditioned (even if the geological phases that have troubled it have brought about its unequal distribution). This situation has nevertheless been seriously compromised by human beings in the latest, comparatively short phase of their history, when the shocking upswing rendering the curve of our evolution almost vertical has led to a fear that we may be getting dangerously close to its conclusion. The acceleration undergone by our material progress and by the consequent relative growth of our needs in fact finds a limit in the water available that is extremely difficult to overcome, due to the shattering of the equilibrium between quantity, quality and need!

Indeed, apart from the fact so normal as to be generally neglected – of the indispensability of drinking water for our survival, its progressive pollution and the bewildering increase of the needs of a rapidly expanding world population (as well as its increasing concentration in urban areas of ever greater dimensions) tend to make our efforts increasingly ineffective, by now comparable to trying to hit ever-faster moving targets.

It must also be noted that, when we consider the impending change in the climate, we tend to place the emphasis on its natural causes, barely remembering that similar phenomena in the past have required centuries or millennia whereas the one under way now is taking place, from a geological perspective, in the blink of an eye, and is therefore clearly to a large extent attributable to the work of humankind. Indeed, what we are doing to make our development as competitive and lucrative as possible is taking on such proportions as to rapidly change the conditions of life on Earth: we need only consider the latest data on the subject from the U.N., the OECD and the World Bank, published on 14 March on the occasion of 2014 World Water Day, according to which, at the current rate, by 2050 the need for water will have increased by 85%, that for food by 30% and for energy by 35%.

And so, faced with such a situation, we limit the traffic in some of our cities for a few weekends a year, while our industries, our transport systems, the energy we require and the polluting of the water available keep growing, with effects that can now only be contained at unbearable costs and with exasperating slowness. Without considering that what is proving extremely difficult for the developed world appears impossible for the emerging one and impossible to even suggest to the developing one.

It must also be considered that, unlike other essential assets, water can only be transported or transferred very partially, with great difficulty and at very high cost.

These noble concepts, translated in terms of the “wisdom of Bertoldo”, mean that we continue to prefer a penny today to a Euro tomorrow, although it has been amply demonstrated that a better management of water and sanitation and hygiene conditions constitutes a good investment (according to global estimates, in fact, the return on investments in the sector of the improvement of hygiene services exceeds costs by a factor of 5.5 to 1 and those for improved access to drinking water sources by a factor of 2 to 1). Without considering that such selfish calculations ignore the fact that in 2025, at the current rate of growth and urbanisation, two thirds of the world’s population will live in zones suffering from water stress.

It can be easily grasped that such a situation, as well as and before posing serious technical problems, poses other much tougher ones, the resolving of which I fear will require timescales that are not compatible with the inclination and the tumultuous evolution of human society, since the availability and distribution of water are comparable to that of every other form of wealth: we are all aware of the injustice and hazardousness that characterise them, but also of the impracticability of their correction using democratic and peaceful means. Nor must we forget that the progress of humanity has gone hand-in-hand with the gradual concentration of wealth (to start with, in the form of territory and the related resources) in an ever smaller number of hands. We therefore cannot neglect the inevitable political implications, in terms of the management of every form of power, and economic ones, destined to seriously condition every effort undertaken to guarantee and fairly distribute the natural resources (and water in particular, therefore) necessary for our survival.

The more optimistic (or naïve) among us have claimed to see hope in the gaining of awareness of globalisation, a phenomenon certainly not new and due to choice, but natural, progressive and implicit in the evolution of humankind in relation to an environment ever better known and subject to our will. While in reality this “fact” presents more negative than positive implications for now, in consideration of the imbalance that exists between its political aspect (that is, the slowness and reluctance to give up power and sovereignty by those who hold them) and the galloping uncontrolled internationalisation of every economic and entrepreneurial activity.

Will it ever be possible to overcome this? And if it is, after how long and how many catastrophes? What country is prepared to divide up its resources fairly with its neighbours? And will those who have 100 litres or more of water a day for their showers ever be prepared to give these up voluntarily, despite all their sympathy for the women and children who have to walk kilometres to obtain a bucket of undrinkable water?

It must also be observed that water, by its very transversal nature, is difficult to manage globally. The clearest example of this can be seen precisely in the prevalent attitude in what should be the most appropriate seat to tackle the problem: that is, the systems of the United Nations. The UN in fact includes more than thirty agencies – large and small – that deal with water in various forms, all systematically opposed to the idea of the creation of a specific Agency to handle water in all its various aspects, as each of them wishes to continue pulling the blanket over to its own side. So the most we have been able to do has been to create coordination centres, which inevitably only enjoy limited authority.

All this makes us fear that the attention devoted by the overabundance of conferences, lectures and seminars to the issue often conceals the search for an alibi, if not for a terrain where to legitimately contain an uncomfortable progress towards a more balanced distribution of essential assets. In fact here we are faced with a structural aspect of human nature rather than a simple historical phenomenon, so much so that, even if the roles of the beneficiaries and the damaged were reversed, the behaviour of the protagonists would certainly be the same.

For these reasons, despite my passionate devotion to the search for ways to overcome the problems connected with water, which are among the most serious obstacles in the way of continued life on Earth, I tend towards considerable pessimism – rebus sic stantibus – as regards the human capacity to overcome them.

However, such scepticism must not make us abandon our efforts. It should, rather, prompt us to supplement them with initiatives intended to correct those aspects of human nature that are no longer compatible with the new reality we have created for ourselves. This means that we should adopt initiatives to favour the emergence of a new humanism which, despite our nostalgia for an ideal lost Eden, will help us make that major breakthrough that is probably the necessary condition for our very survival.

The space available here and the need for a concise clarity necessarily make this a rather superficial overview of such a complex problem, as indeed are all those that are conditioned by the multiple levels and contemporary – so very misaligned – phases of our evolution. For a synthetic and extreme example we need only think of the contemporaneousness of Silicon Valley and the culture of the forests of Borneo!

In conclusion, what I consider we should do is direct our attention towards the many aspects that we tend to neglect, embarrassed as we are by the uncomfortable position that sees us gazing upon the wall that separates a past that is rapidly concluding and a future, to be compatible with which we must succeed in leaving behind our current condition of “chrysalises” in favour of a new dimension, perhaps thanks to some unpredictable development that for the moment is not within our reach, which we cannot rule out, but which we are not yet able to glimpse. 

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“Glocalism. Journal of Culture, Politics and Innovation” is published by “Globus et Locus", Milan, Italy

 ISSN 2283-7949
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