Water is the new oil: How corporations took over a basic human right

Water has become a commodity, Karen Piper tells Salon, and the world's poor are paying the price

Published October 5, 2014 3:29PM (EDT)

Daniel Day Lewis as Daniel Plainview in "There Will Be Blood"      (Paramount)
Daniel Day Lewis as Daniel Plainview in "There Will Be Blood" (Paramount)

When you talk about human rights, not to mention human necessities, there's not much more fundamental than water. The United Nations has even put it in writing: it formally “recognizes the right to safe and clean drinking water and sanitation as a human right that is essential for the full enjoyment of life and all human rights.”

That's the theory, at least. In practice? Well, on Monday, U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Steven Rhodes arrived at a different conclusion from that of the U.N., in a ruling on Detroit's hotly contested practice of cutting off water access to tens of thousands of residents who can't pay their bills. "It cannot be doubted that water is a necessary ingredient to sustaining life," Rhodes conceded. Yet there is not, he continued, "an enforceable right to free and affordable water." Water, in the eyes of the court, is apparently a luxury.

While it's shocking to watch a city deny the rights of its own citizens, that's nothing compared to what could happen if private water companies are allowed to take over. In "The Price of Thirst: Global Water Inequality and the Coming Chaos," Karen Piper details the litany of examples worldwide of this very thing happening. In a classic example of the shock doctrine, Piper argues, water shortages are being seen as a business opportunity for multinational corporations. Their mantra: "No money, no water." By 2025, it's predicted they'll be serving 21 percent of the world's population.

Piper, who teaches at the University of Missouri, traveled to six of the world's continents to expose the way corporate control has redefined water as an economic good, with consequences ranging from increasing inequality to civil unrest. Her conversation with Salon, which has been lightly edited for length and clarity, is below:

There have been a few drinking water crises in the U.S. this year that I think made people stop and think about where their water is coming from, but I’d say most probably don't give much thought to the politics behind drinking water. What are some of the main misconceptions you're working with about how water access works?

It depends on what country you're talking about. I think here in the U.S., we have the misconception of taking water for granted completely and forgetting the long history of the battle people went through to get public water in this country. It used to be that there were private companies running the water supplies in the United States. At the beginning of the century, they started having major cholera outbreaks, which led to it being turned over to public utilities. Now, because we haven't taken care of that system in terms of providing the funding for it, I think there's a danger of losing it. As we decrease our funding for public water, private companies are being courted to come in and take over cities that are in dire circumstances with their water infrastructure. So Detroit, for instance, is an example.

I guess that's an example of what can go wrong.

Yeah. In Detroit, you know, they ran out of money to support public infrastructure, so they've been basically raising rates for consumers as a way to entice private water companies to take over. But they've also been cutting off tens of thousands of people from their water when they can't pay. And that's the kind of thing that you look at. Corporations are a lot more ruthless about water cutoffs. So they raise rates and they cut off water.

So what does this look like globally?

Pretty dire. I think there are three main issues facing the planet in terms of our water supplies and a global water crisis. One is climate change, one is pollution and one is groundwater over-extraction. Basically, we have the same amount of water on Earth as we've had in the time of the dinosaurs, and a lot of people don't realize that. The problem is that what has changed is where water is located. So climate change moves water, pumping groundwater moves water. But people are not so movable. You just can't pick up Los Angeles and move it to wherever the water has gone when this year's snowpack disappears.

“Water shortage” is a sort of misnomer. What we're losing are our water storage systems. So we're losing our glaciers, which are called our freshwater banks, and we're losing our fossil water, which takes thousands and millions of years to be replenished. One of those places is in the United States: the Ogallala Aquifer is disappearing. Also, in Northern India there's an aquifer that's been depleted so much they're experiencing epidemic fluoride poisoning right now, because when you get to the bottom of those aquifers you find pollutants that have settled there over time. They're naturally occurring minerals that have settled there.

Then there's also the problem of pollution. Twenty percent of the world right now does not have access to clean water. Twenty percent of the world also happens to live on less than a dollar a day. And it's interesting to look at how much those two groups overlap. When people don't have water, what you get is social instability, basically, and that 20 percent may have been living next to the same river since the beginning of time, but suddenly that river is polluted and they get sick and die when they drink it. So what happens is that corporations see water pollution as sort of a boon for them because as water gets more polluted, it gets more expensive to drink and then you get even more of a divide between the rich and the poor over who gets clean water and who doesn't.

And one last thing with climate change. I think people don't really understand a lot about how it works. They say, “Oh, the glaciers are melting so we'll have more water.” But the problem is that water is just rushing into the ocean. So you have to think of climate change as this giant saltwater-making factory, almost. It's just like sending water to the ocean. And we couldn't build enough giant dams to stop all that water, and if we did it would cause all sorts of other problems. It’s the same thing with the way we do agriculture. It's like we're pumping out these fossil aquifers mainly for agriculture and that's where the world's breadbaskets are. But when we do that, that aquifer also becomes polluted and salinated and runs to the ocean. So there's an enormous amount of water that we're just throwing away in this sense.

You've traced some major conflicts to water shortages, or at least seen that as one of the contributing factors ...

And right now what I have my eye on is ISIS. When I wrote my book, I sort of saw that something like that would happen there, because there has for decades been a conflict between Turkey and Iraq and Syria over how much water Iraq and Syria get. Their water comes from Turkey, which is a water-rich country, and Turkey has been cutting it off with these massive dam systems that have been supported by the World Bank until recently. ISIS, now, is very aware of this issue, and one of their main goals has been to take over the water supplies in Iraq and in Syria.

So right now, all three of those countries are using water as weapons against each other. Turkey has cut off water to Syria, for instance, as a way to get Syria not to support the Kurds there. And also, Turkey has just been very belligerent about saying those water resources are theirs and not coming to the negotiating table over it. I saw people really fighting over this at the World Water Forum because it was a disaster waiting to happen. When it's reported in the media, it always bothers me, because the media reports it as just evil fundamentalists. And it's true there's that component to it, but you have to think about what's drawing these evil fundamentalists to these groups. When people are uneducated and in dire circumstances and feel like that's all they can do, it tends to draw a lot of young kids to that.

In the book, you compare selling water to selling blood, which is a very dramatic metaphor. As you see it, what makes water different from other commodities?

Activists like to say water is life. And it really it is. We can't live without it, but the planet can't live without it, either. So if you think of blood, blood is our circulatory system in our human bodies, and water is the circulatory system for the planet. And if you mess with it too much or take it away from certain areas, then places start to die. It was a dramatic metaphor to show how dangerous this is, but it's the idea of selling our blood. And this is happening where poor people everywhere around the world sell their blood in order to make money. In some places it's donated, in other places it's sold. And then the rich people get it. With water it's the same thing. Poor people are having their water taken away from them and the rich people are getting it.  

In your travels, especially in the developing world, what are some of the more egregious examples you saw of the way private control of water goes wrong?

California, actually. What's happening in California is ludicrous because the agribusiness controls water in the Central Valley and they've been pumping and pumping groundwater there to the point that houses are falling off their foundations because the ground is sinking so much. And yet they're still demanding more and more water and saying they're in a drought and in dire circumstances. But at the same time, they're really hoarding water and putting it in these new systems called water banks where they can buy and sell water on the free market. They have a deal with the state where they've been giving them something called paper water, where instead of giving actual water to agribusiness — because California is out of water, or it's becoming more privately controlled through these water markets — basically these companies have the right to any water that becomes available in the future. So what they're doing, then, is they're saying "Look, we demand this water we only have in paper," so they're pushing for a peripheral canal to be built underneath Bay Delta to take water from the north.

Watching whats happening there seemed like it was just getting crazier and crazier and now, of course, they're talking about going to Canada and taking their water and Canada is pretty upset about that. But that was one place where it was crazy. Another place was Egypt, of course, where it was boiling over. I was there right before the 2011 revolution. Some people said that was a "revolution of the thirsty" because of the inequity in drinking water supplies. Everywhere I went was some crazy story.

The position among activists is that water should be a basic human right, that it shouldn't be subject to this rich vs. poor dynamic. Is there a way to make that happen without also making it an economic good? How do you decouple those two?

It should be a human right. I want to preface what I'm going to say, though, with saying I'm not 100 percent on board with water as a human right, because I instead believe water is a right of all beings. Water is a right of nature; there are indigenous international indigenous groups that have put out statements saying this is their position on water and I agree with that. But I think water as a human right is now something that's law at the U.N. So the question is whether it will be enforced or not. There have already been some successes, like in Botswana where you can actually cite a U.N. resolution in a lawsuit if someone takes away your access to water. And so there are a lot of positive things about water being declared a human right at the U.N. in terms of the possibility for water equity.

The danger of that is the multinational water corporations actually got onboard with water as a human right because what they're saying is “Yes, we have to supply this water, but we're still going to take over the public utilities, and now the government has to pay us to supply everybody with this minimum amount of water.” So they're trying to co-opt this idea of water as a human right and to decouple that, all you have to do is keep water in public hands. If you don't keep water in public hands, you can't make democratic decisions over it anymore.

But what about the arguments that water needs to get to where it needs to go, or that it's becoming more expensive to purify? Are public utilities able to handle that?

I think that's a fallacy. I think part of the problems we're seeing now is from diverting water from where it's needed, through transbasin water transfers, to places where it's not sustainably used. So separating water from the land has been one of the problems that has led to the crisis in California. One of the reasons for California's enormous financial problems right now is the cost they've had to pay for environmental damages caused by water diversions, such as in the Owens Valley — and now the Salton Sea is getting to be a big problem. They're also having to dismantle dams that are causing problems there. All this is costing billions of dollars. So to just divert more water doesn't make any sense. We need a new model that isn't about urbanization, that doesn't support megacities, basically. And we need to stop thinking we can somehow reroute water to some giant megacity because that's not happening around the world. It's just getting more and more and more expensive, so we've got to start thinking about the cost of all of this. There are some movements in architecture like the re-localization movement, which is about de-urbanization and about building compact, sustainable walking cities. And so there are tons of ideas for how we can do things differently, but I think we need to move people, not water.

One of the main things we can do, that governments can do — and this isn't in the U.S., but overseas — is stop throwing people off their property. Because right now, throughout the world, and Americans don't often realize this, there are so many people being displaced. "Ecological refugees" are being thrown off communally owned property or, like in India, tribal property, and are having to move into cities because the government is just saying, “No, we want this to be deforested." Or, "We want to build a giant dam there.” So you've got almost 100 million people displaced just from dams and they all head to the cities. And then you go, “Oh, we have a problem with big cities.” Well, you should have thought of that before.

You take issue with aid policies as they're currently practiced. What would you recommend as the best approach to supporting clean water access in developing countries?

I have lots of solutions I recommend at the end of the book, but for this interview I wanted to mention a few more. One is that we really need to reform the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF). I talk about that in my book. But right now, the World Bank has been behind a lot of these problems. It's almost like there's still a cold war going on between socialism and the free market system, and the World Bank and the IMF are acting as if they have to push this free market system everywhere and this neoliberal agenda everywhere or else socialism will take over. And it's a flawed way of looking at the world. Our macroeconomic system, their macroeconomic systems, are completely based on growth, but we can't grow the amount of water we have in the world. It's always going to be the same. So they have to pull back and start thinking in terms of the environment.

So what can the average person do? Well, I was thinking about how Europe, when they decided to create the Eurozone, there was something called a European Citizens' Initiative set up that basically said, “Look, the Eurozone is not going to be democratic in the way we're used to, so we want to be able to petition the European commission to make changes that we want." So now, if they get a million signatures, the European commission has to consider what they want. The first one was on water. But I think we need something like that with the World Bank and the IMF because right now, they're completely controlled by money. Whoever has the most money in the world controls them, and it's not democratic. We need a more democratic system.

By Lindsay Abrams

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