Water pouring from a tap Photo: Public Domain

John Westmorland argues that water is one of the most precious and essential resources but under capitalism is a commodity we all have to pay for

The Celtic tribes of Europe worshipped water in all forms. They made votive offerings by throwing sacred objects such as jewellery and weapons into rivers and lakes. Springs and wells were seen as the fountains of life and had huge cultural significance.

In India the Ganges River is a sacred entity called Ganga Ma or Mother Ganges, whose purity cleanses the sins of the Hindu faithful and helps the dead on their path to heaven.

The spirit of capitalism has a different take – natural resources only have value when they return a profit. Capitalism is leaving its own votive offerings in our waterways. English rivers are increasingly becoming a cocktail of “sewage, agricultural and road pollution.”

Mother Ganges is also defiled. Recent studies show that the Ganges River is so full of killer pollutants that those living along its banks in Uttar Pradesh, Bihar and Bengal are more prone to cancer than anywhere else in the country. A purifier it is not. And water is now at the centre of the worldwide capitalist crisis.

Clean drinking water, in sufficient quantities to preserve life, is becoming a decisive issue in the fight to save the planet. Drought and floods are two sides of the same coin – the disruption of weather cycles by extreme events – and these add to the climate disaster, threaten biodiversity, and increase poverty. Wars fought for water are a real possibility.

Droughts are now threatening human existence in the Global South where poverty is endemic. One of the worst affected areas is Afghanistan.

“Close to 11 million people in Afghanistan are currently experiencing soaring levels of acute food insecurity due to Covid-19, war, escalating food costs and high levels of unemployment. Due to the drought, wheat production is down and causing the economy to become even more unstable. Effects of the Covid-19 pandemic already heightened issues within the economy and farmers and herdsmen are driven into a cyclical pattern of loans and debt if the drought in Afghanistan causes crops to fail, leading to significant instability.”

Other countries face the same nightmare as Afghanistan. South Sudan is possibly the worst country affected by a drought that has lasted for a decade and is devastating crops and livestock, but across Africa and South America there is a worsening situation.

Drought conditions force people to drink and wash in unclean water. Mothers and girls are forced to walk long distances to fetch water full of contaminants to bathe their babies and cook their food in. Child mortality tells us more about the world we live in than anything else.

A Unicef report published in 1919 said, “every year, 85,700 children under-15 die from diarrhoea linked to unsafe water, sanitation and hygiene facilities (Wash).  Some 72,000 under-fives die annually from similar illnesses linked to Wash-access problems, compared to 3,400 from war-related violence.”

The world’s water shortage is causing a humanitarian disaster in the Global South that is getting worse as the atmosphere warms. But what are the world’s wealthiest countries doing?

Unicef records that in 2018 they, “provided 35.3 million people with access to safe water for drinking, cooking and personal hygiene.” Good news? The truth is that providing fresh water to people clinging to life comes at a cost, one that is enriching western water corporations, and is a powerful indicator of why the market is not the answer to the crisis facing humanity.

Commodification and corporate theft

The neoliberal epoch has seen human rights rolled back around the world, while the rights of corporations have been accentuated. As the climate crisis creates further food and fuel poverty the rights of refugees, the free media and trade unions have been attacked. But the rights of corporations to fell precious trees and mine fossil fuels, sell arms to dictators and develop pristine countryside have increased.

Nature’s bounty, understood as such by the human species since Adam was a lad, is being stolen from us with devastating consequences.  Corporations that were formed from the privatisation of public utilities by Margaret Thatcher soon became international predators on the world scene.

Both the Thatcher and Blair governments encouraged global outreach through its foreign aid programme.

Corporations like Biwater who advertise themselves as ‘A World Leader in Treated Water’ have come to monopolise water services in whole countries with power over the inhabitants. Tanzania in East Africa is one such country. Biwater has created a water supply market where water for irrigation is only available to farmers who can pay for the water.

The result is conflict between the wealthier farmers who can pay and the poor farmers who, having used water freely for centuries, are now called thieves if they take it.

The same story can be repeated across the world, but it’s not just water companies that are to blame. The threat of aridity looms over countries whose resources are deployed to satisfy demand in wealthier countries, and Coca Cola provides a telling example.

Coca Cola is guilty of stealing water supplies at huge human cost. As War on Want puts it:

“Coca-Cola has been accused of dehydrating communities in its pursuit of water resources to feed its own plants, drying up farmers’ wells and destroying local agriculture.”

And guess what:

“The company has also violated workers’ rights in countries such as Colombia, Turkey, Guatemala and Russia. Only through its multi-million-dollar marketing campaigns can Coca-Cola sustain the clean image it craves.”

In parts of India that are already facing water shortages, Coca Cola is tapping into aquifers that supply local farmers. Almost three litres of water are used to make one litre of Coke and this water theft is leaving farmers’ wells empty, bringing destitution and wasting communities.

Coca Cola is one example from many. The point is that neoliberal consumer fetishism is wreaking havoc and driving the world to disaster. The market, contrary to the ravings of Liz Truss is not the answer to the crisis, it is the driving force of it.

The combination of global warming and the absurd and highly dangerous economic dogma that insists on using an ever expanding market to solve the world’s problems is reaching crunch time. And even water-rich countries are going to feel the heat as the disruption to markets and supplies worsens. The USA is no exception.

US facing crisis

The importance of water to the culture of Native American tribes is well documented. Tribal rituals involving rivers and streams were outlawed by US governments in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries because their spiritual heritage might impinge on the rights of private property. On the banks of the Colorado River tribes like the Hualapai, to whom the river is sacred, are fighting for its sustainability.

In 2021 the US Bureau of Reclamation declared an unprecedented water shortage for the Colorado River that winds through seven states in the western USA. From its source in the Rocky Mountains to its outflow in the Gulf of California the river generates electricity at multiple dams, supports the region’s extensive agricultural industry, and provides an essential water supply to roughly 40 million people.

The current megadrought—a decades-long period of extreme dryness—has reduced the river’s system storage to 40 per cent capacity and lowered its reservoirs to historic levels. Global warming has reduced the snow pack that fed the Colorado in the summer months.

Lake Powell, until recently a place where tourists flocked to swim, fish and water ski is at an historic low. Boat moorings stand well above the water level. Lake Meade, created by the Hoover Dam, has been left with a ‘bathtub ring’ over 100 feet high, and risks becoming a ‘dead pool’ unable to supply water and power if water levels continue to fall.

Hoover Dam. Photo: Public Domain

Industrial farming that draws water from the Colorado River is the main human activity that is depleting the river. The irrigation of salad crops and hay to feed the beef herds takes about 80 per cent of water drawn from the river. Industry and domestic use accounts for the rest.

But already farmers in Arizona are on the breadline as fields turn brown and the ground cracks. Cities like Los Angeles might face food and power shortages if the Colorado continues to shrink.

This is a crisis that needs urgent attention. Phoenix in Arizona with a population of 1,608,139 could potentially become uninhabitable. Arizona is mainly desert, yet the government seems to be in denial. Sprinklers on the golf courses and lawns are in full flow.

The impact on ecosystems may well be irreversible too. The loss of plant life on water margins threatens the species that inhabit them for food, shelter and prey. The reduced outflow of the river into the Bay of California is leading to a higher ratio of salt to fresh water. This is impacting endangered species such as long tailed smelt, chinook salmon and the orcas that feed on them.

The only solution to the drought related crisis in the south west is completely off the agenda of the ruling class. The solution requires the prioritisation of human need, followed by planning and resourcing the means by which that need can be met.

For example, if water use has to be restricted there must be a ban on more housing and hotel development. This solution is being rejected because it will impact profits from construction and tourism. Water management will also mean massive investment in infrastructure to provide things like drip-feed irrigation, reduced flow plumbing and grey water capture for recycling. This has been shown to work on organic farms in Spain, but it too smacks of socialism, so no.

America has huge resources and is certainly capable of meeting the crisis. But Wall Street doesn’t like to finance projects with little capital return and would prefer that home owners and businesses pay. To compound the crisis further, the seven states that currently rely on the Colorado River for their water, are increasingly at war with each other about how a common resource might be shared.

The crisis is not going away and the clock is ticking. The pressure on government to reorder their spending priorities is bound to increase and will collide with domestic and foreign policy commitments.

The fight for a democratic solution

Water theft by corporations is facilitated by state violence.

The most glaring example is the denial of water to Palestinians by Israel as a deliberate act of humiliation. Israel directly controls 85 percent of water resources in the West Bank and has a say in how the rest is distributed. The Palestinian Authority has to beg Israel for licenses to dig additional wells in the West Bank to fill the enormous need for more water.

As the climate crisis deepens the people drawn into protest for social and economic justice cannot avoid confronting the need for wholesale political change, be it in Palestine or at home. This is one very obvious reason why the Tories want to limit the right to protest and have given police extraordinary powers to enforce it.

The climate crisis will not be defeated without us insisting that our democratic rights cannot be overruled by neoliberal diktat. And this is no longer controversial.

The environmental movement, human rights organisations and those fighting directly for water rights are coming to share this view.

Neoliberal client governments are being harried by protesters demanding the restoration of their water rights, and this is creating growing awareness of the extent of crisis and how it is rooted in the capitalist system.

Israel’s use of water deprivation as a weapon against Palestinians in the West Bank generates disgust at their actions and solidarity around the world through BDS campaigns. Student unions in the UK have started asking for Coca Cola to be banned from doing business for its corporate greed.

In Bolivia the denial of water rights to the indigenous people led to a virtual civil war. Indigenous protesters faced armed police toting weapons supplied by the same countries whose corporations held water as their monopoly. Yet undeterred, mass civil disobedience, including illegally connecting the homes of poor families to the mains, has put the corporations on the back foot.

In Tanzania the government has been forced to intervene to get water justice for poor farmers.

In India farmers have led mass demonstrations to force the government to honour its duty to protect them and restore their rights to water.  

And as the cost of living crisis deepens here we have the opportunity to connect our struggle to the struggles of others. Socialists have an important role to play in explaining the depth of the crisis and the inability of the ruling class and their political agents to solve it. The only solutions have to be based on democracy, equality and collectivism.

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John Westmoreland

John is a history teacher and UCU rep. He is an active member of the People's Assembly and writes regularly for Counterfire.

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