From the December 2012 issue of the Socialist Standard
The world has arrived at a critical stage in the way it uses its water. As water, a fundamental necessity of all life, is absolutely essential to the whole of humanity, who should be the primary stakeholders?
Water is fast becoming the focus of attention for social justice rights groups, environmentalists and diverse populations, both rural and urban who recognise the dire effects that increased privatisation, monopoly control, misappropriation and misuse, globalised corporate policies and government and international institutions' complicity and influence have all had on the ordinary citizen's access to it. We are at the stage where the misuse and overuse of water have resulted in severely falling water tables as a result of the over-pumping of aquifers and the negative results from big dams and river diversions are being realised. More water is being used every year than is being replenished.
In effect, water is being stolen from our descendants. According to the Global Footprint Network, capitalism currently uses the equivalent of 1.5 planet earths. Following on from this a recent report published in the journal, ‘Nature’ assessed capitalism's groundwater footprint. They estimate that the size of the global groundwater footprint, the area required to sustain groundwater use and groundwater-dependent ecosystem services, is about 3.5 times the actual area of aquifers currently tapped for water supplies (Link).
Land on all continents is becoming increasingly dependent on the unsustainable use of groundwater. Some of the biggest food producers, e. g. US, China and India, are the biggest culprits of over-pumping aquifers and there are others such as Saudi Arabia, which has severely depleted its own aquifers and is now buying up large areas of Ethiopia and elsewhere in order to grow food for itself.
'Land grab' is a term which has become familiar in recent years. 'Water grab' is a relatively new term. It refers to the different ways in which outside actors divert water from its traditional uses and users and appropriate it for their own benefit by a number of means. Use can be denied in many ways. The most obvious is to physically divert the water via pipes or canals, reducing or stopping the original flow. It may be privatised and monetised, cutting off those who can't pay. Sources may be overused by industrial development schemes causing contamination of local wells and water courses. Rivers, streams and lakes may be seriously contaminated by mining runoff or industrial and agricultural effluent affecting local and downstream populations. Huge quantities of water are locked up in the production of crops intended as food for humans, animal feed or, increasingly, biofuels. With the rapid increase of international investment in overseas lands for agricultural production for the export market has also come the realisation of just how much water is being denied to traditional local users and how much 'virtual' water is being diverted by moving it around the world locked up in crops and animals.
Water grab transfers the control of water from resident farmers, usually smallholders, and hands it to foreign companies. Local communities who have traditionally had unimpeded access to it for irrigation and general household needs along territory close to rivers and springs are disenfranchised. The deals done are generally leasehold for land use, whether for agriculture, mining, industry or pure investment, but land without water is worth little. Usually the deals which are struck take little or no consideration of those living on and working the land but are between governments (local or national) and foreign companies. The transfer of water control from both closely affected and downstream communities to the new user is often not specified in the land deals. However the amount of water required for irrigation is implicit in the crop type and the location, especially in rain-scarce areas.
The UN Food and Agriculture Organisation’s Regional Office for Latin America and the Caribbean has reported that land acquisition (land grab) in Latin America and the Caribbean is in its infancy and only has examples in Argentina and Brazil. However, this has been challenged in the ‘Declaration of Buenos Aries’, signed in March this year at the third special Conference on Food Sovereignty, representing over 100 organisations from 20 countries in Latin America and the Caribbean, which stated that ‘these conclusions result from using very limited criteria: the buying up of large extensions of land for the production of food, where at least one foreign government make up the actors or agents involved’ (Against the grain). In effect, this means that the FAO does not consider it land grabbing when private investors are the parties involved. According to their report, land grabbing only results from sovereign (state) investment, which clearly reveals their stance as world capitalism's bodyguards to private takeovers anywhere in the world.
Following the publication of an article in the ‘Wall Street Journal’ in September by the FAO and the European Bank for Research and Development calling for governments and social organisations to 'embrace the private sector as the main engine for global food production,' a large group of these social movements, including La Via Campesina, Grain, Friends of the Earth International and a number of Latin American groups representing independent and non-commercial farmers, peasants and women, strongly countered the call. They issued a statement reiterating the evidence found in numerous international studies that those engaged in small farming feed the majority of the world's population (Link.) and that they feed them using far fewer fossil fuels for transport, production and fertilisers, with more economical use of water, and with a long-term view of care of the soil, the water and the environment in general. As a consequence, their contribution to global warming is negligible compared with that of large agribusiness; in fact, they often claim that they cool the earth.
Projects for which water is the primary requirement – dams and hydro-electric schemes – also seriously affect large numbers of resident populations and the wider environment. Mine Islar describes recent neoliberal reforms which have given the private sector the right to lease rivers for 49 years for electricity production thus: 'in some cases this particular privatisation in Turkey can be understood as an instance of 'water grabbing', where powerful actors gain control over use and increase their own benefits by diverting water and profit away from local communities living along these rivers' (Islar, M. 2012. Privatised hydropower development in Turkey: A case of water grabbing? www.water-alternatives.org). These schemes negatively affect local farming, community needs and the ecology of the area. All rivers in Turkey are now prey to this threat.
As for large dams, supposedly the solution to control and regulate the flow of water according to geographic and demographic requirements, these are now being seen as problems in themselves. As the climate becomes more extreme (a knock-on effect of global warming) on nearly every continent, 'large dams are at risk of becoming white elephants due to drought and weapons of mass destruction during extreme floods' (Lori Pottinger, Huffington Post, 21September).
It is being recognised that wastage by evaporation from big dams can be substantially more than from the rivers and, in the worst examples, accounts for up to half of the annual river flow – an incredibly extravagant waste of much needed water. A hydroelectric dam in the Amazon has been calculated to produce methane (from rotting vegetation in the flooded forest) with eight times the greenhouse effects of a coal-fired power station with a similar generating capacity. Reservoir gases in Ghana emit up to five times as much greenhouse gas as all the country's burning of fossil fuel. These examples reveal some of the vicious negative effects of big dams on the global water cycle, a serious consideration for the state of the planet. (These and many more examples from Fred Pearce's book When the Rivers Run Dry.)
One of the conclusions of a detailed study of almost 200 major international water-related projects over the past 20 years is, ‘This mismanagement of water and aquatic systems has “led to situations where both social and ecological systems are in jeopardy and have even collapsed”’ (http://tinyurl.com/8upcanp).
There is evidence a-plenty to reveal the true culprit – the engine of capitalism driving the all-important imperative for profit. However, it needn't be like this. Following the elimination of the possibility of manipulation by profit-seeking actors, water, as with all other resources, can be dealt with responsibly in the light of the links between science, technology and policymaking as forged by the democratic decisions in the best interest of the planet and its primary stakeholders, people.