Water is a feminist issue

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Victoria burning, Melburnians choking from the smoke, parched land everywhere. This is life in the southeast corner of the earth’s driest continent. Across the Pacific, on the U.S.-Canadian border, pre-Christmas storms flooded homes, cut power and blocked main roads. On Christmas day, post-tsunami Aceh and North Sumatra were once again under water and mud. These are just a few climatic flashpoints striking the planet in more places and with increasing frequency.

Global warming has turned water into an immediate, urgent question of survival. Because health, nutrition and hygiene are still women’s responsibility, water is a feminist issue.

In Australia, towns’ water supplies are becoming contaminated. Wycheproof, in northwest Victoria, has been forced to rely on bottled water after eight rainless years caused water channels to pick up sludge and toxins. Imagine using water from a bottle for everything from bathing and washing clothes to cooking and cleaning! Other parts of the world show what happens when quality water is in short supply. Contamination by industrial and radioactive wastes, herbicides and insecticides is disasterous. It is responsible for millions of children dying from gastrointestinal diseases, women having miscarriages and stillbirths, and people suffering from life-threatening, preventable conditions, including cancer. In 2004, 6,300 people around the world died every day due to the scarcity of safe water.

Over the past year, households across Australia have been under tight water restrictions. By December 2006, residential consumption was cut back to 1950s levels. Penalties for breaches are severe. So is the ever-rising price of water — thanks to its privatisation which pumps billions ($659 million in 2004-2005 alone) into the coffers of company owners. And it gets worse. The Commonwealth Department of the Environment and Heritage reported in 2001 that households consumed only 9% of the country’s water, compared to 67% by the agricultural industry. Under capitalism, water belongs to big business to use and profit from. But the crisis this produces belongs, as always, to working people — especially to women who, overwhelmingly, manage their households’ water consumption, deal with the hardship and pay the bills. This disproportionate burden is global.

Resistance rises. Bolivians forced the government to cancel a contract with Bechtel, which made water too expensive. In that country, just three out of five people have access to safe drinking water. In Tamil Nadu, women led protests against Coca Cola for using up the scarce water supply. The people of Mecosta County, Michigan contested Nestle’s rights to their spring water. In December last year, residents of Valencia in Spain demanded the clean-up of their nitrate-contaminated water. Last November, Melbourne’s rally against global warming jammed the streets with protesters from across the State.

Everywhere, people know that winning back and safeguarding our water system is of do-or-die magnitude. Women, the environment’s best protectors, understand this best. It’s time to demand: Clean water! A safe environment! Power to the working people! Nothing less will quench our thirst for justice and security.

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