“Water promises to be to the 21st century what oil was to the 20th century:
the precious commodity that determines the
wealth of nations”
-New York Press-
It is the 21stcentury and according to UNICEF statistics 783 million people do not have access to safe drinking water. Each day at least 5,000 children die of preventable water and sanitation-related diseases. The world is plummeting towards a situation of extreme water scarcity. Indeed, between now and 2025, it is expected that we will need 17% more water to produce food for the swelling populace of developing countries. Meanwhile, total water consumption will increase disproportionately by some 40%. In optimal conditions, the average human being can survive up to a maximum of six days without drinking water. The rising levels of pollution, steadily expanding populations and unprecedented climate change, however, have combined to make the conditions we thrive in far from optimal. The odds are daunting. And as we summersault into a future in which access to clean drinking water promises to be uncertain, new talking points are developing. Among the many intriguing questions that are being asked today, one which happens to be, “Is drinking water a commodity or a human right?” takes centre stage.
The fundamental role played by water in the sustenance of all life forms is obvious: water is life. Thus, it is natural to assume that people shouldn’t have to pay a price for this basic right. Unfortunately, the real state of affairs is far from the ideal, which is that clean drinking water should not have to be bought under any circumstances.
The United Nations (UN) sustained a series of dialogues spanning multiple decades on this issue. The result was that binding resolutions were passed in 2010 declaring, “the human right to safe drinking water and sanitation is derived from the right to an adequate standard of living and inextricably related to the right to the highest attainable standard of physical and mental health, as well as the right to life and human dignity.” Water facilitates the provision of other fundamental human rights, thus to deprive people of access to clean water is to impose limitations on their right to live.
To put a price on water for conservation and management purposes is understandable. To make a commodity the defining factor in whether a person lives or dies can be, and is, greatly disputed. Depriving a person of a basic right to life because they cannot pay for it is unethical on several levels
It is unfortunate, that we as human beings are not able to justly exercise our right to water. On the one hand, countries with greater wealth and access to water sources have the tendency to overuse, waste and pollute these bodies; while on the other, there are millions of people who are completely deprived of clean water. 85% of the world’s population lives in the driest regions of the world, among which are some of the poorest and most vulnerable African countries.
Due to the varying degrees of access to clean water and the resultant water conflicts, the stage has been set on a global level for water to be viewed as a commodity - a scarce economic good that must be rationed - rather than a basic human right.
The modification of water appears to have risen significantly in the 20th century, in line with mounting fears of water scarcity and environmental degradation. Moreover, the provision of water as a public good has been found to be inefficient and ineffective in certain circumstances, leaving people with no choice but to purchase water for consumption as they do other commodities.
This transition, marked in the recent past, has its roots in the neoclassical idea of giving a good or service an economic value in order to prevent its exploitation. This new market approach governs water consumption in the contemporary world. As expected, however, the shift has sparked much controversy and debate among a wide range of stakeholders.
It is true that modern complex societies rely on the educational system to equip young children and youth with general and specialized skills to perform diverse production and service functions
The wave of demonstrations, police violence and public uprising against water prices in Cochamba, Bolivia in the year 2000, suggests the potential extent to which violence may escalate if water is to be privatised and traded as a commodity rather than a public good. Yet, some critics like K. Bakker argue that trading water leads to a more efficient allocation of the scarce resource. However, the efficiency of these water markets and the impact they may have on both society and the environment can be questioned. The system undoubtedly has flaws; and this is further illustrated by self-interested profit makers exploiting their powers to maximise their own gains from water selling. One marketing campaign targeted affluent Pakistanis in Lahore, with branded ‘Pure Life’ water which became a status symbol for the rich.
The poor were exposed to the ill effects of consuming contaminated water and left to contend with the dilemma of dried up springs in their villages. What’s more, it has bitten them directly by usurping the water supply and extracting water from two deep wells in Bhati Dilwan village. Thus, they too are forced to turn to bottled water. A similar story springs from Nigeria, where a single bottle of water is more expensive than the average daily income of a Nigerian citizen. In other words, “water has become the new oil”.
Sadly, many companies that privatise water are driven by the awareness that the rich will buy bottled water to stay in fashion, and the poor because they need to survive. Further support for the increasing consumerism of drinking water comes from a study released in 2011 which was carried out by the Inter-American Development Bank showing that Mexicans used approximately 127 gallons of bottled water per person per year, the highest in the world.
A grave repercussion of the water problem is the unfair choice that many underprivileged persons are forced to make (“to buy or not to buy?”), which is a consequence of the inverse relationship that exists between health and poverty for them.
To put a price on water for conservation and management purposes is understandable. To make a commodity the defining factor in whether a person lives or dies can be, and is, greatly disputed. Depriving a person of a basic right to life because they cannot pay for it is unethical on several levels.
Treating water as a commodity and the privatisation of water will continue to yield negative effects, especially for the poor. Statistics imply that water as a commodity is, and will continue to be, manipulated by the rich, powerful or water abundant regions of the world. People living in the slums of Jakarta, Manila and Nairobi already pay 5 to 10 times more for water than those living in high-income areas in the same cities; a sum that is shockingly, even more than that paid by consumers in New York or London.
Women in Africa prefer to walk long distances to fetch dirty water from rivers rather than to pay for clean water, while farmers in Asia will soon be unable to sustain their livelihoods if they do not receive state-funded irrigation.
Thus, instead of moving progressively forward in a struggle for survival, the majority of the world’s population is being forced to step back.
While it is important to ponder over the debate on treating water as a commodity or a right, we must not shy away from asking whether water can be “owned” at all.
The broader picture is that economic neo-liberalism has done a lot of damage to our commons, including water. In reality, water and property rights don’t mix. Rather than talking in the dualist language of “rights” vs. “commodity”, we ought to spell out our responsibilities. This is undeniable and should encourage us to seek a water-management regime around water as a commons (for humans as well as for other species in the biosphere), not as a commodity.
Thinking about water as a commons is an important part of maintaining a stable and healthy environment for both humanity and biodiversity. Such an approach advocates sustainable consumption, a stable or reducing population, high levels of reuse and recycling and no nett loss of soil or biodiversity. This requires a radical change in outlook and our consumption, our technology choices and our population numbers in order to live within the means of the planet. We must tackle all three if our children and grandchildren are to have a decent life.