Thicker than Water

As with most resources, Americans consume a disproportionate share of the earth’s oil and water. It’s especially easy to do when gas is cheap and the Great Lakes are close. However, as panelists at the March 18 discussion “All’s Fair in Oil and Water” pointed out, our widespread access to those resources comes at a price–one with reverberations around the globe.

About sixty people gathered in the assembly hall of the University of Chicago’s International House to listen to the small but diverse panel, which was presented by the Illinois Humanities Council. Jerome McDonnell, host of Chicago Public Radio’s “Worldview,” got the conversation started and moderated it throughout. With Canadian relatives who he said are convinced that “we’re drinking their water,” he has a sense of the resentment engendered worldwide by Americans’ vast consumption. DePaul University political science professor Clement Adibe described the far more heated conflict going on in Nigeria’s Niger Delta, where oil resources form the basis of political power and thus the grounds for much of the country’s violence. In light of the fact that more than eighty percent of the government’s revenue comes from oil, pipelines are major targets for attacks by militants, and the source of much oil-induced economic and environmental inequality. Adibe concluded with a call for “corporate responsibility and international engagement,” noting that Nigeria’s status as the eighth largest OPEC producer lends the conflict international implications.

Next to take the microphone was Ohio statesman Samuel Speck, who participated in the seven-year negotiation of the Great Lakes Compact, an agreement signed in 2008 between the Great Lakes states and two Canadian provinces regarding the use of the Lakes’ water resources. “Canada and the U.S. have similar values,” Speck said. “Being respectful of each other makes it possible to get things done.” According to him, the compact brought together a broad base of interests, including industry, agriculture, and First Nation indigenous peoples, and it had the strong support of all the premiers and governors involved. He credits its success to this comprehensive participation and to a general willingness to compromise, even on the highly controversial issue of bottled water.
Last to present was Ann Feldman, founder of the nonprofit creative media organization Artistic Circles. She showed a video documentary entitled “Water Pressures,” which tells the story of a foundation in India that helps villages set up systems of water collection and management. Feldman oversaw the creation of the short but engaging film over the course of three trips to Rajasthan, where the average daily water consumption is one-hundredth that of America.

The Q&A session that followed further addressed the relationship between oil and water, which have more in common now than ever as water has become increasingly privatized and scarce. “I hope that humanity doesn’t get to the point where water becomes a commodity,” said Adibe, “and I hope that industry has a responsibility and does not push the envelope too far.”