The urgent need to bring water into the commons through political action.
Sanaa Alimia: In the era of planetary urbanisation and ecological crisis, can we – and should we – be having conversations about access to water as a ‘standalone’ resource?
Erik Swyngedouw: To my mind water is not, and has never been, a standalone issue. Over the past 20 or 30 years, in a context of increasing concern with access to water in terms of quality, particularly in the global south, there has been an extraordinary amount of activism around water: access, struggle, ownership, etc. What has that done to systematically change the configuration of access to water? Almost nothing.
Clearly the highly triaged and uneven access and distribution of water is a major issue. It’s the number one cause of premature mortality in the world. Poor access to water is a concern that many activists share. Something has to be done. But the focus on the specificity of the issue is politically stifling. The key question is what mechanisms produce this lack of water? This would immediately show that we are not just dealing with water but CO2, the climate, education, health, infrastructure – we’re dealing with all sorts of infrastructures that are unevenly distributed because of social, political and other power relations.
What is urgently needed, I would argue, on the part of activists particularly, is to shift the gaze. What is it that secures improved generalised access to all sorts of things? It is political struggle for democratic inclusion, not just participation. Every historical experience shows that it’s only through sustained struggles for political democratic inclusion – never perfect, never ideal –that lead to systematic forms of improvement across the globe.
SA: There seems to be a much greater emphasis on new technologies as a way of guaranteeing access to water. For example, initiatives to desalt seawater. What do you make of this and what are the challenges?
ES: It’s worth taking a step back to emphasise just how extraordinary the lack of access to water is. There is not a shortage of water. Sure, regionally speaking, there are shortages, but not at a global level. It also doesn’t take a genius to get access to water or move it from A to B. The UN estimates it costs $60 to $70 per year per person to get the infrastructure in place for potable water and sanitation to everyone. A sum that pales in comparison with that spent bailing out the banks in 2008, for example.
So it’s in that context that we should look at these new technologies. Desalination of water has been around for a long time. You boil salty water, it’s that simple. However, what has happened over the past 20 or 30 years or so, is desalination is increasingly seen as an environmentally friendly, safe and cheap way to get almost an abundant supply of water. Sea water is in great abundance, it is not owned by anyone for the time being, you can suck up as much as you want of it and not pay for it.
Of course, desalination at scale is not ecologically friendly. Desalination takes a gargantuan amount of energy. It’s true that the costs per unit for energy production have gone down, but it’s still very energy intensive. It also takes significant infrastructure to suck the water from the sea, which has an adverse impact on marine wildlife and ecologies, as well as producing highly saline and toxic leftover waste. There’s no way to recycle this so it often ends up back in the sea or stored on land, in barrels somewhere.
These technologies are also often used to defuse or, more accurately, sidestep political disputes. Take Spain, for example. Water access and distribution is difficult in the south of Spain, while people from Catalonia or Aragon generally speaking don’t want to share their groundwater with those from other regions. Desalination is an easy answer. Let’s get to the sea, extract free water, there’s no contestation.
This all falls under what I’ve called a ‘productionist logic’, we need to get more of the stuff to carry on doing what we are already doing. This perpetuates a logic of reproduction that does not consider the structures of demand: who’s using it, under what conditions etc… It helps us escape considering the contradictions of current demands.
SA: Recently, movements in cities have pushed for the re-municipalisation of water, to bring water ‘back’ into public ownership. What are the challenges that activists and communities trying to re-municipalise water face?
ES: As you know, the drive for privatisation emerges in the 1980s and became really dominant in the 1990s. Everything had to be privatised. The Washington consensus, the World Bank, the IMF all made privatisation a condition of getting loans. That’s a well-known story in many ways.
It turned out that the privatisation of water and other services was much more difficult to achieve than they had imagined. Water is an ‘uncooperative commodity’. It is difficult to make money on privatised water services without good management and infrastructure in place, which is not necessarily the case in the global south.
The other side of the story, of course, are the major political struggles against privatisation. There have been a whole range of struggles, some successful, some not. But those that have been successful have been so in light of the relative failures of privatisation. I think any progressive should unconditionally support strategies and struggles for the re-municipalisation of water and other essential services – education, health, etc. However, I also think that one also has to be aware of the tensions and contradictions associated with municipalisation and nationalisation.
There is plenty of evidence that municipally-owned water supply utilities operate precisely as a private organisation. They internationalise, they invest elsewhere. There is a classic example I know of the Seville public water company from the city of Sevilla in Spain that also operates as an international investor and operator. So there is no guarantee that a municipally-owned water supply company will operate in different ways.
Some do – I’m not saying they’re all the same. It just depends on the political and social context of the municipal governance and municipal management. How do they do it, and in what ways, and with what sort of objectives etc? That should not be forgotten: there are many right-wing local governments out there too! There is nothing inherently progressive about re-municipalisation, although, I would argue, it’s a good step in the right direction. At least it opens up space for political dispute and democratic contestation. But there is no guarantee that it will be fundamentally better.
Ultimately, what is at least as important as the struggle to socialise and municipalise water is the movement to decommodify water. That is the crux. Municipalisation in itself, or nationalisation in itself, does not guarantee that it decommodifies. In fact, most state and municipal operators operate in a commodified configuration of water.
What I mean by that is to take water resources out of a market logic. That means it’s not just a matter of turning the ownership from a private owner to a public owner if it doesn’t alter the nature of the commodity structure and you create, instead, a commons.
A commons is a piece of land or water etc that is out of the commodity logic. You can use it under certain conditions, you can mobilise it, you can manage, you can nurture it, you can do all sorts of things in a regulated context, but it cannot be bought or sold. In other words, it cannot be alienated. You can’t get rid of it. A commodity is precisely something you can get rid of. You can transfer the ownership to someone or something else. That is what needs to be addressed by activists. Not enough attention is being paid to the importance of not just changing the ownership but the social character of water.
SA: Control over water, and nature more generally, is a key part of the story of modernisation and development. How do you see this playing out in the era of climate change? Activists from areas that have been subject to massive floods underscore how colonial and state-led mega infrastructure projects make their lands more vulnerable to flooding.
ES: Of course, there is no such thing as a natural hazard. These are social and ecological constructs, as we have seen with many of the recent floods and droughts across the global south. Man-made, often not intentionally, but man-made nonetheless.
There is also no such thing as nature. Every configuration we inhabit, and water infrastructures are a good example, are social, ecological and physical at the same time. Of course, the capitalist form of producing these configurations is causing huge problems and there are two possible answers or strategies that emerge from this.
On the one hand there is what I would almost call the Luddite argument. Capitalism is obsessed with the transformation of nature to serve its own purposes and in doing so it fucks up nature. Therefore, the argument is: in order to deal with the negative consequences, we have to return nature to its original and authentic foundation. Often we look to indigenous communities for ‘natural’ solutions.
Now, I don’t reject the ways in which different indigenous communities live, but I reject how they are used as a potential strategy for transforming the world’s social and ecological configuration. I think that’s a dangerous mirage. Instead, the question should be: what kind of social-ecological configuration, what kind of infrastructure do we want to construct and nurture? There’s an urgent need to think through politicising future imaginaries: what the hell do we want? And with what kind of consequences?
Here again, I come back to what I said at the beginning about water, what is central is politicisation. Who decides what kind of nature will go into manufacture? And with what kind of consequences? What kind of environments are we making? Every environment is a political construction. Then the question is: who makes it? Who has a right to say what happens in that process? Activists can sometimes focus on single issues, like poor water access, but that’s just a symptom of an undemocratic, politically inegalitarian, autocratic political configuration. And all of that is what we have to fight!
Erik Swyngedouw is professor of geography at the University of Manchester.