In the midst of a global pandemic, when the presence of water in our lives has never seemed more important, its future availability has also never been more uncertain. Water scarcity is now such a threat that it is even possible to trade in ‘water futures’ – joining commodities like gold and oil on Wall Street, with traders hedging against future water availability.
So, while farmers and pastoralists struggle to know when the next rainfall will come, and women and children walk for hours to collect water from distant water points, further commodification and financialisation of water has arrived, with huge implications for basic rights to water.
Lyla Mehta and Alan Nicol argue that our future water safety and security will only be guaranteed if we work to reflect water’s multiple values in coming years – including social and cultural as well as economic and financial.
Globally, we seem almost inured to the fact that across the world women and girls spend up to 200 million hours every day walking an average of six km to collect water. These depressing facts flash up in our news feeds across the same screens that now make it possible to trade in ‘water futures’ on the NYSE. Between these ‘two screens’ lies an almost perverse linkage between global policy seeking to achieve the SDG targets under Goal 6 and a global financial world seeking investment gains under new financial instruments.
Safe water as a basic right
Today of all days is a good time to pause and take stock. Every 22 March since 1993 the international community has marked ‘World Water Day’ and this year’s theme is valuing water. Our own personal valuing of the resource has been starkly demonstrated during the Covid-19 pandemic. Those of us with taps have diligently increased our handwashing with soap and water, while 2.5 billion people globally continue to struggle even to access a basic daily quantity. Eleven years ago, the UN recognised access to safe drinking-water and sanitation as a human right, and yet for many poor households their basic rights – and their health – remain jeopardised during this pandemic.
Beyond domestic need
And it’s not just about domestic use. Multiplicities of values attached to water converge around farming households in, for instance, rural Africa. To a young female farmer staring up at the clouds in Eastern Tanzania unpredictable rainfall under an uncertain climate directly affects her family’s food security as well as her cash income for school fees derived from the sale of sorghum to the local brewing industry. The value of rainfall is therefore multiple and multi-scale – to her crops and income, to the groundwater recharge for domestic supplies, and, more widely, to an agricultural value chain supporting an important part of the economy.
Domestic and international investors, encouraged by national policies focussing on foreign direct investment, often seek to ‘grab’ this land, having implications for both this farmer’s land and water rights as well as environmental sustainability.
Despite general recognition that the value of water is much more than its nominal price in different contexts, since the landmark Dublin conference of 1992 economic and financial values have tended to prevail over values embedded in culture and society. These have led to policies embracing privatization, full cost recovery and “efficient” uses of water, often leadings to prepaid meters and controversial cut-offs especially in poor urban localities.
Moreover, we live in an age when engineering and economic principles can override environmentalists’ concerns as well as local and affected people’s values attached to land, river and forests. The controversies of large dams on India’s Narmada River, for example, illustrate the huge environmental, human and social costs that have been ignored by dam-builders and the State in the name of ‘development’ despite research disputing these claims.
A global problem
At the heart of all such contestations is a politics of value determination in which, very often, the least powerful and most marginalised lose out. This essentially governance problem remains a global challenge – and not just in the Global South. The concerns and complaints around water contamination of poor black residents in Flint, for example, were routinely ignored, leading to a major water crisis in the city, linked to systemic biases around race and class. And in parts of the UK water companies continue to allow raw sewage to flood our rivers – affecting their ecological and amenity values.
For the future, therefore, we need to recognize how a hierarchy of water values needs a process of deliberative governance with which to encapsulate all our human wellbeing, dignity and ecological sustainability priorities. It also needs to avoid over-objectifying the resource in remote financial and other instruments and recognise how consumption patterns and values of the rich and powerful can undermine poor people’s values and basic rights to water.
So, on World Water Day 2021, when we next wash our hands for another 20 seconds, let’s champion the often hidden and overlooked values of water security worldwide.
This opinion was originally published by IPS – the Inter Press Service news agency