Thirst In The Garden City: Chapter 2

Chapter 2

Water Management and Development Paradigms

“To deny someone the right to water is tantamount to denying them the right to life, and to set a price on water is to set a price on life.”

Dilworth 2007:49

Water Everywhere, But Not a Drop to Drink

How is it, on a blue planet, that water is scarce in much of the world?

Firstly, let us consider just how much water there is for human use on this planet. Eighty-five percent of the water used in the United States is fresh water (USGS). Less than three percent of the world’s water, however, is freshwater, and a majority of that is not immediately recoverable (locked in glaciers, for example). Less than one percent of the world’s water is in rivers, lakes, aquifers, and marshes. Freshwater is especially important because it is required for agriculture (70% of global freshwater consumption) and domestic use (8%). The other 22% of global freshwater consumption is by industry, which also consumes a limited amount of saltwater (Finnegan 2002).[1]

            Humans have a powerful ability to shape their ecosystems, affecting the quality and distribution of global water resources (Daily 1997). Inter-basin transfers, irrigation, pavement, and changes in human population density or practices can all influence local water resources. As global population increases, more and more water is needed to drink, to produce food and energy, and to manufacture goods. Human demand for water is expected to “exceed supply by 56%” by 2025 (Finnegan 2002).

Not only is demand rising, but supply is at risk of decreasing. Globally, water security is endangered by land-use trends and reliance on groundwater extraction, and in the long term will be threatened by “predictable developments” such as population growth, drought, climate change, urbanization, upstream pollution, over-allocation of water licenses, and depletion of groundwater sources (Bruin 2000:63). These threats are already realities in much of the world, combining to make “household water insecurity a pressing problem in developing countries” (ibid).

One common but approximate figure is that close to one billion people lack access to safe drinking water (Black 2004:28, Davis 2005:146, UNDP 2006b). Safe drinking water consists of 3 aspects: quality (is it potable?), quantity (at least 20 liters per day per person), and access (less than a kilometer away; WHO 2006). A person is said to be in a state of water poverty when these conditions are not met.

Water is unequally distributed about the world. Some countries, like Canada, are very water-rich, and possess vast reserves of freshwater in lakes, glaciers, rivers and aquifers, whereas others, like Saudi Arabia, are very water-poor. Water scarcity can be seen as having many sides, encompassing economic, security, legal, and environmental considerations (Dolatyar and Gray 2000:10-18). Mismanagement can be as damaging as a dry climate to a country’s ability to provide water. Poland’s environment, for example, is so polluted by industry that it has as much usable fresh water as Yemen (Finnegan 2002). Due to lack of physical resources, mismanagement, or some combination of the two, one-third of the world’s nations are already water-stressed (Ward 2002:6).

Water plays a startling role in the cycle of poverty. A lack of water leads to poor health which leads to poverty and back to a lack of water. Each year waterborne diseases like typhoid and cholera claim the lives of five million people (Finnegan 2002), including six thousand children a day (Ward 2002:12). Arun Elhance estimates that 80 percent of illnesses and 30 percent of deaths in developing countries can be traced to drinking unclean water (1999). For the 80 percent who become sick, some enter a devastating catch-22 of health care costs and lost work opportunities (Gleick 2004). Illness often results because the poor must resort to accessing water from the least reliable sources—open surface water, untreated well water, or water from vendors of unknown quality. Failure of the state to “extend public services to socio-economically marginal areas of” cities in developing countries is exceedingly common (Bakker 2003:338).

Paying for water at all is difficult for the 729 million who are waterless and live on less than $2 a day (UNDP 2006a). Insult is added to injury as the “cost per unit volume delivered” by non-public sources is usually “several multiples of that delivered via public water supply systems to the middle and upper classes (Bakker 2003:328). Wutich describes urban water supply as taking a center/periphery form, with less public involvement the further one moves from the center (2006:4). Scarcity is, then, constructed in social interaction, “as much a social as it is an ecological concept” and subject to the same power relations that govern other parts of social life (Ferguson and Derman 1999). For the poor occupying the periphery, procuring access to water is a constant task.


Tracing International Thought on Water Management

            On January 31, 1992, the Dublin Statement on water management and development was released. The most prominently known of the Dublin Principles is that water is an economic good (Derman and Ferguson 2003:279). Eight years later, the water warriors in Cochabamba rejected that idea and initiated a serious discussion about the human right to water. In 2010, this discussion culminated in the passage of a UN decree guaranteeing the right to water. Twenty years down the road, however, the argument over the right to water versus water’s economic value is still not settled, and this was a central point of debate at the 2012 World Water Forum.


Neoliberalism and Water Management in the Late Twentieth Century

Water was administered through the public sector for most of the twentieth century because of its importance as a strategic asset and the high amounts of capital required to invest in infrastructure. It was also believed that private companies had a  “tendency to fail to extend coverage to the poor” (Bakker 2003:329). By the end of the century, though, a sea change was underway. In just the period from 1987 to 2000, the number of water projects with private participation in developing countries went from 2 to 183 (329). By 2002, Vivendi and Suez, the two largest private water companies in the world, owned systems in 130 and 100 countries, respectively, and collectively comprised 70 percent of the water market (Bakker 2003:330; Finnegan 2002).

This shift was caused by an overwhelming ideological shift towards neo-liberalism, which stresses the ability of open markets, deregulation, small government, and privatization to facilitate economic growth. To advocates of neoliberalism, privatization of water supply allows private capital to enforce market discipline in a sector plagued by mismanagement (Finnegan 2002), while competition forces firms to be more efficient (Bakker 2003:330). Taken together and applied to water management, these principles form the ideology of managed liberalization, which emphasizes that water is scarce, should be managed through contracts, and is best administrated by private companies (Morgan 2011:33-39).


Figure 2.1: Chart of water service providers (Bakker 2003:337)


During the 1990s, deregulation led to private companies taking on increasing responsibility for setting prices for water (Dilworth 2007:49) Argentina, Bolivia, China, Chile, England, Indonesia, Morocco, the Philippines, Poland, South Africa, Spain, Thailand, Turkey, and more (Bakker 2003:329). This process was backed by the support of powerful international financial institutions like the World Bank. As of 2007, one-third of the projects the World Bank had approved since 1997 were water-related (World Bank 2007).

The Major Cities Water and Sewerage Rehabiltiation Project in Bolivia was one such project. This project led the Bank to recommend that Bolivia privatize the water supply of Cochabamba, Bolivia. However, privatization was met with fierce resistance, and a new model of water governance crystallized in the wake of the Cochabamba protests. The new model—and its tension with the neoliberal model—is the focus of the next section.


Pushing Back Against Neoliberalism

            Privatization has failed to be the panacea some foresaw it to be. The UN Human Development Report on Water from 2006 highlights three critical shortfalls. First, private companies have struggled with financing the capital investment required for network expansion. Second, they have been unable to be accountable to tariffs laid out in contracts. Third, they have consistently made unsatisfactory progress in expanding network access to poor areas. Combined with spectacular collapses in Cochabamba, Buenos Aires, and West Manila, these problems gave rise to a number of vocal critics of water privatization (UNDP 2006a).

For these critics, who include Vandana Shiva and Maude Barlow, Dilworth says that corporations represent “an organizational structure that serves to alienate humankind from genuine human community” (2007:51). This position can be summed up with reference to Mario Soares’ World Water Contract declaration, which states that water “belongs to all of the inhabitants of the Earth in common” (ibid). On a more economic level, rent-seeking behaviors, which make profit by manipulating conditions rather than creating wealth, are observed in many privatized ventures when they fail to extend urban services to new settlements (Bakker 2003:332). On the ground, successful protests against privatized water services have occurred in Panama City, Tucumán, Lima, Rio, La Paz, India, Pakistan, South Africa, Poland, and Hungary (Finnegan 2002).

The public-participatory governance model these critics endorse highlights the importance of water to life, blames capitalistic greed for shortfalls in services, and calls for a human right to water (Morgan 2011:44). Such a right to water would “imply a basic volumetric allocation per person per day” (Bakker 2003:331; cf. Gleick 1998). Legal expert Salman Salman opines that a human right to water would include requirements that states respect (do not harm), protect (do not allow others to harm), and fulfill (actively seek to expand and improve) the citizenry’s water supply. This right could be infringed upon either by an act of commission or omission, meaning that a government could be held liable either for a malicious action or for the lack of a beneficial one (Salman 2004:65-70). Salman, for one, notes the legitimate concern that affordability is a part of the human right to water and cannot be guaranteed by private companies (71).

The work of these critics is reflected by changes in international institutions’ attitudes towards the human right to water. November of 2002 was a turning point. The UN Commission on Economic, Cultural, and Social Rights issued General Comment 15 stating that the right to water follows from the right to life. Thereafter, the human right to water became an issue of contention at the triennial World Water Forum, becoming a flashpoint at the 2009 Istanbul World Water Forum (WWF 2009:52-57). Momentum from this meeting carried over into 2010 when the United Nations adopted a formal resolution recognizing the right to water.

The resolution was passed 122 to none, but 41 countries abstained, including the United States, reflecting continued ambivalence about the meaning of a right to water. This ambivalence was on further display at the recent 2012 Marseilles World Water Forum, where the right to water became the subject of squabbling when it was not mentioned in the ministerial declaration (Provost 2012). The “ongoing resilience of this issue” is a testament to the scale of what is at stake (Morgan 2011:11).

The place of Cochabamba as a turning point in the story of modern water governance does not just spring from its status as crucible of inspiration for anti-neoliberalism. Cochabamba after the Water War provides us with a glimpse into what the human right to water means in a world that is increasingly stressed for water. Cochamba presents a salient microcosm of an issue with global implications.
















[1] Saltwater is cheaper and, in port cities, far more abundant than freshwater. However, its uses are limited because saltwater can damage many types of equipment.


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