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Water: a good to be purchased or a basic human right?

23 August 2007

How the commercial delivery of water services to domestic consumers is highly contested.

In the face of aging infrastructure in developed countries, lack of investment capital in developing countries, and looming water scarcity at a global level, the provision of access to water as a basic universal entitlement of citizenship is increasingly intractable.  A commonly offered solution to the problem focuses on the participation of the private sector in the delivery of water to household users. As this increased in the 1990s, social protests against the commodification of water multiplied in both developed and developing countries.  Although private sector involvement in water services decreased after 1997, tensions between commercial imperatives and equitable access to water remain, especially as many publicly provided services are under pressure to restructure along commercial lines.

In a socio-legal project funded by the ESRC and AHRB, my colleagues and I explored conflicts surrounding the provision of water to domestic consumers in Argentina, Bolivia, Chile, France, New Zealand and South Africa.  The project aimed to identify the ethical and ideological visions that animate protest against water commodification, the strategies protestors use, the rules or principles that shape and resolve conflicts over water service delivery and how protesters engage with these rules.

Six case studies were conducted in both developing countries and OECD countries focussing on specific social conflicts over water consumption practices that resulted in a change in the ownership or the control structure of water services delivery.  Key players in the global water sector including water companies, organised consumers, social activists and water regulators were interviewed and two important international processes that affect the status of water – multi-stakeholder dialogues and negotiations and litigation under multilateral trade treaties – were studied.

Market efficiency versus human rights

We found that the commodification of water is being challenged by the notion of a human right to water.  Access to water may be the first of a sequence of globalised struggles over socio-economic rights, many of which will also revolve around an axis of conflict between market efficiency values and human rights values.

This axis of conflict between ‘water as market commodity’ and ‘water as human right’ has more clarity as a rhetorical device than as strategy for concrete implementation.  As one interviewee remarked: “We've often said that we should be very careful that the [idea of a human right to water] not become passé – if it can be bandied about, then it doesn’t mean anything and therefore we've lost it, we've lost the word. And these words, many of them we've lost altogether – like freedom, freedom is like freedom reversed you know!”

Conflicts over access presently play out mainly through national legislative politics, court hearings, less formal spaces such as ombudsman or small claims tribunals and on the street with direct action.

At local levels, these less formal spaces can play an important role in channelling direct protest into sustained and more routine political leverage.  For example, one protestor in New Zealand blocked from fighting his water bills in small claims tribunals chose instead to write his cheque for his water bill on a brick. A related series of ‘direct action’ protests by allied groups led eventually to the protestors assisting their local authority in devising creative budgetary strategies in relation to improved water service provision.

At global levels, a ‘competition for the rules’ is emerging between voluntary self-regulatory standards set by professional bodies, trade and investment regimes, and human rights institutions and labour and consumer bodies that stress sector-specific service delivery regulation.

An emerging sense of global citizenship

Political struggles over access to water in recent years have fostered an emerging, albeit thin, sense of global citizenship that has three disparate facets.  The practices of water companies operating in a global competitive environment constitute a form of global market citizenship.  The practices of a loose-knit transnational social movement around access to water that self-identifies as part of the international human rights community constitute a form of global insurgent citizenship.  Epistemic communities of regulators sharing technical know-how across boundaries constitute a form of global technocratic citizenship.

Despite a present lack of integration between these three dimensions, there is a sense of belonging to a community that cuts across traditional political boundaries, albeit a sector-specific community.  The ‘competition for the rules’ mentioned above is likely to link these sector-specific dynamics to more general patterns of global governance, making water a key ‘test case’ for conflict over the distributive and value struggles over globalisation.  The importance of water services in the political rhetoric of Bolivia’s new president and his alliance with Cuba and Venezuela is an instance of the global political salience and sensitivity of what one might call ‘the politics of necessity’.

‘The Commodification of Water, Social Protest and Cosmopolitan Citizenship' was conducted as part of the Cultures of Consumption Research Programme, funded jointly by the ESRC and the AHRB.

Professor Bronwen Morgan/School of Law

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