You never miss your water until the well runs dry

Water as a commodity, increasingly unaffordable and endangered.
by Brian Crawford
Water is a basic human need, it’s not optional. Water is 50-70% of human body composition and a primary ingredient for body functions at the cellular level. Earth’s surface is 75% water: it is thus both plentiful and endangered. Commodification of this life essence is consistent with the internal logic of a capitalist system that is all-encompassing, and water has not eluded its grasp. As a result of pollution, aging infrastructure, decreased federal grants to cities, maintenance and cleanup costs are increasingly burdens borne by consumers. As a response to the decay of water infrastructure, privatization is prescribed both in the US and abroad. Neoliberalism dictates privatization and market forces as the antidote, when they are in fact the spores that cause the contagion. “The basic contradiction of the capitalist system of control is that it cannot separate advance from destruction, nor progress from waste–however catastrophic the results”. (1)
Science and Industry
Ancient civilizations used waterpower, but the Industrial Revolution’s utilization of water changed the capacity of the production process. Advances in the textile industry were the first giant steps in commodity production. Cottage industries were felled by the Spinning Jenny, the Water frame, and the Spinning Mule, moving the production of textiles out of the home and eventually into factories.
Production is necessary, it is essential for human survival. Humans distinguish themselves by their ability to produce their means of subsistence, these tasks are accomplished by manipulating nature. While the development of new modes of production resulted in improvements for human existence, nature reaps the consequences. Many human labors result in transformation of the natural world. Advancements produce the corollary damage that tends to go hand in hand with development which is oblivious to ecological impacts and the reciprocal effects on human life. Disruptions caused by climatic changes, and extinction of species are produced not by natural processes but imposed by human activity. This is particularly true since the 18th century and its technological advances. Mass production and accumulation demand greater extraction.
Human activity requires water to perform everyday tasks. Urban centers in proximity to large bodies of water are ideal for supporting large populations and industry. The latter produces large volumes of  waste product and is a detriment to the water source and the humans consuming it.
Production’s reliance on extraction exacts a heavy toll on nature. Energy is produced by drawing water for coal, nuclear and natural gas plants. Generating energy from nuclear and fossil fuels expends enormous amounts of water. Water consumption by these plants exceeds that of entire cities. Industrial water usage includes fabricating, processing, washing, diluting, cooling, transporting, and incorporating water into products or for sanitation. Millions of gallons of water flow in the service of paper, chemical and petroleum industries. Water is used in the production of semiconductors and chips for automobiles and cellphones. Toxic waste from industry significantly affects waterways with impacts on surrounding communities. Pollution of water during mining and oil drilling apply stresses on resources and the earth’s ability to replenish. Usage advisories instructing residence to reduce water consumption, usually for household needs bares little impact. Water usage per person in the U.S. ranges from 80 to 160 gallons. In fact, agriculture and industry are responsible for the biggest draws from our collective well. Agricultural uses such as irrigation, pesticides and fertilizers account for massive water draws. Withdrawals for irrigation are 70% of freshwater use. 
Adverse climatic impacts are a result of fossil fuels as a primary source powering the economy creating increased drought conditions in some regions and in other regions greater intensity and frequency of precipitation and cyclonic activity. Mid-latitudes are projected to experience decreased precipitation and drought conditions. Projections indicate a spatial increase of drought affected areas from 1% to 30% by the beginning of the next century. Ocean currents and sea levels are affected by the warming of the atmosphere, causing the melting of artic ice which impacts weather patterns.  The influence of climate change on water will be significant. 
The Great Lakes region is home to the industries of the Midwest. As a result of pollution from Industrial waste products Lake Erie was moribund by the late 1960s. Recently an environmental formation known as the Lake Erie Waterkeepers placed a Lake Erie Bill of Rights on the local ballot. British Petroleum got a whiff and descended on the city of Toledo to obstruct the effort. Despite outspending the local organizers fifty to one the initiative passed with over sixty percent of the vote. But to prove that capital would not be out done, agribusiness appealed to reverse the result. Ultimately the initiative was dealt defeat by the court. Ohio’s regulatory agency abstained and when political action was taken by local organizations to remedy the conditions capital and the courts collude to preserve the right to toxify.
Flint, as well as some other predominantly Black cities in Michigan, experienced the undemocratic imposition of state authority over their Municipal governments under the pretext of financial crisis. This usurpation of local authority removed even the appearance of democratic control. The city councils were forced to bow before the power of the governor. The governor appointed “Emergency Managers” to execute his mandate for fiscal responsibility.
In response to Flint’s fiscal crisis the Emergency Managers took steps to reduce spending; water being a major expense, the decision was made to switch the city’s source from the Detroit Water System to the Flint River. Subsequently residents observed changes to the water supply such as color, taste, and odor. Officials assured residence that the water was suitable for consumption while attempting to conceal the contamination. “The problem with Flint’s new water source did not begin with high levels of lead, but with the city’s effort to disinfect it, and thus cover up the danger. Water infrastructure caused the contamination. Virginia Tech researchers found dangerous levels of lead in drinking water all the while “Department of Health and Human Services and Michigan Department of Environmental Quality knew of the increased lead levels but failed to act, marginalized the situation and attempted to conceal evidence”. Blood revealed the truth as the children of Flint were tested and found to have an increase of lead coursing through their veins.  Meanwhile, Internal emails from the utility Veolia contain messages warning of possible contamination and advising Flint given this evidence it should return to Detroit Water System. Michigan confronted challenges of water contamination and lack of access both contributing to looming health threats before the shadow of the pandemic fell upon the globe.
Pandemic related moratoria which prohibited water shutoffs went into effect in many states during the spring of 2020. As with other mandates during the pandemic it was not uniform. A study conducted by Cornell University in collaboration with Food and Water Watch concluded that 9000 lives could have been saved and nearly half a million fewer infections with a national moratorium on water service disruption. Detroit became the first city to implement a moratorium on water shutoffs as well as reconnection of service in response to the pandemic. Moratoria went into effect in 34 states covering nearly 250 million people. Protections were instituted between March and May of 2020 but by January most expired.  Less than a dozen states continue prohibitions on water shutoffs. Once a moratorium expires service disconnections begin again. Preventing the loss of water service is only one measure vital to slow the spread of contagions during a pandemic, but millions are unable to abide the Centers for Disease Control’s recommendation of frequent handwashing which is also recommended to stop the spread of the common cold and the flu. “The national guidelines issued by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention during the pandemic maintain that access to clean water and safe sanitation is imperative to prevent further spread of the virus.” Denied access to clean water millions are confronted with illness even death due to COVID-19 or other diseases.
 The Cost of Water
Economic crisis has caused the collapses of personal finances. Prior to the pandemic water accounted for a large percentage of household expenses. Rates have doubled over the past ten years, a particular strain on the budgets of low-income wage earners. Reverend Falicia Campbell inherited a home from her parents and with it a $5000 water bill from the city of Chicago. The payment plan offered by the city required a $1700 deposit. A price too steep for Reverend Campbell, resulting in service disruption. As many in her predicament learn, water is essential for your basic needs such as bathing, cooking, and cleaning. “There’s an old saying: You never miss your water until the well runs dry.” But, in fact the well isn’t dry. Lake Michigan  and the Great Lakes system are the largest source of fresh surface water in the world. The price to draw from the well is increasingly the obstacle.
In Chicago the average water bill in 2007 amounted to $178; by 2018 it was $576. During that corresponding period the water department performed 150,000 shutoffs. Disproportionately these measures impacted the south side, predominantly minority and low -income areas of the city. Communities’ resorted to one act of defiance:  illegally restoring service, 62,000 of them at risk of a $500 penalty being imposed. The utility has charged $7 million in fines and fees. One third of these fines and fees were imposed on the poorest communities in the city. There is also a $40 reinstallation fee. Chicago offers a payment plan which requires that half the balance due must be received to enroll. Water is increasingly a source of debt as the average annual charge in many municipalities is over $1000.
Average water bills in Austin, TX and San Diego, CA are over $1400. Austin experienced a 154% increase between 2010 and 2018. Low -income residents are invariably the most impacted. Three-quarters of low- income residents of New Orleans, Santa Fe, and Cleveland live in areas of the city with unaffordable water bills. In Fresno, of residents with incomes below 50% of federal poverty, 99% live in neighborhoods where water bills are unaffordable. An investigation commissioned by the Guardian and Consumer Reports examined water access and availability and found: 15 million people with service interruptions due to unaffordable water bills, 30 million reside in areas lacking safe drinking water and 100 million, one third of the U.S. population are exposed to toxic chemicals such as PFAS in their drinking water.
Despite its national wealth, indoor plumbing is not guaranteed in the U.S. There are 2 million people without running water and indoor plumbing. Race and geography are factors. Native Americans are nearly twenty times as likely to be without indoor plumbing as whites. Blacks in the south and Hispanics in California and Texas are also likely to experience lack of indoor plumbing. Income is a dominant factor as well. Water affordability will increasingly affect working class households. In five years 36% of U.S. households will experience unaffordable water bills.
Conditions contributing to rising costs of water have led to many purchasing bottled water. Coca Cola and Pepsi purchase municipal water at low rates, then sell water from that public source to consumers at an exorbitant price. Some Detroit residence resorted to collecting rainwater or filling up containers of water from friends and relative after losing water service. A suit against the city argued that denial of access to water was a public health concern. The city attorneys replied that residences could resort to buying bottled water. Bottled water is 3000% more expensive per gallon than water from the tap. Bottled water is not held to the testing regimes of Municipalities and may contain bacteria and industrial chemicals. Plastic bottles compound the problem, adding to the chemical soup with additives manufacturing impurities and breakdown products”. Beverage manufacturers use 2000 times the energy in producing their product than water from the tap. Corporate interests are tied to shareholders and not the public interest. Accumulation not accommodation is the prime motivator to be factored.
Water policy

Systems in some American cities are a hundred years old. Federal funding for water infrastructure and maintenance decreased 77% since its peak in 1977. Local utilities fund maintenance and construction by increasing rates. Utilities procrastinated, now decay and toxicity has reached a critical stage, and consequently approximately 240,000 leaks occur annually at a cost of $6 billion. Along with the wasted water, utilities wasted funds. Estimates for rebuilding water systems including waste and storm systems reach into the trillions of dollars in the coming decades. Across the country there are one million miles of pipes with a dedicated lifespan of 75-100 years, but some locations in the northeast are home to systems that are 200 years old. Because of its durability, lead based pipes were installed across the U.S. in the first half of the 20th century. A recent study found “56% of the U.S. population drank from water systems with detectable levels of lead.”
Regulated by the Federal Water Pollution Control Act later known as the Clean Water Act after amendments and expansion in 1972, water systems are operated by state and local government. Water for household uses, including drinking water and sewer systems, are regulated federally but operated locally. Federal funds are allocated for the purpose of states and municipalities to maintain standards as required by federal law. Beginning in the 1980’s the State Revolving Loan Fund was established, providing grants to states which in turn would loan funds to municipalities. This revision in the funding process was a cost cutting measure.
Municipalities needing to address decaying infrastructure are prey to private utility firms seeking to increase market share in the United States. These firms advertised the “benefit” of private enterprise’s approach of cost cutting and efficiency as well as improving water quality. Many cities have been disabused of this notion. Pittsburgh, Atlanta, and other Municipalities were caught in a wave of privatizations. These privatizations, pushed by the federal government since the 1990’s, proved not to be the panacea that was promised. Atlanta as well as Pittsburgh experienced worsening water quality, greater expense, less training for personnel, reduced testing, and staff was cut by half. Atlanta, which was considered the model for future water services, ended its $428 million relationship with a French firm after it did not live up to expectations and attempted to charge the city for work it had not started. 
German cities are reclaiming control of water services, ending their partnerships with private water service providers.  Even the great purveyors of neoliberalism, the IMF and World Bank, delivered damning assessments of private firms’ performance. Yet despite the evidence, the European Union delivered an ultimatum to the Greek government demanding the nation privatize its water system. Greece, at the mercy of European capital since the financial crisis of the late 2000’s, continues to capitulate. The mandated action was implemented in 2016 by the “left” Syriza government. Likewise, Portugal’s water services were privatized and costs to users quadrupled. Germany’s campaign to reverse the trend has been largely successful, but the poorer nations of the continent must conform to neoliberalism despite popular opposition.
Investors and speculators are asserting their power, and water prices are likely to become as ostentatious as gold. Dire futures await much of the world’s population which resides in regions experiencing water scarcity with the residual effects on food production and monopolizing of resources. Global finance capital dictates liberalizing markets, throwing the gates open to foreign investors and the privatization of once publicly owned resources. As greater scarcity looms supply will come under increased control by private entities.
The shape of water to come
Commodities by their nature are exchange values. “The commodity is first of all, an external object, a thing which through its qualities satisfies human needs of whatever kind.” (Capital Vol. I Chapter one) Poverty is defined by deprivation, a lack of the means to satisfy ones needs and thus an absence of the necessities of life. Poverty is a state in which the individual does not have the means to purchase what is necessary for their own subsistence. This state becomes an existential threat when life’s most essential needs especially water, are not affordable. Monopoly control of water distribution can only exacerbate material conditions for the impoverished.
Market trading is prescribed as an incentive for conservation and a solution for depleted supply during drought years. Financialization has replaced the production of tangible products as the means of economic growth. The financial sector produced the last major crisis through securitized mortgages and products that enriched owners of credit default swaps and collateral debt obligations who profited from every defaulting mortgage. Mortgage based economic crisis is a cautionary tale, but one to which financial institutions and speculators are indifferent. Short term gain is the cloud that obscures the mountain ahead; they seem oblivious until the moment of impact. Yet, the securitization of water as a financial product has arrived.
The Chicago Mercantile Exchange (CME) established the first water futures market in the U.S. at the end of last year. Tied to the NASDAQ Velez California Water Index the transactions are based on volume weighted average price in five of California’s largest counties. CME Groups contracts are worth $1.1 Billion in California spot water. Shares can be purchased in companies producing water equipment, or investing in private utilities, firms engaged in water purification, or distribution. Futures allow purchasers to buy at a fixed price which shields them from costs of future droughts. “It’s controversial development- one that reframes water from the United Nations-defined human right to a good for sale to the highest bidder.” Speculation by hedge funds and banks could conjure a crisis as it did in 2008 which was based on food speculation. United Nation Rapporteur on the rights of water and sanitation warns agribusiness and other industries monopolizing water jeopardizes over a billion people who “live in agricultural areas severely affected by water shortages or scarcity.” Concentrations of wealth and power defines monopoly, and the logic of capitalism tends toward monopoly. “The logic imposed by the financialization of life-which is often presented as unavoidable corresponds to the idea not only that everything can be bought and sold, but that everything has to be bought and sold”.
Imperialism, and water as a a right
Imperialism demands the growth of existing markets and the establishment of the new. Exploitation of nation states which were once under foreign hegemony and continue to languish in a state of semi-colonial debt are primed for multinationals searching for reduced production costs as well new markets for commodities. The nature of capitalism is one of continual growth. The environmentalist “Edward Abbey said growth for the sake of growth is the ideology of the cancer cell.” As Capitalism metastasizes, it eventually turns the body, (in this case the earth) against itself.
For capitalism even water is a tool of social domination. That is the logic of a system of class rule. Capitalism turns material abundance into socially constructed scarcity.” The Ogoni people of Nigeria’s displacement and dispossession are a result of pollution by oil companies, state repression and privatization. In the West Bank “water control is a key part of Israel’s ongoing process of dispossession: hence the myth of Palestine as a water-scarce region.” The West Bank is bordered by the Jordan River and “sits above the Mountain Aquifer”. The Israeli state controls water and it’s a key element in settler expansion. Dispossession of peoples who have populated a land for centuries or millennia and transferring their lands into private commercial property invariable leads to a lack of access and or depletion of resources including water. Water once plentiful and readily accessible becomes but another market and as a result people who were “once water sufficient, (become) water insufficient (and) have been integrated as customers into the burgeoning water market”.
Primitive accumulation is steeped in the bloody dispossession of native populations. People accustomed to the concept of nature as free and belonging to all were confronted by forced displacement and what was once free became private property. This was the process  as the United States claimed its Manifest Destiny. Indigenous peoples of the Western Hemisphere appear as impediments to corporate access to resources. As was the case with the treaties of the 19th century international conventions and declaration are ineffective, a mere facade. United Nations resolutions bear little weight when it comes to the wealth of nations.
The Standing Rock, Cheyenne Sioux Tribes and allies confronted the Texas based Energy Transfer Partners’ construction of a 1172 -mile pipeline. On top of the historic and cultural desecration of Tribal lands, the pipelinel crossed 209 rivers, creeks and tributaries including the Missouri River. First Nations in the Western Hemisphere have endured dispossession at the barrel of a gun for 500 years. The present imitates the past, in the end multiple agencies of law enforcement violently attacked the Cheyanne Sioux and their allies. The way of the gun continues to be an option when it comes to the dispossession of Native populations in the Americas.
Bolivia’s indigenous and working class fought Bechtel and their own government over water privatization. Mass political action brought the defeat of the multinational, and the government rescinded the law. A decade ago, the United Nation’s General Assembly declared water a human right. Bolivia introduced Resolution 64/292 in 2010, most notable are the abstentions. The United States, United Kingdom, Australia, Canada, and many European nations chose not to go on record as opposing the declaration. In spite of the danger of declining water supplies, abstaining nations rationalized that there was no established legal basis, therefore no such rights existed. The text had not defined the scope, the U.S. argued, “there was no right to water and sanitation”. Some of the objections are on procedural issues and also the objection to a declaration which is international; in their estimation the duty of providing water is a right of the individual states. Predictably, private utilities, bottled water companies and the World Bank were all in accord as vested interests felt compelled to staunch the threat. The solution to the “tragedy of the commons” is private property to ensure its upkeep. In that case most of the nation-states especially the most prominent abstentions are derelict in their duties. While Flint, Michigan and Newark, New Jersey are the most publicized water crisis they are replicated throughout the country.
Canada, one of forty countries to abstain during the United Nations vote which declared water and sanitation a human right, two years later moved to have explicit language regarding these rights stricken from the World Water Forum in 2012. Though Canada is rich in fresh water most of the Indigenous population are not privy to fresh water available to most Canadians. Safe drinking water is elusive to the indigenous population, most live under water advisories indicating water contamination.
Formal agreements within international bodies are not a guarantee to defend freshwater. The European Water Convention and The United Nations Watercourses Conventions sought to establish, legal, economic, and environmental protocols for the uses of international waterways. Analysis of the two treatises demonstrates a focus on the economic and environmental, with emphasis of sustainable development, protection of ecosystems and “equitable and reasonable use” of watercourses worldwide. Both treaties address conflicts of interests between nation-states over sovereign territory (trans boundaries).  Diminishing fresh water resulting from pollution of various water sources makes the prospect of greater conflicts of sovereignty over water and perhaps military conflicts as shortages become more acute. Treaties codified by international bodies are hardly an impediment to development which continues to stress marine life and ecosystems in general. Apart from oil spills and dumping from seacraft, the ubiquitous waste products from urban areas filter into water ways as well as that from agriculture.
United Nations Conference 1977 underscored four threats caused by water scarcity: food production, human health, the health of the aquatic environment and social, economic and political stability. In 1987 The Brundtland Report “argued that a comprehensive approach to   international and national security must take into account the potential impacts of unsustainable development.” Receding ice formations in the Artic provide new shipping lanes  and a fight for resources has commenced between Russia, China and the United States. This imperialist fight for resources (including fossil fuels) will intensify the climate crisis but these countries view this as an opportunity. This will create security issues for the Artic and no international body will impede the desires of the permanent members of the United Nations Security Council.
Ecological damage will continue apace as the growth necessitated by capitalism consumes and depletes resources. Science, governmental agencies and international bodies author reports with similar findings. Sources of clean water will diminish while the crisis of access becomes acute globally. Displacement and dispossession of historical significance to indigenous populations continue in the present and into the future. Collective struggles of the popular masses of Bolivia, the confrontations of the Dakota Sioux and Secwepemc Nation in North America against the building of fossil fuel infrastructure projects are episodes in a broader movement. Development in and of itself is not necessarily destructive but development whose processes rely on extraction and greater exploitation of nature to feed infinite growth will eventually be confronted with the fact that resources are finite. Likewise, this development scheme will impact all living beings. Water’s importance warrants protection from the rapaciousness of industry and the economic system that drives it.

  1. (ISTVAN MESZAROS, Deutscher Prize Memorial


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