Michael Levitin is a freelance journalist based in Barcelona. This week he is attending the World Forum of Cultures’ Dialogue on Science, Knowledge, and Sustainable Development.

Tuesday, 1 Jun 2004


As I craned my head to read the translation screen over the stage, Mikhail Gorbachev was waving his arms wildly and bellowing in Russian about the need to pursue nuclear energy, eliminate terrorism with military force, admit Belorussia and Ukraine into the European Union, and substitute Muslim troops for the U.S. “Christian” forces currently occupying Iraq.

Grist thanks its sponsors. Become one.

I’d never heard a Soviet stump speech in its original form, but this sounded like one, strangely dynamic on a breezy evening in Barcelona. The former Russian premier’s egg-shaped body rocked behind the aluminum podium as a crowd of 500 listened. In a moment of silence, a woman in the audience shouted in Spanish, “Senor Miguel! What do you mean by a new global perestroika?” Gorbachev waited for the words to translate through his headset, then looked up and uttered a simple sentence: “The world is in a water crisis.”

“The U.S. thought it defeated the Soviet Union, but in the Cold War, we were all losers. The planet was a loser,” he said. “Water is the No. 1 problem in Africa and Asia. And to avert global disaster, the U.S. needs to open its society to change — it needs transparency, glasnost, and we as a planet need perestroika, a restructuring.”

Over the next two days, scientists, diplomats, and water-rights activists elaborated on Gorbachev’s message at a conference entitled “Water for Life and Security,” calling access to water a basic human right and pushing for a global convention that would make it a public good — accessible to all, not a commodity to be bought and sold and denied to those who cannot afford it.

They drilled the figures in our heads: 1.5 billion people lack access to drinking water; 2.5 billion live without sanitation; 5 million people, among them 2 million children, die each year from water-related diseases. Yet it’s not about water scarcity, the experts assured us. It’s about governance. We need to radically rethink humankind’s relationship to water and change the way we share between the developed and developing nations, they said — because if we’re not sharing water, we’re not sharing life.

Grist thanks its sponsors. Become one.

A tall, handsome man from Niger named Jean-Bosco Bazie came to Barcelona — host of the first-ever World Forum of Cultures, a five-month series of exhibitions and dialogues focused on diversity, sustainable development, and peace, of which the water conference was a part — spitting fire about the water crisis in his country.

“Economy dominates everything. Business dominates everything. The world is shit and it’s not changing,” he said.

Vast amounts of water exist in Niger — including a section of the 2,600-mile-long Niger River, shared with nine other African countries — but only 3 percent of the country’s surface water and 1 percent of its groundwater is currently being used. More than 40 percent of Niger’s 11 million inhabitants live without access to drinking water, Bazie said. Yet with a foreign investment of $367 million to dig wells and build simple irrigation and water-transport systems, the country’s water crisis would be solved.

“It’s not money and technology alone that will save us — you have to change mindsets and the rest will follow,” said Bazie. Nonetheless: “If the United States or Bill Gates gave a small portion of what they earned in one day on the stock market, that would end our problem.”

Bazie, who works with the nonprofit group Eau Vive, is one of thousands of advocates for a so-called “new water culture,” a movement that first called for universal access to clean water in the Montreal Charter of 1990. Grassroots leaders attracted U.N. General Assembly support before launching the World Water Forum in Marrakech, Morocco, in 1997, where scientists, politicians, farmers, teachers, and unions met for the first time to discuss the state of the world’s water. The Forum convened in The Hague in 2000 and again last year in Kyoto, where 25,000 participants and a quarter of a million visitors witnessed the release of a Declaration of Water Rights.

This week in Barcelona, the citizen groups International Secretariat for Water and the World Assembly of Water Wisdom lauded the “Global Convention on the Right to Water,” a document that seeks to define water security, safety, sovereignty, sustainability, financing, and other issues related to the “fundamental right of access to water and sanitation” as a universal, inalienable right. Future drafts of the convention are expected to clarify the principles of why water must be treated as a basic human right; and then, leaders hope, it will be submitted for U.N. approval and turned into law.

One of the speakers at the conference, Andras Szollosi-Nagy, had bright blue eyes, a broad, heavy face, and a head of gray, frizzy hair like a mad scientist. But as the deputy director general of natural sciences for UNESCO, Szollosi-Nagy expressed views solidly grounded in scientific as well as social and economic thought. It will take $30 billion to $40 billion in additional yearly investment in water development — on top of the current $80 billion — to achieve the Millennium Development Goals of 2000, which aim to cut in half the number of people without access to drinking water by 2015, he said.

“It sounds big, but not when you think that it’s only 2 percent of global annual military spending,” Szollosi-Nagy said. “Then it’s peanuts.”

In a world where two-thirds of the population under 25 has no access to drinking water, refusing to help the developing world improve its water systems can only backfire on Western countries, he said. But to do the opposite could bring great economic benefits — for every dollar invested in water development, the return is estimated at between $3 and $34, or a total of $84 billion per year.

Wednesday, 2 Jun 2004


Maybe it’s only natural, at a conference where activists propose something as radical as a universal declaration of the human right to water, that the tone turns preachy and we feel like we’ve heard it all before. Of course, we haven’t — we don’t know, for example, that half of Africa’s 784 million people suffer from water scarcity; or that agriculture absorbs 70 percent of the global water supply; or that 1.3 billion people live on less than a dollar a day … wait a minute, yeah, we know that one. Everyone knows it by heart because the number hasn’t changed much in years.

But you get the point: It’s that feeling of sitting in a room where everyone shares your outrage, seeks the same common progress, and knows that for all the hollering and consternation expressed in unity, no one beyond the lecture or city hall walls — neither the powerful nor the ignorant — will hear a word. It’s been the downfall of progressives for years.

Jean Michel Cousteau reminded me of one of those progressives — old-school, with a long, thin, bird-like face, glasses, and a silvery mane of hair and beard. Like his father, the French sea explorer Jacques Cousteau, whose documentary films of underwater life inspired a generation of ocean activists and environmentalists, Jean Michel is wed to water. Right now his team is shooting a documentary in the North Pacific about gray whale migration, and his Ocean Futures Society is still celebrating the seven-minute environmental pitch it squeezed into Disney’s blockbuster animated movie for kids, Finding Nemo.

But when you talk to Jean Michel — who speaks a flawless, languorous English, in keeping with his Santa Barbara, Calif., dwelling — you can’t help but want to peel away his jargon and see what’s hidden underneath, because he, too, has fallen into the dry trap of preaching to the converted.

“Tell people to stop driving their SUVs, tell them to change their standard of living,” he huffs. I know, Jean Michel, and it’s true, but haven’t we heard it before, and from people less experienced and sophisticated than you? I’m glad Cousteau appeared at the dialogue on “Water for Life and Security,” but I think he could have given us more than a review of the 6,000 oil tankers roaming the seas each day, the 10 gallons of water it takes to refine a gallon of gasoline, and the “unimaginable billions of people who are thirsty right now.”

Diplomats and NGO spokespeople repeated a message over and over at the water conference: Rich and poor countries have an equal stake in a world where every person has access to water and sanitation. By investing in water, “the most important strategic resource of the century,” as they called it, we are investing in peace. Or, in the words of the U.N. Environment Program’s executive director, Klaus Toepfer, “sustainable development is nothing less than the peace policy for the future, and disarmament comes by bringing water to the people.”

“We cannot live in security when the vast majority live without the basic resource of life,” echoed his colleague, Anna Kajumulo Tibaijuka, director of U.N. Habitat and the highest-ranking African woman in the U.N. system.

Access to water is not only a basic human right, activists said. It’s also part of our cultural heritage, unlike merchandise bought or sold on the free market. “You can’t treat water as though it were gasoline or Coca-Cola,” said Henri Smets of The Water Academy in France, an institute critical of the neoliberal policies the developed world has forced developing countries to adopt, resulting in the privatization of water systems worldwide. “One has to give water to those who can’t pay for it. It’s proportional to population — it’s not like meat, where the poorer you are the less you eat.”

For Senegalese activist Dame Sall, a tall, lean man with glasses and a broad smile, the water crisis is not just about the failure to distribute water and resources — it’s about the solidarity between wealthy and poor nations disappearing altogether. “Competition is winning the day,” he said in a subtle but impassioned speech. “We must want to share and live together if we’re attempting to make this a good world to live in.”

Literacy and education rates are also intimately tied to water and sanitation availability in the developing world, the experts said. Millions of girls, especially, are forced to leave school to spend their young and adult lives hunting for drinking water to sustain their families. There are direct links between poor sanitation and poor education in both rural and urban areas of the developing world, something Tibaijuka said has to change.

“Water is the crisis of the century, a war that must be waged in our towns and cities” where 900 million people, or 43 percent of the developing world, lives, Tibaijuka said. Opening trade barriers and relieving poor countries of vast levels of foreign debt is an appropriate place for Western countries to start, she said.

The frail and wrinkled form of 95-year-old Rita Levi-Montalcini, winner of the Nobel Prize for Medicine, shuffled to the podium, dressed in black, to suggest a new approach to the global water crisis. Speaking in quavering but lucid Italian, she said the focus should be on decentralizing water management so that mayors and local leaders in developing and developed countries work together rather than giant state engines trying to solve the crisis on a large scale.

When things get bad, it’s time to make them smaller — that message applied to the trends in water use and agriculture as well. The policies of industrial agriculture, promoted by the Green Revolution of the 1950s and still in wide use today, have driven economic growth but have devastated drinking-water supplies and contaminated the African environment with untold chemicals, creating “a picture of gloom and hopelessness,” said Edward Oyugi of Kenya’s African Reference Group on Water. Oyugi stressed the importance of a social contract in creating a sustainable water use and management strategy in his country and across Africa — where small, family-scale farming has always been, and will continue to be, the basic form of survival.

The conference revealed a fierce, virtually unanimous reproach of Israel’s building of the wall, which activists claim is robbing Palestinians of key access to drinking water. Israelis consume vastly greater amounts of water than any of their Arabic neighbors — 300 million cubic liters per year compared to 23 million for the Palestinians, for example.

Activists walked away from the two-day talks with apparent hope for improvement in the way water and sanitation are managed, developed, and distributed around the world in years to come. But toward the conference’s end — before Gorbachev retook the podium and, as founder and chair of the nonprofit group Green Cross International, repeated his call for a global glasnost — Jean Bosco Bazie from Niger stood up again to speak.

He pointed out that when the World Bank or the IMF writes a declaration, they see that their goals are carried through. But U.N. workers, water experts, and NGO representatives keep coming to the same conferences and talking about the same needs — to give poor countries greater access to water and sanitation, to lift subsidies from agribusiness, or to relieve national debt — with no clear changes to show for it.

“And why is that?” Bazie asked the crowd in an aggressive voice, his stare poised out over their heads, as though the answer was hovering there. “Because the people in power are never here! We’ll all come back again and nothing will have changed.”

Friday, 4 Jun 2004


The magical underwater world of coral reefs just got a lot deeper — about four miles, to be exact.

In a report unveiled here Friday by the United Nations Environment Program, scientists announced that cold-water coral reefs previously thought to exist only off of Norway and the British Isles are in fact being found all over the planet, from the coasts of Brazil and Indonesia to waters off of Angola and Spain.

However, no sooner are scientists learning about the fragile, three-dimensional lacework structures buried beneath the sea than they’re witnessing signs of their destruction and decline, scarred by the fishing ships that drag and scrape nets along the ocean floor.

It was a grim reminder on World Environment Day that humans have a long way to go to sustain biodiversity on earth — even in its darkest, least discovered places.

Coral reefs are the rainforests of the oceans, Klaus Toepfer, executive director of UNEP, said, and “there is nothing comparable now on the market.”

“The message of World Environment Day is simple: Act now to save our marine resources, or watch as the rich diversity of life in our seas and oceans declines beyond the point of recovery.”

Greenpeace activists in Barcelona also honored the day — celebrated every June 5 since the 1972 Stockholm Conference on the Human Environment — by scaling Antoni Gaudi’s famous cathedral La Sagrada Familia and unfurling an enormous banner that read Save Our Seas. The organization has called for an immediate moratorium on deep-sea trawling.

Andre Freiwald, a geology professor at Erlangen University in Germany and the architect of the report “Cold-Water Coral Reefs: Out of Sight — No Longer Out of Mind,” said that scientists have known about the existence of cold-water reefs for several centuries, with evidence of the reefs dating back 65 million years to the time when dinosaurs went extinct. But only in the mid-1990s with the use of high-tech underwater cameras, robotic equipment and deep-sea vehicles were ocean specialists able to chart and explore the vast number of deep-sea, cold-water coral reefs they now see clumped around the world.

While coral reefs exist on only half of one percent of the ocean floor, scientists estimate that more than 90 percent of marine species directly or indirectly depend on them for life. Cold-water reefs grow slowly — just one-tenth as fast as tropical coral reefs — and so do the fish that live around them, like orange roughey, blue ling, and black scabbardfish, which reproduce at slower rates. Located off the coasts of at least 40 countries, usually at depths of between 200 and 1,000 yards — though scientists have found some as deep as four miles down — cold-water reefs also contain species such as snails and clams that paleontologists thought went extinct 2 million years ago.

Now, at the rapid rate the global fishing industry is wiping out those reefs with trawl nets that scrape at ever deeper levels along the ocean floor, the extinction of those rare species may be only a step away.

“It’s like picking apples from a tree by cutting the tree down,” said Simon Cripps of World Wildlife Fund, an organization that is working closely with the fishing industry to find non-damaging techniques of harvesting the deep sea. “You can count the number of animals that exist there, but it’s more about keeping the ecosystem healthy and diverse so it continues to produce in the future.”

It’s not as though human actions haven’t already wreaked havoc on the world’s oceans. Nitrogen runoff from agricultural fertilizers has created about 150 coastal “dead zones” worldwide. In the last decade, a yearly average of 600,000 barrels of oil has spilled from ships, or the equivalent of 12 disasters like the tanker Prestige, which sank off the coast of Spain in 2002. More than 30,000 whales, dolphins, and porpoises and 300,000 seabirds die each year as bycatch from the longlines, trawl nets, and gill nets used in commercial fishing.

Coastal development and pollution — not to mention a temperature increase due to global warming — have also played a role in coral-reef decline worldwide. Whereas bottom trawling has already wiped out half of the cold-water coral along the Norwegian Shelf, scientists say that nearly 60 percent of the world’s remaining reefs are at risk of being lost in the next three decades.

And experts assure us that the loss of reefs won’t affect plant and animal species alone. Forty percent of the world’s human population lives within 40 miles of the coast, and roughly 3.5 billion people depend on the ocean for their primary food source.

By protecting both warm- and cold-water coral reefs, humans could help increase fish size and quantity. But while half of the global fish catch is done on a small-scale, local level — 95 percent of it, or 80 million tons, comes from near-shore waters — illegal, unregulated, and subsidized commercial fleets are threatening the fish stocks for all.

What is needed, according to the U.N., WWF, and others who worked on the report, is an increase in governance and marine protected areas. But the high seas, which cover half the earth’s surface, fall beyond national jurisdiction and are therefore harder to conserve by law. In addition, subsides for large-scale commercial fishing range from $15 billion to $20 billion a year, encouraging rather than discouraging overfishing.

At the 2002 World Summit on Sustainable Development in Johannesburg, governments committed with time-bound targets to ending unsustainable fishing practices, restoring depleted fish stocks, and creating more marine protected areas.

Currently, less than half of 1 percent of marine habitats are protected, and 70 percent of the world’s fisheries are either being harvested at a maximum level or beyond their sustainable limit. In 1998, 75 percent of the world’s reefs were affected by coral bleaching.

In short, our global environment leaders are telling us that the situation is far from good.

“This is a wakeup call for the world,” said Cripps of WWF, “and we have to act now.”