Monday, November 16, 2015

Clean water in the context of American politics

While perusing Netflix one day, I found an amazing documentary to cut my indecision short, "Slingshot". The film takes us on a tour of inventor and entrepreneur Dean Kamen's efforts to give people in the poorest countries access to clean water. As some of you may be aware, about 900 million people worldwide do not have ready access to clean, potable water.

Kamen estimates that if we provided everyone in the world with clean water to drink, we could cut the worldwide hospital population by about 50%. This is an astounding figure and it cuts to the importance of just having clean water to drink.

Kamen realized the enormity of the problem and dedicated his mind, his time and his effort to solving the problem once he realized he had a partial solution to the problem. What I really like about the film is that it shines on a spotlight on the good work that a business can do when presented with an opportunity to do it.

Most Americans are completely unaware of the water problem we're facing worldwide. Many Americans are unsatisfied with tap water so they don't trust the tap water. Instead, many of us get water from bottles, from filters, and use the tap as a last resort.

Kamen has created a solution that no government has managed to solve and that few if any other businesses were really interested in solving. He started out wanting to solve the problem of making dialysis portable so that people with poorly or non-functioning livers could get their dialysis at home rather than at the hospital. But first he needed to create a source of medical grade water, water that could be safely injected into the body. Once he figured out how to do that, he realized that his solution could scale and that he could help to solve the worldwide water problem.

Kamen, with his business, has created a machine that can purify 1,000 liters of water a day, enough for 100 people, from any source. He estimates that his machine can purify 100 million liters of water in 3 years of service without overhaul. In partnership with the Coca-Cola Company, Kamen plans to distribute the Slingshot to thousands of villages worldwide at a cost of $1-2,000 each.

The movie is a very interesting exploration of the limits of government, non-governmental organizations and business, yet shows how they can all work together for the common good. As I watched the movie, I was started by the following statistic: 3.5 million people die annually because of diseases resulting from the consumption of unsanitary water.

I also began to think about the water problems we're creating here, in America. We have an enormous fracking industry that is conducting a rapacious campaign to force oil and gas out of the ground. The companies that engage in this activity are dumping their waste water back into the environment, poisoning the well for many of us. In this context, we may find ourselves the next big customer for Kamen.

Businesses that engage in fracking are not paying for the clean up, but everyone is for it through government remediation efforts. We are also paying for it with water filters, water softeners, bottled water and visits to the doctor. One only need look to Erin Brockovich and her relentless efforts to document and expose water contamination worldwide.

In the political context, it should be noted that conservatives in Congress are pulling hard for the KXL pipeline. They are working hard to emaciate federal agencies that regulate the companies that send their effluent into the water systems we depend upon for life. They are solidly opposed to a single payer health care system.

In this context, this is why a single payer health care system makes sense. With a private insurance system, is it easier for a company to externalize the costs of health care as a result of the pollution created by their business. With a single payer health system, supported by taxes that are paid by the business, there is no escape. Here we may finally find a deterrent to polluters at large. If they hurt us, they hurt themselves.

The current and coming struggles over clean, potable water will only serve to highlight this tension. The more that business proponents resist a single payer system, the more we can be sure that they wish to externalize the costs of their business. It is this struggle that came to mind when I watched the story of Dean Kamen's efforts to bring clean water to the world in Slingshot.
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