Water scarcity is going to be a growing and long-lasting problem for humanity if capitalist production systems are not challenged, according to Gaye Yılmaz, a professor of political economy and globalization at Boğaziçi University since 2009.
“Production in capitalist societies never depends on the needs of people but only on the need to produce more and more. It is totally based on producing quantity, not quality,” said Yılmaz, author of the 2009 book, “Suyun Metalaşması: Kıtlığın nedeni kıtlığa çare olabilir mi?” (Commodification of Water: Can the reason of scarcity become the solution for scarcity?) published by the Foundation for Social Sciences (SAV).
The figures from the 2006 United Nations Human Development Report show that some 1.1 billion people in developing countries have inadequate access to water, while 2.6 billion people lack basic sanitation. The lack of water is closely related to poverty, as almost two in three people lacking access to clean water survive on less than $2 a day, with one in three living on less than $1 a day. More than 660 million people lacking basic sanitation live on less than $2 a day, while over 385 million of people in this category live on less than $1 a day.
Moreover, the report says that “If you live in a slum in Manila, you pay more for your water than people living in London.”
Yılmaz says that this often occurs because of privatization of water resources; privatization is promoted as a means to bring business efficiency into water service management, but experience shows that privatization leads to reduced access for the poor around the world, as prices for these essential services have risen.
Answering our questions, she elaborates on the debate regarding the issue since there is growing public awareness about the privatization of water.
World Water Day 2011 was celebrated in from March 20 - 22. But you say that it is not a day to celebrate. Why not?
The UN is one of the international organizations which is leading the commodification of water around the world, by which I mean that it was the UN which first defined water as commodity in its Rio and Dublin Conferences in 1992 and it was the UN which brought a proposal to establish the World Water Council [WWC] in 1997. Therefore, besides the World Bank, WWC and OECD, the UN also plays a very critical role in the process of commercializing water. It is obvious that World Water Day was designed only to make people believe that commodification would be the only solution for water scarcity. Thanks to these kinds of initiatives, the UN, World Bank and WWC receive broad public recognition for their highly misleading arguments claiming that water is a scarce resource and therefore must be commercialized.
Privatization of water concerns some activists and you are among them. Why is it a big concern for you?
Not only privatization but also public-private partnerships [PPPs] or even public-public partnership [PUPs] are big concerns because privatization means the transfer of ownership rights from the state to corporations. However, water management may also be transferred to corporations without transferring ownership rights, meaning that water delivery will be done according to the dictates of the market. The biggest concern is about the market itself. Because when a specific element of nature, like water, is commodified, then countless numbers of corporations will flood sector to invest and make profits. This will cause the highest degree of depletion in fresh water sources, just like what we saw with hydro power station [HPS] construction in Turkey. The number of projected HPSs increased to 2000s only in the last few years because many domestic and international investors piled on “alternative energy production.”
As some one third of the world’s population is living in either water-scarce, or water-short areas, it is predicted that climate change and population growth will take this number to one half of people in the world. Maude Barlow [renowned author, and activist who volunteered as senior advisor on water issues to Miguel d'Escoto Brockmann, 63rd President of the UN General Assembly] has commented that it is not necessarily overpopulation causing water shortages, saying that “12 percent of the world’s population uses 85 percent of its water, and these 12 percent do not live in the third world.” What do you think of this idea?
I totally agree with Maude although I do not agree with the rhetoric of the organization -- the UN -- where she works. Ironically it was the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development [UNCTAD] that published statistics saying that the share of industrial water use in the [Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development] OECD bloc increased to 60 per cent in the year 2000, while it was only 12 per cent in 1960. One may consider that the rest, 40 percent, would remain for public use… No, unfortunately this is not the case because industry mostly discharges polluted water in industrial processes directly to the environment.
‘Declaring that water is a human right is not a solution’
There is a debate going on regarding redefinition of the relationship between water and human beings. What’s the current definition and what is wrong with it?
It is true that the social system we live in shapes our consumption behaviors, customs and practices. But production in capitalist societies never depends on the needs of people but only on the need to produce more and more. It is totally based on the production of quantity, not quality. Otherwise all foods produced, but not consumed, would be distributed to people facing starvation in third world countries instead of being disposed of. There are also developments in capitalist societies, such as armament or defense industry, that people never need. So we must question the manner of production before we question human beings.
As the World Water Forum concluded in March of 2009 in İstanbul, more than 20 countries officially challenged the forum’s ministerial declaration, saying that the document defines water as a human need rather than a human right. In a counter-declaration, Latin American states played a key role in gathering signatures to recognize access to water and sanitation as human rights. Why is there a need to make water a human right? Who would benefit from it and who would not?
Actually I think that the concept of “human right” is also very problematic because we say that water is a human right and it cannot be commercialized; however, the World Bank [WB] says that water must be commercialized because it is a human right. There are two ways to explain these contradictory stands: First, Article 17 in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which is the common reference for both opponents and proponents of the commodification of water, defines private ownership also as a basic human right. Secondly, the World Bank claims that there are millions of people who do not have access to clean water and their states are unable to provide access to them. Therefore the World Bank argues that only the private sector can provide access to clean water. However, the missing point here is that only those who are able to pay the cost can access clean water, meaning that the private sector will sell it to people at market prices. Declaring that water is a human right is not a solution as long as water scarcity exists because this declaration can be a solution only for basic needs of people but it doesn’t have any impact on the water scarcity emanating from the capitalist production habits.
‘Climate change and water scarcity are very much related’
What would you say about the significance of the Latin American countries’ leadership role in demanding that right for water to be a human right as they have been experiencing many struggles in that regard?
Latin American countries have traditionally been used as the backyard of the US. Therefore, these are also the countries where neoliberal policies like the privatization of municipality waters were tested first, following Great Britain. Thus, the first reactions emerged in the Latin American countries and they took the leadership in protests worldwide.
What do you think about predictions regarding future wars waged over the scarcity of water?
Since we are not seriously experiencing water scarcity in our lives today, we cannot imagine what will happen in near future. However, as there are compromises between different interest groups, like in Chiapas (Mexico), where industrial corporations offer to provide new irrigation technologies for farmers in return for the transfer of a specific amount of surface water from farms, I think water wars are not a remote probability.
What is the effect of climate change on water security?
These two, climate change and water scarcity, are very much related to each other, but the recommended solutions for both also trigger more risk with respect to these two. For instance, desalination systems are being considered as a solution to water scarcity despite the existence of proven liabilities and dangers, such as the incredibly high energy needs of these systems or the level of pollution they generate in seas and oceans. Also the debate on both renewable energy and the Kyoto Protocol, which claims that the protocol was introduced to reduce and control carbon monoxide emissions into the atmosphere, can be misleading. When we look at the definition of renewable energy in the protocol, we see that it includes water, wind and solar energies as well. When these three are open to free competition, the earth will be covered by solar panels, wind tribunes and hydropower generation regardless of the real needs for energy. And Kyoto Protocol represents international law for commercialization of entire nature under the name of fight against global climate change at the cost of nature and humanity. Carbon credit schemes were designed as an incentive for corporations who are expected to invest willingly in renewable energy and clean productions. But this does not depend only on incentives, it also depends on the uneven development of capitalism, meaning that not all corporations are in equal financial positions and therefore many of them are not able to invest in new technologies. This also means that global climate change or warming is not something that you can stop in capitalist societies, but despite this fact nature is being depleted in the name of profit and the accumulation of capital.
‘Existing dams are more than sufficient to meet people’s needs’
In Turkey, there is a growing public movement against the construction of dams on rivers or hydro electric power plants. On the other hand, there are people in dire need of clean water and they will support anything, including the construction of dams, to have access to water. Is it possible to reconcile the needs of both groups?
We must distinguish between the real needs of people and structural needs of capitalist corporations. If we are talking about only a few dams and only few hydro power plants, we cannot say that they are bad. But as I explained before, these structures are not to meet the needs of people; they are built to serve the need for competition between corporations. Because of that I am against those dams too. I am also against those who deceive people who are in dire need for clean water by saying, “We construct these dams and hydropower plants only for you.” This is a big lie. I am also against those who deceive local people by offering other capitalist projects, such as tourism or industrial agriculture, as if they are alternatives to the depletion of clean water. As long as these are open to competition, they will also pollute and deplete water resources because they will never be limited to just a few investments. What we need to reconcile the needs of both groups is to make our waters free from capitalist relations. Remember, people didn’t have any problems with HPSs or dam constructions for many years in the past. If there are people who need clean water, reservoirs must be built to meet their needs; this is not something to say no. But we know that existing dams are more than sufficient to meet these kinds of basic needs.
How do you think Turkey can manage its free flowing rivers without damaging the environment? Is it possible to use the capacity of rivers to store water effectively?
It may technically be possible, but my answer is, “don’t do it,” because this is neither necessary nor a recommendable proposal; it is just another intervention in nature which repeatedly takes its revenge as we just have witnessed after the last earthquake in Japan. Your technologies cannot cope with nature!
‘Just remember why rural people had to migrate to big cities’
On this year’s World Water Day, it is noted that few urban authorities in developing countries have found a sustainable solution to urban sanitation, and utility companies cannot afford to extend sewers to the slums, nor can they treat the volume of sewage already collected. Solid waste disposal is a growing threat to health and the environment. As İstanbul is one of the biggest urban areas in the world, what would you say about the basic problems that İstanbulites face?
We must start with another question: Why have İstanbul, Kahire, Tokyo and Delhi become so crowded? This takes us to another problem: the new accumulation regime which has been implemented in the last 20 years in the developing world. Just remember why rural people had to migrate to big cities. Remember the early stages of so-called “development” in these countries, when the industrial sector built factories around the big cities because of transportation and energy problems. If rural people were able to survive on their lands, they would never have migrated to İstanbul. If there were no structural needs for industrial corporations, which set their factories around the city in the last 50 years, we wouldn’t be discussing the problems that İstanbul faces today. Who is guilty for the lack of proper solid waste disposal systems in big cities? Is it those who migrated from rural areas in order to survive or the capitalist system itself, which is full of inequalities? Who is guilty for the lack of water in some regions? Is it those people who used to live in peace with natural resources in their local areas for decades but are now desperate for access to clean water, or the capitalist states which transfer tax incomes to big corporations in the name of incentives instead of making public investments for rural people?