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Did The Copenhagen Conference Forget To Add Water?

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Did The Copenhagen Conference Forget To Add Water?

Did The Copenhagen Conference Forget To Add Water?

Did The Copenhagen Conference Forget To Add Water?

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  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

The Copenhagen world conference on climate Change is underway in Denmark. Thousands will travel to the Danish capital to attend the 12-day meeting, including President Obama. But journalist and author James Workman says a critical element to preserving the environment is being overlooked by the conference: water. Workman explains the concern.


I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

Coming up, when you were a teen, remember worrying that your parents might come upon your diary and open it? Well, imagine opening it yourself and getting up on stage and reading it in front of hundreds of people. Why would anybody do that? We'll find out in just a few minutes.

But first, a much more serious topic, climate change. The Copenhagen Climate Change Conference is underway in Denmark today. Thousands of people have traveled to the Danish capital to attend the conference, including representatives from 192 national governments and activists of all stripes. More than 100 heads of state are scheduled to attend the conference at some point, including President Barack Obama who pushed back the timing of his visit in order to arrive toward the end of the 12-day meeting.

The White House says the delay will ensure the president can weigh in on any final conference agreement to reduce carbon emissions if, that is, an agreement is hammered out.

But James Workman, a journalist and author, says even if an agreement is reached, one extremely critical element in preserving the environment won't be discussed at the conference at all: water. We wanted to know more, so James Workman is here with us now. Welcome, thank you for joining us.

Mr. JAMES WORKMAN (Journalist; Author, Heart of Dryness: How the Last Bushmen Can Help Us Endure the Coming Age of Permanent Drought): Thank you for being here.

MARTIN: You wrote a recent op-ed in the Los Angeles Times that says in part, I'll just read a sentence: Delegates from around the world chosen to decide our fate have deliberately removed the one element that can tip the scales. We know fossil fuel emissions matter immensely, but the most volatile chemical compound isn't methane, nitrous oxide or even carbon dioxide, it's water.

First of all, why should water on the agenda of the climate change talks and why did the delegates deliberately, as you say, remove it?

Mr. WORKMAN: It should be on the agenda because water is where climate change becomes manifest. We may disagree with the scientists on different elements, but we don't disagree about drought. We don't disagree about Hurricane Katrina. You can't argue with nature on these things. And that's what drove us to the table in the first place is these consequences. The other thing is that water is a greenhouse gas, and that's the thing that often gets forgotten, and one of the things that connects what's going on up in the atmosphere with what we're doing down here. It's also something that people can relate to, and that gives more democratic legitimacy to the discussions that are going on there.

MARTIN: And we know that there are parts in the U.S. where water is an issue. It's a heavily negotiated issue. It's a big part of our history and we also know that, of course, there are conflicts in countries that we cover closely overseas, where fighting over water clearly is at the source of the conflict. So, why would delegates choose not to directly engage on the question of water?

Mr. WORKMAN: For a long time their priority has been capping the emissions, whether it's the smokes tax, whether it's the tailpipes, they come from an energy background, they talk about parts per million. That's their area of expertise. And Al Gore has been prominent among them. They say we've got to turn off the taps before we clean up the mess.

The trouble is we have gotten past that point. So, yes, we need to mitigate, yes, we need to stop those emissions but we also need to start talking about adaptation. And adaptation is both part of the problem and could be part of the solution.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, you're listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News. We're talking with James Workman. He's an expert on water and we're talking about the opening of the Copenhagen Conference on Climate Change. And we're talking about why water isn't more central to the agenda. How did you get interested in water?

Mr. WORKMAN: As a kid growing up in California, you go through this droughts and you start realizing this is a powerful force beyond my family's power to control, beyond anyone's power to control and we got to adopt to this. But it really struck home overseas when I was in Southern Africa and they were going through a drought. The bushmen had been cut off by their water from the government, but they were doing very well as they have for 30,000 years, because they had coping mechanisms that they evolved with to deal with this scarcity and the kind of climate change that we're just now starting to confront.

MARTIN: Can you tell me what some of those are? I mean, they might not be easy to translate but�

Mr. WORKMAN: In some ways it is. They don't have a monopoly. There's no monopoly there, like you and I have one monopoly where we get our water from. There's nothing like that in nature. There's nothing like that in the Kalahari and the bushmen negotiates with one another.

The second thing is that they own their water. You and I rent water, so we don't really care much about it, just like we do a rental car. But if you own water, if you own shares of water, then you start treating it differently. You don't pee in it for starters. You don't, you know, hose down your driveway in the middle of the day, you don't water your vegetables at certain times of day in certain methods. And so they start becoming extremely efficient in their resilience and they have incentives to use less and use it efficiently.

MARTIN: You know, there are people in parts of this country who live in water-scarce environments as you mentioned. Do we adapt or do we just fight about it and hire lawyers to fight?

Mr. WORKMAN: A very good example was in the southeast which is not seen as a water scarce area. In 2007, where you had drought affecting, people were snitching on their neighbors, they were turning city against farmers. The farmers were saying, well, it's not us, it's the people in the next state. And you have a governor saying, let's all pray for rain. So, it's a very contentious issue. Whereas most tragedies bring people together from 9/11 or Katrina, drought drives us apart because we start saying, right, I need water to survive and I'm going to grab onto to it as much as I can.

MARTIN: What have you learned from your work, as we mentioned you spent two years with an indigenous population in Botswana called Kalahari bushmen and you described your experience and lessons learned in your book, �Heart of Dryness: How the Last Bushmen Can Help Us Endure the Coming Age of Permanent Drought.� What are some of the things that we can learn from your work and from them?

Mr. WORKMAN: A lot of it is trust the wisdom of crowds. You introduced me very kindly as a water expert, but these guys are the real water experts that we need to listen to. And that's surprising to people because they say, wait, these guys are illiterate, they can't even count. But they know how to manage their water because their life depends on it. I don't think it has to come to that for us.

But if we start saying, okay, you get a share of water, now you're going to manage that and we want to have basically 6.8 billion water managers around the world thinking more about how they manage their water, how they own that water, what they do with it and can they trade it which is what the bushman would do, not out of altruism but out of self-interest. And the dispersed and the lower down, you can have that management take place - instead of from Washington, D.C. or from the state capital - the more effective, the more equitable and the more transparent it's going to be.

MARTIN: What's the first sensible thing you think that we in this country should be doing to address this issue?

Mr. WORKMAN: Argue for a universal right to water that people can own, defend and trade with their neighbors which then is an incentive to use less and you got a race to conserve instead of what's now, this tragedy of the commons, where we're fools if we don't use up as much water as we can because it's so cheap. Only then I think would we start saying, hey wait, we want to value on this water, just like we do with gasoline. We can own gas. We can put that in our tank.

Water you can't own. You can own your house, you can all the pipes and furniture and everything. You can own your own body, but the 70 percent of our body, that's water. The water that's running through our house, we can't own that.

MARTIN: In fact, there are disputes and some jurisdictions about who want to capture water from the environment with rain bowls. There are some parts of the country where that's actually illegal.

Mr. WORKMAN: Illegal. That's at the longest downstream to someone else or it's for us to use. And that was the heart of this issue in the Kalahari. So, the government says the rain is ours. The water underground is ours. Any water in rivers, there weren't in the Kalahari, is ours. And it's like, well, who's us? Isn't that us, we the people, isn't that belong to us since we've been 30,000 years and since twice the age of this country. And Botswana is a great country is many ways, but they are on the wrong side of history here. And I use this not to pick on them, but as a way of example of what we can learn from their experience.

MARTIN: James Workman is an award winning journalist and expert on water. He is the author of �Heart of Dryness: How the Last Bushmen Can Help Us Endure the Coming Age of Permanent Drought,� and he joined us from our studios in Washington, D.C. Thank you so much for joining us.

Mr. WORKMAN: Michel, thank you.

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