In January 2000, the people of Cochabamba, Bolivia, shut down the city in protest against the privatization of their municipal water system, which had resulted in rate hikes that doubled or tripled their water bills. In February of that year, Pacific News Service correspondent Jim Shultz broke the story in the Western press with “A War Over Water,” his firsthand reports of clashes between riot police and protesters. On the fifteenth anniversary of the Cochabamba protests, popular resistance to corporate water control continues to expand around the world, encompassing remunicipalization of privatized water utilities, direct action against unjust water shutoffs, and rainwater harvesting. A common theme—access to water as a fundamental human right—unites these three issues.
As Ellen Brown reported, today’s “water wars” not only pit local farmers against ranchers or urbanites, but also involve new corporate “water barons,” including Goldman Sachs, JPMorgan Chase, Citigroup, the Carlyle Group, and other investment firms that are purchasing water rights from around the world at an unprecedented pace. A 2014 report on water grabbing defined it in these terms:
Water grabbing refers to situations where powerful actors are able to take control of or reallocate to their own benefit water resources at the expense of previous (un)registered local users or the ecosystems on which those users’ livelihoods are based. It involves the capturing of the decision-making power around water, including the power to decide how and for what purposes water resources are used now and in the future.
The authors of this report identified five “interlinked” drivers of the current “new wave of water grabbing”:
Changing patterns in global food markets have triggered a renewed interest in acquiring land and water resources for agricultural production.
Rising oil prices and concerns that a “peak oil” period has been reached have led to the rise of agrofuels that use large amounts of water throughout the production cycle.
Growing global demand for raw materials underpins the continued expansion of the extractive industries and large-scale mining projects—including, in particular, hydraulic fracturing or “fracking.”
The market-based management of water resources, especially the privatization of water systems and services, which jeopardizes water access for poor and marginalized groups in many developing countries.
The financialization of water utilities, infrastructures, and the resource itself.
Much corporate news coverage of water shortages—including California’s highly publicized drought—and their potential remedies fails to take into account these five drivers of water grabbing and how they intertwine.
Corporate efforts to privatize water rights are meeting robust grassroots resistance as communities around the world assert their rights to decide how water resources are used. Over the past fifteen years, Victoria Collier reported for CounterPunch, there have been 180 cases across thirty-five countries of water “remunicipalization,” with water control returned from private ownership to the public. “From Spain to Buenos Aires, Cochabamba to Kazakhstan, Berlin to Malaysia, water privatization is being aggressively rejected,” she reported.
In opposition to the fast-growing private-public-partnership (PPP) model, which she described as “a marketing euphemism for privatization,” communities in Japan, the Netherlands, India, Costa Rica, Brazil, and other countries are now pursuing public-public partnerships (PUPs) to forestall corporate water takeovers and to develop “non-profit, public-driven solutions for water infrastructure needs.”
While the remunicipalization movement grows, protests in US cities, including Detroit and Baltimore, show how some forms of ostensibly public water remain deeply problematic. As Collier reported, since the summer of 2014, Detroit residents have engaged in direct action to resist city water shutoffs that disproportionately affected low-income, mostly African-American residents. In Detroit, water rates had increased by 119 percent over the past decade and the poverty level was roughly 40 percent. In consequence, many residents could not afford to pay their water bills, and the city’s Water and Sewerage Department began shutting off residential water services, sometimes without providing households any advance notice. Food & Water Watch reported, “The extensive service disconnections are closely tied to Emergency Manager Kevyn Orr’s plan to privatize or corporatize the water and sewer system.” Notably, the city exempted from shutoffs many businesses that also had past-due water bills. Some forty businesses owed approximately $9.5 million in past bills, but were not subject to shutoffs.
As of October 2014, Detroit’s Water and Sewerage Department had shut off water service for some 27,000 Detroit residents. However, as YES! Magazine’s Larry Gabriel reported, “Grassroots progressive action has backed down aggressive action by the city and its contractors.”
Residents of Baltimore faced similar challenges in spring 2015, as their city threatened to shut off water service for some 250,000 households, affecting approximately 750,000 residents. An April 2015 Food & Water Watch press release asserted that “Baltimore is repeating Detroit’s mistakes,” and that disconnecting water services posed “a very real public health threat.” In May 2015, the Baltimore Sun reported that the city’s enforcement of “long-unpaid” water bills was “starkly uneven,” with businesses that owed the greatest amounts exempted, while residents faced summary shutoffs. The Sun quoted Charly Carter, director of the advocacy group Maryland Working Families: “If the city can shut off 1,600 working families from their water, but hasn’t shut off even one commercial account, I think that speaks volumes about where their priorities are.” According to the Sun, over 350 large commercial accounts—a category that includes businesses, nonprofits, and government offices—account for a total of $15 million in unpaid water bills.
Direct action and other community efforts were ongoing in Detroit and Baltimore as this volume went to press.
The practice of rainwater harvesting is becoming increasingly widespread and sophisticated, showing another way that ordinary people and local communities can reclaim control of their water. In light of a growing population, climate change, and projected long-term water shortages, many cities and their residents are rethinking water use. As Madeline Ostrander reported for YES! Magazine, the city of Los Angeles currently imports more than 85 percent of its water, yet every year Los Angeles drains billions of gallons of rainwater into the ocean. New leaders are stepping forward to offer time-proven techniques to meet urgent local needs, including TreePeople, which is partnering with the city of Los Angeles to rewrite its storm water management plan, to develop distributed rainwater harvesting, and to transform the city’s landscape. TreePeople and other organizations, including The River Project, are showing how restoring the landscape’s natural capacity to slow, filter, and store water could solve many problems and vastly reduce Los Angeles’s reliance on external water sources.41 The River Project is a pioneer in the “urban acupuncture” approach to water sustainability along the Los Angeles River watershed. In partnership with the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power and the California Coastal Commission, the Project’s “Water LA” program empowers communities to design and install home gray-water systems. Due to these efforts, Los Angeles property owners can now obtain low-cost, over-the-counter permits for gravity flow systems running from their laundries, tubs, or lavatory sinks.
Rainwater harvesting and its positive impacts are not limited to big cities like Los Angeles. In fall 2015, Rajendra Singh, an Indian activist, will be awarded the esteemed Stockholm Water Prize for his work empowering poor farmers by reviving traditional knowledge and guiding people to build small rainwater ponds. Over the past thirty years, he has helped local communities revive five rivers and a thousand villages using these techniques. Where the World Bank asserts that countries like India need to continue building large dams, Singh’s life provides evidence of robust, sustainable alternatives.
Ellen Brown, “California Water Wars: Another Form of Asset Stripping?,” Nation of Change, March 25, 2015, www.nationofchange.org/2015/03/25/california-water-wars-another-form-of-asset-stripping.
Victoria Collier, “Citizens Mobilize Against Corporate Water Grabs,” CounterPunch, February 11, 2015, www.counterpunch.org/2015/02/11/citizens-mobilize-against-corporate-water-grabs.
Larry Gabriel, “When the City Turned Off Their Water, Detroit Residents and Groups Delivered Help,” YES! Magazine, November 24, 2014, http://www.yesmagazine.org/issues/cities-are-now/when-detroit-s-citizens-fought-for-their-right-to-water.
Madeline Ostrander, “LA Imports Nearly 85 Percent of Its Water—Can It Change That by Gathering Rain?,” YES! Magazine, January 5, 2015, http://www.yesmagazine.org/issues/cities-are-now/los-angeles-imports-nearly-85-percent-of-its-water.
Student Researchers: Antonio Arenas and Nguyet (Kelley) Thi Luu (San Francisco State University)
Faculty Evaluator: Kenn Burrows (San Francisco State University)