By Tibor Hartel
Access to clean drinking water is a major social and health problem in many parts of the world. According to the Millenium Ecosystem Assessment „Some 1.1 billion people still lack access to improved water supply, and more than 2.6 billion lack access to improved sanitation.” and “Water scarcity affects roughly 1–2 billion people worldwide.”
Many rural societies in Romania are still largely using this provisioning ecosystem service – i.e. water – from ‘first hand’. ‘First hand’ means that they extract water – like other basic resources like timber and food – directly from the surrounding landscapes, traditionally owned and ‘managed’ by them. The quality of water and other goods and products is not assessed by certified experts in resource and food industry, nor treated and modified in order to meet the food and many other consumer security requirements.
From the perspective of a ‘typical’ EU country is indeed strange, if not unusual, to find whole villages where people derive drinking water directly from nature, without any purification and microbiological, chemical assessment. Each household have its own fountain and permanent fresh water. People don’t pay for the management of this water – this is done by the ecosystem itself.
My own experience in a Hungarian traditional village from Transylvania called Székelypipe suggests that people are aware of which household uses which kind of water and even recommend it, e.g. to make certain types of soups from it. They know that after a long lasting rain, where are those fountains in the village less affected by turbidity – and they have free access to use water from those fountains temporarily until their own is (naturally) cleaned. And health problems caused by water quality are largely inexistent in these communities – this being the ultimate indicator of (i) water quality and (ii) the knowledge of managing, using it.
However, the persistence of a good quality ecosystem service often through centuries is not a guarantee for its future persistence. In fact, more and more reports and findings suggest that this specific ecosystem service – drinking water – is sharply deteriorating in many parts of Romania.
Today I saw a short report on Romanian TV news showing that fountain waters are increasingly losing their quality, and their use for drinking can pose serious health risks, including death for persons consuming them. The most likely reason is the contamination of ground water e.g. by the increased chemical use in agriculture and other pollutants. Moreover, local communities were not aware about this problem, some of them received the news with skepticism: they “tested” the water (by smell, visually and by taste) and were convinced that their water is indeed clean and consumable. I also observed around my hometown that more and more fountains and springs formerly used by people as drinking water source have small signs with the message ‘Not good for drinking’.
Sustainability is about many things, and has many dimensions, from ethical, moral ones to the more practical and pragmatic aspects. For example, who and how many people are the winners and losers of agricultural intensification, from the perspective of freshwater – drinking water availability and quality? If landuse intensification (with increased chemical use) fills the pockets of few people with money (this is generally happening in my experience, beyond ‘populist’ messages like ‘people need food’ or ‘people need jobs’) and drives many more people on the threshold of not having good drinking water and increasing risk of illness – is this fair and sustainable? Not talking about the overall deterioration of the soil itself and the catastrophic impact on biodiversity and landscapes.
Who are the winners and losers of other development types like the gold mine project from Rosia Montana which poses a serious threat for ground and surface water of central-eastern Europe, but also for biodiversity and the unique cultural and landscape heritage and the rural societies from that area? The Rosia Montana Goldmine project is also ‘sold’ under the umbrella of sustainability and heritage conservation through many TV channels of Romania (these TV channels don’t present the immense human tragedies people already experienced and are experiencing in those areas – caused by that project!).
Certainly we need to re-establish priorities and value systems. To be more pro-active and wise rather than reactive. We need to be adaptive rather than losing our capability to adapt. And with clean fresh water we are certainly more adaptable and sustainable than with intensively used agricultural deserts, goldmines (one cannot drink nor eat the gold…) and dense networks of highways. Global change is pressing our shoulders already and we still continue to repeat old patterns of development and thinking, and attitudes (which overall triggered these many changes). Is there the time to consider these ‘mistakes’ and put more seriously the problem of not repeating them, or should we wait till more vital ecosystem services and values are lost forever and more people will suffer? These questions are not only for Romanians especially in our new, common country, calledEurope. Common in the broadest sense: for example, the spring from which little Alison took water provisions for the next couple of hours in a small Transylvanian village should be a common responsibility for ‘you’ (and yes, ‘you’ the policy maker) too who (eventually) might read this post – whether you’re from Germany, the UK or Sweden…