Skip to content

Water for All, Not for Profit

February 2010

Last month I went to Wingspread in Racine, Wisconsin for a meeting of water funders (mainly foundations funding freshwater conservation) where I’d been asked to be on a panel addressing issues of Equity, Rights and the Commons as a frame for water funders. The panel, moderated by Harriet Barlow of the HKH Foundation included besides me, Jon Jensen of the Park Foundation and Sam Passmore of the C.S. Mott Foundation.

  Our panel probably had the fewest number of people (from the conference) in attendance – there were two others occurring simultaneously, which is often the case at such meetings. But it’s also likely that this was not a frame that many at the meeting – primarily focused on conservation – were especially concerned about, which, in some ways is indicative that the divide between environmental justice and traditional environmental work i.e. conservation is still with us. This divide is also evident in climate discussions, for that matter.   We had been asked whether the rights and commons problem frame might be a useful way to bridge the traditional separation of water quality and water quantity. And what some of the advantages of this commons frame of reference might be.   Firstly, I see rights and commons (which I believe are two sides of the same coin) as a solution and not a problem frame; and, frankly, an imperative frame. And, secondly, we need to take a step back from issues of quality and quantity (both of which are important) to look at more foundational issues of equity and justice.   Almost all of us in the United States are used to water coming from a turn of the tap, or off the shelf in a store. Under those circumstances, one is not attuned to viewing water in terms of a political lens. But water is a political lens through which we can see the injustice in the world: who has it, who controls it, who profits from it; and who never has enough, and doesn’t control nor profit from it.   If equity and justice in termsof water access, usage and control are fundamental, then looking at solutions from the frame of rights and the commons is imperative. One important point about the rights/commons frame when it comes to looking at access, usage, control etc. is that you need both – rights and commons.   The commons is, of course, a much older idea than rights. And the idea of water as a commons, unlike land, is still widely accepted; for that matter the right to water is also enshrined in various international laws including some national constitutions. But the notion of a commons alone can not guarantee that everyone has equitable access.   In many societies, including indigenous ones and those like my own in South Asia, the notion of commons is deeply enshrined in custom and customary law. But without the normative and legal structure and guarantee of rights, not all communities – especially socially and economically marginalized ones (women, indigenous peoples, oppressed castes) – would have equitable, or even actual, access.   On the other hand, if water wasn’t part of the commons, and could be privatized and commodified – which it increasingly is being – then you could have the right to water but only if you could pay for it, like with land.   We were also asked what might be some of the challenges and obstacles in getting institutions to use a water commons frame of reference. That depends on which institutions we are talking about. At the level of the United Nations both concepts, of rights and commons – vis-à-vis water – are probably more accepted relative to international financial institutions like the World Bank or the International Monetary Fund.   Historically, the UN has been the global body within which the concept of rights has been advanced and the concept of the commons defended, whereas international financial institutions like the Bank, the Fund or the World Trade Organization have championed privatization and commodification.   Water is big business. And with climate change and global warming it promises to be bigger still, because, as Maude Barlow has argued, water is not just a finite but a diminishing resource across the globe; and, as a result is, as Vandana Shiva has contended, increasingly the root cause of many conflicts and wars. A finite and diminishing resource lends itself to a stronger push for privatization and commodification by those who stand to gain from it, whether that is transnational water corporations or local elites.   Those multinational corporations like Coca Cola and Dow that have joined the UN Millennium Development Goals (MDG) efforts on safe, potable drinking water are the same corporations that are the bottled water industry. Their support for the MDG is based not on the premise of water for all, but for profit.   The World Water Forum (WWF) is another private space that is a threat to keeping water in the commons and ensuring that it is a right. Largely controlled by multinational corporations that are in the business of supplying water through privatized delivery systems, like Veolia and Suez, the WWF is convened by the World Water Council an unelected and unrepresentative body that is not answerable to elected governments or civil society.   What then can water funders do and how might they collaborate, especially given that many of those who came to Wingspread only fund in the United States. Frankly, there is a lot that can be done. The work of an international funder like Grassroots International that supports the rights of people confronting mega projects in Brazil or India to have access to water, is made that much more effective by domestic funders who might support the advocacy work being done in the US by organizations like International Rivers to bring pressure on institutions like the World Bank and IMF.   At Grassroots International, we see clearly the need for what we call “funding with a global vision” regardless of where we fund that work. Even though we primarily support organizations outside the US, we’ve been supporting work inside it. This is strategically important for us. For instance, to support the right of people in Chiapas, Mexico to water, and to keep that water in the commons, without addressing the designs and ability of U.S. corporations like Coca Cola to grab/privatize that resource is meaningless. In that context our work, whether direct funding of U.S. groups or working with them closely through other means such as advocacy becomes all the more important.   The last question posed was what some concrete successes and opportunities were with respect to equity, rights and the commons. As far as successes go, Grassroots International has been privileged to have supported many examples of those, from building rainwater cisterns in Brazil and restoring damaged watersheds in Haiti to strengthening emerging alliances like the African Rivers Network. In 2009, through the Other Worlds Are Possible Giving Circle that Grassroots hosts, we also supported a range of innovative alternatives including public-public partnerships (for water delivery) between Argentina and Peru.   In terms of future opportunities: From an international – and especially – movement building perspective, I see three broad movements active in the struggle for water rights, equity and justice. Each needs to be strengthened in its particular context but they especially need to be supported to work together. All three were present in strength at the alternative Peoples Water Forum held in conjunction with the WWF in Istanbul in 2009.   One is the anti-privatization thrust. This comprises those groups (urban or rural) working against the privatization of public water utilities, against bottled water (and other water grabbing) corporations; and also those working for alternatives in this arena such as the public-public partnerships aimed at strengthening public water utilities, or traditional water management systems based on commons principles. Networks like Red VIDA in Latin America and Africa Water Network are good examples.   Another is the anti-mega dam/mega projects and anti-diversion of water for industrial agriculture thrust. This includes organizations campaigning for the rights of people threatened or displaced by such projects; or organizations that are doing research and advocacy work around diversion of water, for e.g. for industrial agriculture or for agrofuel production. These groups are also working on concrete alternatives – for e.g., water harvesting through cisterns or small earth dams. A prime example of organizations/networks/movements in this sector include our partner Pólo Sindical in Brazil that is part of national networks like MAB (Movement of Dam-affected Peoples) and regional networks like Redlar (Latin American Network against Dams and for Rivers, Communities and Water).   And finally, the third is (very broadly) the indigenous thrust. This overlaps with the previous two but also comes at it from a uniquely cultural perspective in that the sacredness of water and water sources that are intricately linked to cultural being, geography and sense of community in a way that is distinct from many (although not all) non-indigenous groups. These groups go beyond notions of human rights and equity to the rights of the earth and its composite ecosystem.

Latest from the Learning Hub
Back To Top