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Weekly Edition 028: Saturday 8th September 2001

<< Island Ecology by José P Ribas

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An Anthropological View
by Kirk W Huffman

Aïgu y Agua and Water:
Water and Water and Water - Part Four

Han arribat ses plujas” (“Han llegado las lluviasin Spanish /Castellano): the rains have come. Between 1.30-2.30am of Sunday the 2nd of September the island was treated to a spectacular display of cloud thunder which outdid any ‘son et lumière’ effects that the island’s discotheques could ever hope to produce. Cloud thunder is more common later in the year in Eivissa, and is marked by absolutely stunning cloud-centred lightning which illuminates the clouds but whose lightning bolts do not reach earthwards. The storm of 2nd September, which swept the island from north to south, not only lit the whole island from above but also shook the houses and ground as the intense rolling thunder followed its course. The Saturday night/Sunday morning amassed crowds in the discotheques may have thought it was all part of the show, put on for their benefit - if they noticed it at all, enclosed in their various assorted ‘Paradis’/’Privilege’/ ‘Amnesia’/ ‘Space’ capsules. The accompanying rains were relatively gentle in most areas, but enough to take the edge off of things.

Or so people thought. The island was so dry that obviously this was not enough. Around 4pm on that Sunday afternoon smoke was spotted coming from a small wooded valley high up the forested slopes on the southwestern side of the hills surrounding Es Broll de Buscastell in the north-northwestern interior of the island. By 6pm two small Air Tractor water planes and a large Canadair (from Mallorca) water plane had accurately pinpointed the outbreak and for an hour performed an intricate ballet in the skies of this more remote part of the island dumping tons of water over the blaze. The Canadair, in a series of complex manoeuvres, scooped up water from the sea to the northwest of Portmany (San Antonio) to fly it inland and dump it, each return run taking only seven minutes. Although the fire was, because of this rapid action, restricted to only two hectares of forest, the ground and vegetation  - in spite of the rain - was so hot and dry that ground-based fire-fighters had to continue work in the area through to Monday night to prevent the fire breaking out again and spreading.

In the ‘old’ days - up through the 195Os and 1960s - forest trees were kept trimmed and undergrowth was cleared as a traditional measure by pagès Eivissencs to impede the spread of forest fires. Easy and safe access through most of the forest was necessary, as traditionally Eivissa was a major producer of wood charcoal for both home use and export. The rapid breakdown of the traditional peasant culture and the movement of pagès families from areas of the interior towards the developing modern tourism-based economy on the coast, particularly from the 1970s, was the death-knell for such traditional forest care. The increasing dryness of the island and the increasing number of foreign visitors who may not be aware of normal pagès precautions against forest fires have increased the annual risk of such outbreaks. Recent studies have indicated that less than 3% of such outbreaks on the island are due to natural causes.

Luckily, a lighter display of cloud lightning, but accompanied by heavier rains, reached the island in the early morning of Thursday, 6th September and it continues to rain as I write this. The rains seem lighter in the western side of the island than the eastern side, but this is normal. These rains will now enable pagès who were not able to safely burn off their collections of dried undergrowth and brushwood to do so without fear of flying sparks starting a larger conflagration. One can soon expect to see myriads of small columns of smoke arising from isolated areas of the island, a bit like an intense discussion by American Indian smoke signals, but without the dots and commas.

The hot, dry summer is drawing to its close, but not the water problems. Those tourists driving their rentacars (sometimes rather dangerously) along the island’s country roads may, in rather out-of-the-way places, have been slightly puzzled to see dotted around the landscape numerous tall thin red metallic pillar-like structures. Not an invasion of Triffids but a necessary accessory in the search for underground water supplies: these structures house the portable perforation drillers that will go sometimes 300 metres or so down to try and find water. These can be official drillers for municipal water supply assistance or hired out to dig ones maybe already dry well deeper or to look for water in another area. But there is possibly a certain amount of frenzy here, as, according to the Governments Plan Ecologico Internacional, 1st October 2001 seems to be the deadline for registering new wells. For those wells legalized before 1985 but not yet included in the government’s ‘Catalogue of Private Water (supplies)’, it is a final chance to have one’s water included. Such a Catalogue will be of use for the local and national governments, especially at a time when the water supply situation is becoming more tenuous, and it will assist officials in advising the maximum amount of water that can ideally be used from each supply per 24 hour period once an idea of the island’s water resources can be developed. Certain pagès, though, may suspect that such moves may foreshadow certain forms of control or a new form of tax. For those with an insight into local history, a wry smile comes to one’s lips when one remembers Eivissa’s historical reactions to attempted taxation attempts from neighbouring Mallorca.

The ‘intricacies’ of town water supply will be familiar to film buffs who have seen Roman Polanski’s 1974 film, ‘Chinatown’, set in late 1930s Los Angeles (thanks to Emily Kaufman for putting me on to this). Private detective Jack Nicholson stumbles upon a plot, during a severe drought, for business interests to manipulate the city’s water supply for financial benefit. Those who control water supply can control a city - or profit greatly from it. Los Angeles is still today in a rather precarious situation regarding water. The ‘worst case scenario’ film for water is the 1986 MGM/UA release ‘Solar Warriors’ (not one of the film industry’s most memorable products), set on Earth in the Future when ‘The System’ controls everything including the most scarce resource, drinkable water. Water is used as a form of payment, its withholding and giving completely in the hands of a restrictive form of government. A group of rebels, known as ‘Eco Warriors’, fight for freedom and free water. Sounds like complete fantasy? Wait for it….

In the late 1990s the World Bank stated “The wars of the next century will be about water”.  Ninety seven percent of the world’s water is saltwater and only just over 2.5% is freshwater. Much of the latter is locked up in icecaps; the rest is in rivers, lakes, reservoirs and groundwater. Only 0.5% is easily available and the only way to renew it is by rainfall. Melting of the fresh water in the polar icecaps just puts it into the sea. Although theoretically the earth has enough fresh water for its 6 billion inhabitants, its quality and distribution leave a lot to be desired. Today 1.1 Billion people lack access to acceptable drinking water supplies and 2.4 million do not have access to basic sanitation. Global water consumption is at the moment increasing at twice the rate of population growth. According to the World Commission on Water human water needs will have grown another 40% by the year 2020. Nearly 10% of our world’s agricultural food production relies upon groundwater use and water tables are falling dramatically in India, China, Mexico and the Yemen (to name but a few areas). It is predicted that by the year 2008 Sana’a, the capital of Yemen, will have no water left and tribal disputes over water are already taking place in the country areas. Worldwide, desertification threatens a quarter of the earth’s surface and 6 million hectares of productive land have been lost each year in the last decade due to such processes. Approximately 12 million people a year die owing to water shortages or contaminated drinking water. One could go on almost ad infinitum.

Many of such problems may be due to aspects of global warming, but not all. Human stupidity, greed and shortsightedness are, unfortunately, major factors. This makes the failure of the World Climate Summit in The Hague in November 2000 all the more tragic - and, unfortunately, all the more understandable. The absolute perfect example of such attitudes was that of the US representative at the summit who basically said “ We are here to recognize reality, see what is possible…. and then negotiate”. It was around this point in the meeting that a large cream pie hit him in the face. The 17th June 2001 was the UN’s ‘World Day to Combat Desertification and Drought’ and the official UNDP report released, although recognizing the role of climate change, classed humans as the main cause of desertification. As the BBC World Service Radio summarized the report that day, it was straightforward; 1) Too many people, 2) Too much ‘civilization’, 3) Too little care.

The World Conference to Combat Desertification held in Bonn, 11th-22nd December 2000 and the 2001 Stockholm Water Symposium and World Water Week (held in Stockholm in mid-August this year) were serious attempts to deal at a scientific level with these looming problems. Over 1,100 water experts attended the Stockholm meetings. For a field anthropologist like myself, though, it always surprises me how long it seems to take educated white societies years and years to really move on extremely urgent matters. Traditionally oriented, isolated non-literate societies actually seem as quick, if not quicker, than us to pick up environmental nuances, changes and needs. Unfortunately our governments do not listen to them. In the mid-to-late 1980s the sacred sun-priests, ‘Mamas’, of the Kaggaba (Kogi) Indians hidden high in the vast reaches of the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta mountains in northern Colombia began to see signs that indicated possible forthcoming doom to the World. The Kaggaba are the last mountain tribe in the Americas never to have been missionised and are effectively the last surviving ‘pre-Colombian civilization’. Their geographical isolation and their desire and need to be left alone as much as possible has meant that one of the worlds most spiritually deep and environmentally aware societies still exists and they can teach us a lot more than we can teach them. Their ruling priests were already picking up indications regarding worldwide climate change and water and weather and sky problems either before or around the same that our scientists were doing so. But then the Kaggaba have had hundreds of years more than we have had preparing to look for these critical indicators. They use one word in their language to describe all of us - ‘Kasaoggi’ - and they have said for centuries that the ‘Kasaoggi’ would start bickering and fighting amongst themselves once the latter finally realized that their own activities were destroying the world. What we all have to realize is that most traditionally-oriented and non-literate societies (those that used to be called ‘primitive tribes’, who, of course, are not ‘primitive’ at all, just not as ‘technologically advanced’ as we think we are) look upon the land, sea, air, water - and ultimately ‘earth’, however they conceive it to be - as parts of a complex living whole. These societies and cultures are in a majority on this earth - not in numbers of people but in numbers of languages and cultures. Our Euro-American series of cultures are in a definite numerical minority. In the small Republic of Vanuatu in the southwestern Pacific alone there are twice as many different languages and cultures as in the whole of Europe. Many inhabitants of the island of Tanna, in southern Vanuatu, see no contradiction in the fact that although white people in general have education and their material things they do not seem to have any idea about protection of the environment. For many of the people from Tanna, the explanation is simple: at the origin of the world’s peoples, the ancestors of the white peoples were given the Knowledge of Technology, the ancestors of the Melanesians (black southwestern Pacific islanders - no connection with Africa) were given the Knowledge of Nature. And it is as simple as that: white people (i.e. us) haven’t really been able to do much about the environment except to seemingly try and damage it because we don’t really have any natural feeling, understanding or respect for it. White people do, though, think they know everything or at least like to try and control it.

It looks like these peoples may be correct, but not necessarily for the right reasons. For them, a ruling characteristic of white society (if they have come into contact with it - and there are still a few isolated spots in the world where our clumsy feet have not yet trod) seems to be that staple of ‘modern’ society, greed. I would, unfortunately, tend to agree with them. As clean fresh water becomes a resource that will be ever increasingly valuable, one can see the sharks - or vultures - beginning to gather. At the 1999 annual World Economic Development Congress, which follows the annual World Bank/IMF (International Monetary Fund) meeting, members sat down to a heavy series of panel discussions that were a lightly disguised approach to commodification (and subsequent privatization) of the worlds fresh water supplies and its mass transport. Treat water like any other commodity (gold, coffee, soya beans, etc) and let its use be determined by ‘free market principles’. Of course the term ‘free market principles’ is a classic misnomer, it seems basically to mean that what one may have been able to obtain for free in the past (e.g., one’s own water from ones own spring or well on Eivissa) one might now have to pay for - and through the nose at that. And under a blaze of spin-doctor publicity lauding the benefits to all of joining such international trade agreements as NAFTA (North American Free Trade Association) and the WTO (World Trade Organization) signatory governments around the world are unknowingly signing away the rights to control their own domestic water supplies. At the same time they are setting themselves up to be potentially sued by wily overseas companies or transnational corporations if they don’t allow them in to introduce ‘free market principles’. If this were a science fiction/suspense/murder/horror film one would just need the entrance of a last character of the ‘I wouldn’t want my sister to go out with him’ type. The door opens and in walks Monsanto, the chemical giant with an ‘interest in agriculture through control over seed’ and now, since the late 1990s casting its eyes in the same way towards water. India, much enamoured by the World Bank and the IMF, appears to be the first major target of Monsanto’s love affair with water. As Robert Farley of Monsanto said, “What you are seeing is …really a consolidation of the entire food chain. Since water is as central to food production as seed is, and with water life is not possible, Monsanto is now trying to establish its control over water. During 1999 Monsanto plans to launch a new water business, starting with India and Mexico since both these countries are facing water shortages. Well, you can’t get subtler than that!

Does the world really need or want the World Bank, IMF, NAFTA, WTO and certain multinationals to be involved in looking after the world’s water? Next week we will have an anthropological look at these institutions, their work and plans. It is not as plain sailing as it may seem.

I leave you with a recent quote from an individual living in the high New Mexican desert in an area whose community water supply was diverted for industrial use: “Water flows uphill to money”.

Kirk W Huffman

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