Just another drop in the bucket on World Water Day?

22 March 2017

Each year, the United Nations uses World Water Day as an opportunity to raise awareness and demand action around the global water crisis. Each year, there is a theme. This year’s theme is wastewater, framed as a ‘grossly undervalued as a potentially affordable and sustainable source of water, energy, nutrients and other recoverable materials’ (pdf). The sort of technical optimism embodied in World Water Day often appears alongside colourful photos (pdf) of poor people living in poor places, usually women and girls, carrying heavy containers down dirt paths or across sun-parched landscapes. These images are used to convey a sense of urgency to calls for action. What we are seeing however, are two very different faces of ‘the water crisis’. 

Two faces of ‘water crisis’

One the one hand, we have a market-oriented technical approach that presents the water crisis as a set of technical and economic problems – scarcity to be managed in particular sectors and around discrete issues. Yet, in practice, this is at odds with the story of crisis told by photographs and narratives about people living without access to safe water or improved water sources, a crisis of access, quality and equity in the distribution of water resources. Images and stories stand in for the billions of people living without improved sanitation, hundreds of millions of people who lack access to safe drinking water and the hundreds of thousands of children, for example, who die of diarrheal diseases caused by faecal bacteria, viruses and parasites in their drinking water each year.

The dominant technical perspective does not inherently exclude considerations of social and environmental justice, but such considerations are often secondary to goals of profitability, pricing and economic growth that may be more directly beneficial to powerful claimants like politicians, businesses and investors. 

Water resources come under pressure from a number of competing uses – for intensive uses like large-scale manufacturing, energy production, industrial agriculture and mineral extraction, alongside increasing urban demand and needs for consumption and domestic use – by different groups with different objectives, positions and capabilities to make claims on water access and control. Policies that come from the technical perspective, which focus on pricing and privatisation of water resources as a means of increasing efficiency in water management, attracting investment and fostering national economic growth, can actually exacerbate crises of access, intensify poverty and increase the magnitude of already unprecedented global inequalities in both wealth and wellbeing. 

Who benefits?

From China and India to Turkey to California to the Amazon, ‘water grabs’ are an increasingly well-documented phenomenon in which formal and informal water rights and their benefits of use are reallocated from local user communities to more powerful economic and political actors, often in the name of development. Reallocating rights to water also reallocates who pays the costs and who can benefit from its use. 

In terms of access, consequences can include detrimental changes in the amount and quality of water available to local users, and often increasing economic and opportunity costs for accessing the most basic necessity of life. Damming a river to produce hydroelectric power, for example, may technically increase ‘efficiency’ in the use of water and contribute to GDP growth, whilst at the same time increasing environmental damage and deprivation and suffering of people ‘downstream’ due to restricted water access and increased pollution in what is available for basic use. 

Conflation of fundamentally different views of the nature of ‘water crisis’ may create a compelling message from a marketing perspective, but it also creates contradictions. It dangerously confuses and de-politicises what are fundamentally political and social problems. 

Recent events from the United States, including the poisoning of Flint, Michigan’s municipal water supply in the name of cost-cutting, and the violent suppression of water protectors and their allies opposing the Dakota Access Pipeline in North Dakota, demonstrate how water crises intersect in important ways with the politics of climate change and accumulation, contestations unfolding around other resources like land, forests, minerals and fisheries, and also with violent histories of struggle around issues of environmental integrity, industrial regulation, labour, human rights, democracy, racism and gender. 

Achieving a sustainable future 

It bears mentioning that capitalism is not simply an economic system, but can be rather understood as a way of organising nature and society and putting it to work towards particular ends. Water crises, however framed, are not simply a natural fact, nor a simple economic problem amenable to market correction. Crises are created through the actions and policy choices that determine those ends. As the rising tide of people’s environmental justice movements demonstrates, water is a part of a terrain of struggle and contestation among diverse ‘ends’ and diverse notions of sustainability. This is the terrain of struggle that has come to characterise twenty-first century resource politics, and we all live ‘downstream’. 

Achieving a more sustainable future requires that we learn to think differently about both resource crises and resource politics. It is essential that we place politics in our analyses of environmental problems and solutions, open up spaces for knowledge that reflects the perspectives, experiences and imaginations of people on the front lines of resource struggles and commit to realising ‘ends’ based on asking not who is a stakeholder in water struggles, as if everything unfolded on an even playing field, but by asking whose justice is at stake. 

This does not mean that technology and scientific expertise cannot be appropriate to context, but that technology and research can be put to ends of dismantling the policy regimes, institutions and barriers that give rise to crises and systematically deprive people of the capability to live well. Anything less is just a drop in the bucket.

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