‘The Price of Thirst’ Offers a Disturbing Analysis of Forthcoming Chaos Over Water Inequality

From California to Iraq; from Chile to India; struggles over water are coming to define the political and military conflicts of the 21st century.

Like algae blooms on the Great Lakes, the explosion in books themed around water politics in recent years is a warning sign of a looming crisis. And it’s no longer just a matter of desertification in far-off lands: in every part of the Americas, crises over water access and quality are beginning to erupt. Even in Canada, researcher and environmental journalist Hanneke Brooymans raised the alarm with her 2011 study, Water in Canada: A Resource in Crisis, which revealed that even in the cold wet North, the secure abundance of clean fresh water is largely a myth.

“The question that remains is: can we snap out of our collective delusion in time?” she asks. “Maybe. But that would require a significant boost in the country’s collective water literacy, which is currently as shallow and murky as a mud puddle.”

Ecology professor David Schindler, in his foreword to Brooymans’ book, calls water governance “one of the most urgent problems of the 21st century”.

Karen Piper, an American professor who has won awards for her nature writing, tackles the issue from a global perspective in The Price of Thirst: Global Water Inequality and the Coming Chaos. A global survey comprised of several well-researched case studies, Piper’s work offers a broad and holistic overview of the nature and seriousness of the water crisis our world faces.

What Piper also adds to the conversation is a superb analysis of the relationship between water privatization and colonialism. The book opens with a reflexive account of her attendance at the 2012 World Water Forum. This event, organized for world leaders and policy-makers every three years by the corporate stakeholders comprising the World Water Council, featured caviar, water-themed ballet performances, and even a “Slum” exhibition evocative of the infamous French colonial ‘human zoos’.

The connections between colonialism and water privatization run deeper, however. European colonial regimes in areas like Africa excelled at expropriating indigenous water sources and handing them over to private corporations, which then colluded with and supported the colonial regimes. When decolonization and independence movements spread across these regions in the mid-20th century, former colonial officers and engineers made a smooth transition from employment by the exiting colonial governments to employment by the water corporations they left in their wake, and through which they continued their control over and exploitation of local indigenous populations.

Colonialism is a recurring theme in the increasingly powerful water industry. Piper notes that the entire ‘blueprint’ for neoliberal water governance stems from the colonial model, whereby invading European powers established “fortress-type colonial cities that drew water from the hinterlands.” Here too they relied on heavily armed military force to divert water to the new colonial fortresses, destroying the indigenous local systems built up over centuries.

The Cold War between the US and the USSR framed geopolitics in the second half of the 20th century, but Piper offers a very different analysis: from the perspective of struggling postcolonial states, both sides in the Cold War were indistinguishable from each other as “large dam-building states” that wrought havoc on local populations and ecosystems. Indigenous resistance to the destructive colonizing forces of both communism and capitalism characterized a struggle which continues to this day.

Piper’s well-researched demonstration of the links between colonialism and contemporary water struggles frames the book, but there’s a lot more to find here, as well. She offers several fascinating case studies depicting the variety of dire water problems faced by peoples around the world – from the US to the Middle East – that demonstrate the wide range of crises (and their causes) which pose threats to our collective future.

Her study spans the globe, beginning with California. There the drought, which is destroying the state and its economy, has its origins in, and has been exacerbated by, prematurely confident efforts by industrial engineers to divert water to enhance corporate and industrial profits. Meanwhile, a perverse outcome of the failing water supply in this state and others is the development of ‘water banks’ (reservoirs in which water is ‘deposited’ and ‘withdrawn’), and a trade in ‘paper water’ (rights to access water which may or may not yet exist in reality).

From California, Piper travels to Chile, but here, too, American influence extends and plays a catalytic role in supporting a military coup which results in the wholesale privatization and sell-off of the country’s water markets. As in colonial Africa, the Pinochet military dictatorship orchestrated a privatization drive which saw supporters and members of the military dictatorship profit from the commodification of Chile’s waters, at the same time as poor communities lost access and indigenous peoples were slaughtered when they objected. Even after the nominal democratization of the country, former officers of the dictatorship transitioned from government to corporate roles in the industry they had built up under the repressive dictatorship.

From Chile, Piper moves on to South Africa and India. In South Africa, water played a pivotal role in the anti-apartheid struggle, which has been increasingly forgotten in the West. In addition to depriving black South Africans of political rights, the apartheid regime also deprived them of water – and control over water was a key tactic in the apartheid regime’s terrorizing of the black South African population. Western water corporations colluded in this process, and then after the fall of apartheid, demanded the new post-apartheid government honour the deleterious contractual and fiscal obligations signed onto by the apartheid government in its final desperate years.

Mandela’s post-apartheid government was conflicted: on the one hand, the right to water was a defining part of the anti-apartheid struggle, and was duly enshrined in the new South African constitution. At the same time, the Mandela government succumbed to the lure of western money, accepting hundreds of millions of dollars in reconstruction loans, which came with stark strings attached, leading to greater corporate control over water.

The result was a worsening, rather than improvement, of water access and quality after apartheid, which has led many black South Africans to describe their lives as worse off than under apartheid. This is not, of course, a tribute to apartheid, but a testament to the legacy of racism and colonialism perpetuated by multinational water corporations even after the end of the apartheid political regime.

India faces a similar struggle. Colonialism in India was marked by massive British engineering and dam-building projects that disrupted and destroyed indigenous water systems that had functioned for centuries. And even following independence, the government obsession with dam-building lingered, displacing countless communities and destroying vital natural ecosystems as well as more sustainable local economies.

Piper concludes her global survey with a look at the Middle East. The recent uprising in Egypt has been called a ‘Revolution of the Thirsty’: here, too, the privatization of water and shrinking access to the vital resource by the poor majority of the population played a pivotal role in sparking the riots and unrest which led to the toppling of the government. In Egypt as in other Middle Eastern countries, diverting of scarce water resources to serve privatized, gated cities and housing developments for the country’s elite has proven tinder for civil unrest and revolution.

Meanwhile, Iraq offers a final and sobering example of war waged, in many ways, over water. In contravention of international law, the United States destroyed civilian water infrastructure during its invasion, then awarded lucrative contracts for reconstructing the water infrastructure to American corporations. The resulting work has been shoddy, inadequate and incomplete, and water remains a critical issue for the post-invasion Iraq; as well as a catalyst for the resurgence of militant violence and resistance.

The portrait Piper paints is a grim but compelling and convincing one. It’s also one that calls for action. She offers some suggestions, although they are discussed only briefly: most of the book consists of analyzing the problem. As to her solutions, addressing broader climate change is key, since all the various processes of climate change contribute to scarcity of water supplies.

Putting an end to large-scale water projects is also key: the relocation of populations which has seen millions of people thrown off their land in fact exacerbates water problems by driving these water refugees into cities that have inadequate water supplies to support their numbers. Supporting the continued existence and livelihood of rural populations is therefore a key factor in ensuring sustainable water supplies.

Recognition of indigenous knowledge as well as small-scale local water solutions is also important. Considerable damage has been wrought by engineering ‘marvels’, which have almost universally proven to be more disaster than marvel in the long-run. In contrast, small-scale water systems refined over centuries on a local basis have invariably proven much more sustainable and successful. These localized systems – which are often the ones destroyed by large-scale mega-projects – need to be revived and supported. Similarly, the knowledge of indigenous peoples who have learned their water practices from centuries of living on their land needs to be recognized as equivalent – if not superior – to the modern engineering sciences that have wrought such havoc.

Finally, she suggests, water needs to be regulated more stringently, particularly ‘virtual water’ markets. And the stranglehold of international lenders and development agencies such as the International Monetary Fund and World Bank – which often require or mandate deleterious and privatized water schemes as a condition of aid – must be ended.

Piper’s research and analysis is first-rate: the book offers an excellent and very readable resource for those seeking an up-to-date analysis of the challenges the world faces when it comes to the causes and consequences of water scarcity.

There’s a question that Piper – like many other scholars addressing the vicissitudes of transnational corporate capitalism and its impact on the lives of workers, communities and environment alike – dances around, however. What role does capitalism play in the problem? And what is the solution?

Sam Gindin, a former research director with the Canadian Auto Workers union and currently a professor in Toronto, addresses this very issue in his recent critique of Naomi Klein’s This Changes Everything, which he published in Jacobin Magazine in December. His review essay is largely an endorsement of her work, yet his critique lies in the sometimes contradictory sweep of her call for change. Inevitably, capitalism, unfettered and unregulated, is identified as the primary culprit behind a range of social, political, economic and environmental woes. Yet while capitalism is clearly identified as the problem, the solution is less apparent, and for some activists appears to be a loosely articulated ‘better capitalism’.

Gindin suggests that it’s insufficient to merely critique the excesses of capitalism without offering substantive alternatives. Developing alternatives to capitalism, he argues, is a vital part of the struggle. He says that “…though the issue of consumerism must be taken on, simply calling for a more austere lifestyle only reinforces the austerity pushed by capitalist states. The issue is not just living with “less” but living differently — which can also mean better.”

“It is about an alternative society. And to the extent that some sacrifices are indeed necessary, these must involve both a radical equality of sacrifice and one that sees such sacrifices as “investments” in transforming society, rather than concessions to preserve capitalism.”

His emphasis on equality of sacrifice and access resonates well with Piper’s analysis. Gindin isn’t critical – he says works like Klein’s (and, I would add, Piper’s) are vital in terms of delineating the problem and indicting capitalism as the culprit. But, he says, we need to be clear about what that means.

“Building a non-parochial, mass movement against climate change isn’t about de-emphasizing the central importance of the environmental crisis but of thinking about it politically and in the context of wider values. Such a mass movement needs to forge its own common sense, structures independent of capital, and the energy and staying power that comes with a realizable, if distant, vision.”

“Once we appreciate that the scale of the climate change issue references not just how much needs to be done in environmental terms, but what needs to be done to transform society, we are at a new, even more intimidating, stage. We’ve added the need to take on capitalism and must be clear about what this means.”

Solutions – such as we may hope for – will undoubtedly be long and hard in the making. But Piper’s work contributes an important overview of the scale of the problem. While providing a scholarly and superbly researched analysis of the problem, it remains readable and accessible for a broad audience. Which is fitting: if “the coming chaos” is to be averted, global water inequality is an issue that we will all have to play a part in tackling together.

RATING 8 / 10