The Urgent Need for System Change

Capitalism is disrupting the existing water cycle through global warming all the while squandering and contaminating this essential resource for short-term gain. It is a system which every day is being exposed as being utterly incapable in dealing with the challenges facing humanity.

Christian Pistor, LSP/PSL (ISA in Belgium)

2020 is set to be either the hottest or second hottest year on record. As such the five hottest years on record will all have occurred since 2010. So far total global precipitation has changed little due to global warming. Nevertheless, droughts, including prolonged droughts have increased in most places on the planet. Droughts represent a scarcity of fresh water in one way or form, a resource which undoubtedly is one of the most essential ingredients for life on the planet.

Due to the economic crisis triggered by covid-19 the number of people suffering acute hunger in the neocolonial world is predicted to nearly double by the end of the year. Given that water is essential to many economic sectors, it is unsurprising that droughts are the costliest type of natural hazard. Droughts also have far reaching societal consequences and are a potential source of conflict. Capitalism is disrupting the existing water cycle through global warming all the while squandering and contaminating this essential resource for short-term gain. It is a system which everyday is being exposed as being utterly incapable in dealing with the challenges facing humanity.

As recent studies illustrate, it is vital that temperatures do not rise over 1.5°C above preindustrial levels, let alone over 2°C. At the height of the lock-down in early April 2020 CO2 levels had dropped 17% compared to 2019. If some restrictions remain in place until the end of the year, global emissions could fall by 7% when compared to a year ago. Yet to meet the United Nation’s target of keeping the global temperature rise within the 1.5oC limit, global emissions must fall by 7.6% every year of this decade. Given the devastating impact lockdowns (along with deeper systemic issues) have had on the economy, implementing cuts in emissions which even come close to what is required appears completely utopian within the present system. Such ambitious goals only stand a chance to be reached through the mobilization of humanity’s productive resources under a system of democratic control. In other words, socialist planning is the only path to limiting the effects of global warming in any meaningful way.


What are droughts?

Droughts also fall into three general categories:

  • Meteorological droughts ensue from a prolonged period of below average rainfall.
  • Agricultural droughts occur when soil moisture drops to an extent that crop yields are adversely affected. This is generally linked to reduced precipitation but may also be principally the product of land use practices.
  • Hydrological droughts occur when water reserves available in sources such as aquifers, lakes, and reservoirs fall below a locally significant threshold. Falling groundwater levels are also referred to as a hydrogeological drought. Water balance or the difference between precipitation and evapo-transpiration, is important to the latter two types of drought. To illustrate, due to evaporation precipitation occurring in summer contributes less to soil moisture and to replenishing aquifers than does precipitation occurring in winter. This is also one way in which global warming, by increasing temperatures, worsens drought conditions.

Some global patterns

Global warming is not necessarily making the world a drier place. Generally, wet areas are becoming wetter and dry areas are becoming dryer. Rising temperatures increase the atmosphere’s capacity to hold water. As such, atmospheric moisture has increased 4%. This increase in moisture is driving the trend towards heavier but less frequent rainfall. Moreover, a large amount of water reaching the ground in a short period of time contributes relatively little to replenishing groundwater or even layers of soil just below the surface. This has a great impact on plant-life. The ability of different soil types to store moisture can also be a determining factor when it comes to agricultural and hydrological droughts. Moreover, torrential rain can also be highly destructive in their own right contributing to flooding and erosion.

More extreme weather, prolonged heat waves as well as flooding have also been linked to a slowing and even stalling of the jet stream, the primary driver of northern hemisphere weather patterns. With either high-pressure or low-pressure systems stuck in place for extended periods of time the result is either a lack of precipitation or an overabundance thereof. The jet stream is driven by the contrast between frigid arctic air to the north and tropical air masses to the south. Since 2000 the arctic has warmed twice as fast as the global average and landmasses have also heated up more quickly than oceans. The temperature contrast driving the jet stream has thus been reduced. As a result, the jet stream has tended to increasingly slow down and meander. The latter has produced unseasonal cold and hot spells. Conditions that favor the stalling of the jet stream have increased 70 percent since the start of the industrial age, with the most significant increase seen in the last four decades.

In the tropics it is the seasonally shifting Intertropical Convergence Zone (ITCZ), the rain-belt found where trade winds from the northern and southern hemisphere converge, which defines rainfall patterns. Prior to 1980 particulate pollution (aerosols) cooled the northern hemisphere thereby pushing the ITCZ southward. Indeed, at the time some thought a new ice age was at hand. In terms of rainfall there were increases in the United States and decreases in the Sahel and India. After 1980 this shift began to be reversed as aerosol emissions from Europe and North America fell due to environmental regulations. Moreover, as the greenhouse effect gains strength the northern hemisphere began to warm up more quickly than the southern hemisphere which is more predominantly covered by oceans. This helps to explain some of the changes in drought patterns seen in the last decades. This has brought some respite to the Sahel region. The region had seen a fall in rainfall of around 40% from the 1950s through to the 1980s contributing to widespread famines. A third of this drop has been reversed since the mid-1990s. However, rising temperatures bringing about increased evaporation and more extreme weather patterns will assure that this respite is only temporary.

More frequent extended droughts in Central Europe

A recent study has concluded that, based on data going back to 1766, the 2018–2019 European drought event was unprecedented both in geographic scale and in severity.

Dry periods of two or more consecutive years pose a far greater threat to vegetation than do single summer droughts even when the latter are more intense, such as in 2003 and 2015. Single summer events allow for vegetation health to normalize the following year while droughts in consecutive years have a more lasting impact. The study predicts that if greenhouse gas emissions are left to rise unabated in the worst-case scenario, the frequency of such prolonged drought could increase sevenfold in the latter half of the century. Moreover, drought affected cropland in Central Europe would also nearly double. As such 40 million hectares or 60% of all cropland in the region would be impacted. However, a more moderate emission increases in line with a temperature rise between 2 and 3oC by 2100 would still see prolonged droughts become 3.5 times more common. The only way to keep the frequency of prolonged droughts nearly the same is to prevent a global temperature rise above 1.5°C.

What about 2020?

During the spring of 2020, particularly dry conditions were recorded from Romania all the way to the UK. Many century old records were broken. In Belgium, for instance, April and May saw the lowest rainfall since 1893. This came on top of a severe two-year drought which has affected half of Central Europe from 2018 to 2019. At present it appears likely that 2020 will see a continuation, perhaps in a more moderate form of this dry spell.

In the Czech Republic prolonged drought conditions began as far back as 2015 making it the Central European country worst affected by the phenomenon. Indeed the problem goes back even further with the region of Moravia seeing a fifty percent reduction in summer rainfall since the early 1990s. By mid-April 2020 three quarters of Czech territory was suffering from extreme drought. At the time it was being projected that the country would see its worst drought in 500 years. Since then, a wet start to the summer has improved this scenario somewhat.

Even though the situation in the Czech Republic might have eased a bit it is interesting to examine an economic impact study made in 2019. This study attempted to predict the impact a prolonged drought could have on the Czech economy. An optimistic scenario, a 25% drop in the available water, predicted a loss of 1.6% of GDP and a sharp drop in production in industries such as paper and textiles. A more pessimistic scenario, a 50% drop in the available water, would have wide reaching social and health consequences and would translate into a loss between 2.8 and 4.8% of GDP. Given that over the last decades capitalism has only been able to deliver sluggish growth to “developed” economies, prolonged droughts could clearly push such economies into a recession. Alternatively, they could exacerbate economic recessions or depressions.

Glaciers melting

Most of the world’s ice is locked up in the Antarctic and Greenland ice sheets, with lower latitude mountain glaciers and ice caps accounting for only 4% of the world’s ice. However, the world’s mountain glaciers have disproportionately contributed to sea water rises. The loss of these freshwater reserves which can help prevent or alleviate drought conditions through meltwater runoff represents a serious problem for ecosystems and human civilization.

The Andes have proportionately suffered the largest loss of ice among all mountain ranges. While Patagonian ice fields, being located at low altitudes, account for the bulk of this loss, the risk for human communities is most severe further North were large urban centers such as La Paz in Bolivia, Santiago in Chile, Mendoza in Argentina and Huaraz in Peru depend on meltwater for their summer water supply. One study found that 4 million people in the tropical Andes depended on meltwater for their basic needs. In La Paz, a city of 2.3 million this water supply accounted for over a quarter of the water used during the dry seasons. With runoff set to temporarily increase this dependence on glacial water is only likely to increase. Eventually, however, this runoff will decrease dramatically or disappear altogether. Given that climate change in the tropical Andes is predicted to produce an increase in precipitation during the wet season and a decrease during the dry season this will then pose enormous challenges.

Countries from Kazakhstan to India depend heavily on the 95,000 glaciers spanning the mountain ranges from the Alai range in Kyrgyzstan to the Himalayas. Sometimes referred to as the “third pole” their meltwater accounts for the up to 100% of the waterflow of some of Asia’s main rivers, including the Amu Darya, Brahmaputra, Ganges, Indus, Mekong, Yangtze, and Yellow River. The water they supply is equivalent to the water needs of 221 million people (+/- 59 million) or most of the annual municipal and industrial needs of Pakistan, Afghanistan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan combined.

A study has found that even if the 2015 climate goals set in Paris were met, a third of the ice in the Himalayas and the Hindu Kush will disappear by 2100. However, another report has found that if no substantial cuts in fossil fuel emissions occur the Himalayas could lose two-thirds of their ice by the end of the century.

As a matter of fact, the last 40 years have already seen the Himalayas lose a quarter of its ice. Moreover, the melting is accelerating rapidly. Average temperatures between 2000 and 2016 were one degree Celsius warmer than in the period 1975–2000. This temperature rise was accompanied by a doubling of the annual ice lost to melting. Similar melting appears to be occurring in the adjoining Pamir, Hindu Kush, or Tian Shan ranges. With Himalayan runoff 1.6 times greater than if glaciers were stable, both seasonal flooding and catastrophic flooding (notably due to newly formed glacial lakes) has increased. However, within a few decades the increased run-off could be reversed, and major rivers could run dry. With some 800 million people dependent on Himalayan meltwater for irrigation, hydropower, and drinking water the effects would be catastrophic. All the more so since this would be coupled with more extreme and deadly heat waves. Indeed, if emissions go unchecked India’s average annual temperature could rise by four degrees from 24°C to 28°C taking days of extreme heat (over 35°C) from around five per year in 2010 to 42 per year in 2100. Excess mortality due to heat could be as high as 1.5 million a year.

In Europe there are concerns that shipping on inland waterways will be increasingly affected by global warming. With glaciers in the Alps shrinking, the supply of meltwater has tended to dwindle in summer and rivers such as the Rhine and the Danube have become more dependent on rainfall. Back in 2018 river traffic on rivers such as the Rhine and the Elbe came to a standstill, forcing factories to shut their doors due to disruptions in supply chains. In the case of the upper Elbe, the standstill lasted from June through to the end of December. Rail traffic has not been able to compensate these major disruptions in inland shipping. Undoubtedly, privatization and lack of public investment has played a role in this. As such, the uncertainties and disruptions faced by inland shipping risk further increasing the reliance on trucking with the greater environmental damage this implies.

Unsustainable water use — the environment sacrificed alongside working people

Since 1900 the freshwater withdrawn for human use (agricultural, industrial, municipal) has increased six-fold, with the rise accelerating sharply from the 1950s onwards but slowing down since 2000. Agricultural and hydrological droughts cannot be seen apart from these human consumption patterns.

Under capitalism individual responsibility is generally emphasized. As such, the discussion around water use usually does not go beyond moralizing about domestic consumption.

However, domestic consumption has decreased in many instances. In California urban water use has fallen 20% since 2013. The water used by two Southern California households in the 1970s now supplies three. In Germany, daily household consumption per person has gone down from 144 liters a day in 1991 to 123 liters a day today. Yet in reality, even in wealthy countries, household water consumption only accounts for a relatively small percentage of water use. In Europe agriculture is the main consumer of water (40%), followed by energy production (28%), mining and manufacturing (18%), and households (12%). However, water use can differ markedly from one country to the next. In Belgium, for instance, industry uses ten times more water than agriculture and five times more than households. Worldwide 70% of freshwater use goes to agriculture; on average this is 90% for low-income countries, 79% for middle-income countries, and 41% for high-income countries. Undoubtedly, agriculture, as the largest consumer of fresh water and as a sector vital to human existence must be the focus of this discussion.

In a globalized world economy, merely considering local or national water consumption patterns, paints a skewed picture of the problem. Terms such as “water footprint” or “virtual water” are used when describing the amount of freshwater “embodied” in a commodity. This includes water used throughout the production chain as well as water left contaminated during this process. The export of “virtual water” through trade can have a profound impact on local communities and environments as the locally available water is depleted and polluted, and therefore no longer available for locals uses. Net water export regions can become particularly vulnerable to changing weather patterns. A 2012 study found that “virtual water” export had doubled within the previous decade, while a 2013 study found that “virtual water” export accounted for 30% of direct water withdrawal.

Agribusiness thrives on intensive agricultural production for export. Many of the agricultural zones involved are found in semi-arid increasingly drought prone environments such as California, Chile or Spain. Many of the practices employed by agribusiness would be unsustainable even without the threat posed by global warming. The effects of drought on agricultural productivity are still not as dramatic as one would expect because farmers are increasingly tapping into surface and particularly groundwater reserves. Aquifers, however, are being depleted and are also increasingly contaminated by chemicals. Massive profits are still being made but just like with debt, the elastic can only be stretched so far. Yet, unlike the current debt crisis, which is a human construct that could be done away with along with the capitalist system, the damage done to the environment may be more long-lasting and even irreversible. The capitalist state has done the biding of big business interests; failing to enforce laws, foregoing regulation altogether or leaving it all over to the market through privatization.

Despite severe drought conditions Chilean agribusiness was able to announce record fruit exports for 2019. Chile is the largest fruit exporter in the Southern hemisphere and the sixth largest worldwide. Eighty percent of water use goes to agriculture with mining a distant second. Agribusiness has done quite well amidst drought conditions since it benefits from a system of water allocation which is highly detrimental to the rest to most of the population.

In 1981, under the Pinochet dictatorship, the “Water Code” was written into the constitution. Although the code classified water as a “social and an economic commodity,” it allowed the state to grant water rights to private actors, free of charge and in perpetuity. As such ownership also became separated from dominion over land. This created a water market because the holders of rights could also sell them. In line with Chile having served a neoliberal laboratory under the dictatorship, Chile is unique in that close to 100% of its water distribution is privatized. Ownership of water rights is concentrated in the hands of a few big actors from the agribusiness, mining, and forestry sectors. Amidst the drought water rights have become the object of a boom in speculation. Moreover, the system takes no account of changing water availability. This has left rural communities dependent on water trucks deliveries while adjacent plantations produce water-hungry crops such as avocado for export. Without water small farmers have been left destitute. Almost 47% of rural homes in Chile, some one million people, do not have access to drinking water. When including urban households, 400,000 households or 1.5 million rely on fifty liters a day water ration delivered by water truck. The protracted struggles by communities known as the “water war” have sought to reverse the privatization of water, giving priority to the needs of communities, and guaranteeing water access to all. These demands were taken up by the mass movement erupting in October 2019 bolstering the struggle against water privatization.

In Spain agriculture was one of the few sectors unaffected by the 2008–2009 financial crisis. Yet this thriving sector is also operating on borrowed time. Spain is currently the largest exporter of fresh fruit and vegetables worldwide. It represents 10% of the global trade in these products with almost the entirety of the exports going to the EU. Sixty percent of exported fruits and vegetables come from just three provinces; Almeria, Murcia and Valencia. The first two have arid climates, the third a Mediterranean climate, all have issues with overexploited and contaminated groundwater. With droughts becoming longer, groundwater is being exploited in an unsustainable manner. According to a Greenpeace study there could be as many as a million illegal wells in Spain. The illegally extracted water could be the equivalent to the water used by 118 million people. For a country of 46 million people this represents a “virtual water” export of incredible proportions. And this is not to mention the “virtual water” exported legally. This water theft has occurred with the complicity of the authorities at times in plain sight next to “protected” wetlands. Only the media attention given to a toddler who died falling down such a well in 2019 has increased enforcement somewhat. With three-quarters of Spain in risk of desertification the aquifers pillaged are a buffer which the country can ill afford to lose.

The ruthless exploitation of the environment goes hand in hand with an equally ruthless exploitation of workers. A case in point is strawberry production in the province of Huelva (over one quarter of the EU total). It relies on undocumented workers living in squalid shantytowns and seasonal workers treated hardly better to generate half a billion euro in revenue. This is not just the product of unscrupulous farmers but of an entire system. A system which sees entire regions specializes on a single crop to help facilitate just-in-time distribution. A system which incessantly pushes to produce more for less at whatever the cost in an incessant race to the bottom.

Socialist Planning — mitigation and managing water use for the many not the few

Besides being essential in achieving a rapid transition away from fossil fuels, socialist planning is also best suited to mitigate the deleterious developments set in motion by capitalism which can no longer be prevented. In the case of increased droughts, this includes reducing water wastage and preventing the contamination of this vital resource. Moreover, gains in water use efficiency should whenever possible not be employed to produce even more but utilized to bolster reserves and recovery of ecosystems.

Under capitalism, the discussion on the “water footprint” of various commodities is usually limited to individual choices made by consumers. Obviously, producing certain goods (beef, almonds, canned foods, etc) will require more water resources than do others. However, relying on consumer consciousness will at best bring incremental change. People are often constrained by financial considerations and lack the resources, time and energy to make informed decisions amidst a jumble of contradictory information and corporate hype. Neither will reformist attempts at regulating and incentivizing private enterprise suffice. To bring about the rapid changes required a collective approach is needed and changes must occur at the point of production.

Water use in agriculture could be reduced by limiting food waste. This necessitates a complete overhaul of commercial agriculture and food distribution, something which is incompatible with capitalist agribusiness. The production of water hungry crops should also be limited in water stressed environments. For example, an end to advertising and an emphasis on durability could put an end to “throwaway fashion” thereby reducing the growing of cotton, a particularly water-hungry crop often grown in arid environments. The same holds true for industrial products and products requiring mining resources.

Underinvestment in infrastructure is a major source of water waste. In the EU the estimated leakage rate in member states varies between 7 and 50 percent. In the United States about one seventh of treated water is wasted due to leakage. The upgrades needed by the existing water system would require an investment of 1 trillion dollars over 25 years according to the American Water Works Association. Under socialist planning investment in such infrastructure would be prioritized as would be extending safe drinking water and sanitation to all.

As revolutionary socialists we endeavor to comprehend the dynamics driving social change, and thus armed, become agents of social transformation. Capitalism gave rise to the working class. The working class is the force that can become the gravediggers of capitalism and usher in a social order free of misery, exploitation, and oppression. The destruction of the natural world under capitalism threatens if not humanity’s very existence, then at the very least the material basis for civilized society. The last years have seen millions across the globe, particularly youth, driven onto the streets by the urgency of the situation. It is of vital importance that we increase our grasp of the unfolding environmental catastrophe facing humanity. Many of the processes involved are highly complex. Environmental changes are accelerating and so is the science on this matter. The more we know the better we will be able to make the argument that the system change required is the socialist transformation of society. Socialism objectively is the only system that stands a chance of preserving a livable world for future generations.