The Press Newspaper
Dear EarthTalk: Recently the UN voted to declare access to safe and clean water a “human right.” Isn’t that a no-brainer? What are the ramifications of this declaration? -- P. James, Boston, MA
In July 2010 the United Nations (UN) agreed to a new resolution declaring the human right to “safe and clean drinking water and sanitation.” One hundred twenty-two nations voted in favor of the resolution; 41 (primarily developed) countries abstained; and there were zero “no” votes. The agreement comes on the heels of a protracted effort on the part of Bolivia and 30 other (mostly developing) nations determined to improve access to clean water and proper sanitation systems for the poorer human residents of the planet.
Bolivia’s Permanent Representative to the UN, Pablo Solon, cheered passage of the resolution that he had campaigned hard for, and stressed the need to recognize access to safe drinking water and sanitation as a human right as global supplies of fresh water get fewer and farther between. “Approximately one out of every eight people does not have drinking water,” Solon told reporters. “In just one day, more than 200 million hours of the time used by women is spent collecting and transporting water for their homes.” According to the declaration, approximately 884 million people lack access to safe drinking water.
“The lack of sanitation is even worse, because it affects 2.6 billion people [or] 40 percent of the global population,” Solon said, citing a 2009 World Health Organization and UNICEF study which found some 24,000 children in developing countries were dying each day from preventable causes like diarrhea resulting from polluted water. “This means that a child dies every three-and-a-half seconds,” added Solon.
The resolution itself carries no regulatory weight, but backers view it as important to raising awareness of the problem and engendering support for solutions. “We are calling for actions…in communities around the world to ensure that the rights to water and sanitation are implemented,” said Anil Naidoo of the Council of Canadians, a group that has been crucial in the international struggle for the right to clean water. “Governments, aid agencies and the UN must take their responsibilities seriously,” he added.
Some developed countries—including the U.S., Canada, Australia, New Zealand and several European nations—tried to block passage of the resolution in hopes of minimizing their future obligations. As one official from the United Kingdom put it, these countries “don’t want to pay for the toilets in Africa.” Also, six African countries (Botswana, Ethiopia, Kenya, Lesotho, Tanzania and Zambia) and two in the Caribbean (Guyana and Trinidad/Tobago)—all former European colonies—joined efforts to try to kill the declaration. But when it was time to vote, these nations abstained so as not to go on record as opposing it.
“This matters because we are a planet running out of water,” said Maude Barlow, an expert affiliated with the Council of Canadians as well as the Blue Planet Project and Food and Water Watch. Indeed, a still-growing human population, global warming and other factors combine to make fresh water supplies scarcer around the world. A recent World Bank study predicted that demand for fresh water will exceed supply by some 40 percent within just two decades. While the UN resolution may not move any mountains, it is a step in the right direction for the world’s increasing number of have-nots.
Dear EarthTalk: Were Japan to close all its nuclear plants following the recent damage and radiation leaks from the March 11 earthquake and tsunami, what could its energy mix look like? Would it be able to provide all of its power in other ways? -- Richard Miller, New York, NY
Most experts agree that Japan would be hard pressed to close all of its 54 nuclear reactors anytime soon, especially given that these plants provide over a third of the nation’s electricity supply and 11 percent of its total energy needs. Japan relies so much on nuclear power because it has so few other domestic sources of energy to draw upon. According to the U.S. Department of Energy, Japan is only 16 percent energy self-sufficient, and much of this comes from its now-wounded nuclear power program.
Despite producing only trifling amounts of oil domestically from fields off its west coast, Japan is the third largest oil consumer in the world behind the U.S. and China, as well as the third largest net importer of crude oil. Imported oil accounts for some 45 percent of Japan’s energy needs. Besides bringing in a lot of oil, Japan is the world’s largest importer of both coal and liquefied natural gas. Against this backdrop of imported fossil fuels, it’s no surprise that Japan has embraced nuclear power; worldwide, only the U.S. and France produce more nuclear energy.
Factoring in that it would take decades to ramp up capacity on alternative renewable energy sources—right now hydropower accounts for three percent of Japanese energy usage and other renewable sources like solar and wind only one percent—and that Japan must import just about all its fossil fuels, it becomes obvious that the country will need to rely on nuclear power for some time to come, despite the risks.
“Supplying the same amount of electricity by oil, for example, would increase oil imports by about 62 million metric tons per year, or about 1.25 million barrels per day,” says Toufiq Siddiqi, a researcher with the nonprofit East-West Institute. He adds that at the current price of oil per barrel (roughly $100), switching out nuclear for oil would cost Japan upwards of $46 billion per year. “Further, it would take almost a decade to build enough new oil, coal or natural gas-fired power plants to provide the equivalent amount of electricity, and tens of billions of dollars per year would be required to do so,” he concludes.
In the short term, the easiest way for Japan to make up for its reduced nuclear output is by importing more natural gas and other fossil fuels, sending its carbon footprint in the wrong direction. What’s less clear is whether Japanese policymakers’ pre-existing plans to increase the country’s nuclear capacity—the stated goal is to generate half of Japan’s electricity via nuclear power within two decades as part of a larger effort to trim carbon dioxide emissions—will still be followed following the Fukushima accidents.
The Fukushima plant failures are likely to impact the always evolving energy mix worldwide as well, not just within Japan. Many analysts expect the nuclear disaster in Japan to cause a shift toward the increased use of natural gas worldwide. Of course, the downside for the environment is that natural gas is a fossil fuel and its use contributes significantly to global warming. While solar and wind power can take up some of the slack, these and other renewables are at least decades away from the scalability needed to power a significant share of a modern industrial society’s energy requirements.
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