The Politics Of Water Insecurity

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Above Photo: An Indian girl operates a water hand pump for her younger brother to drink on a hot afternoon on the outskirts of Jammu, Kashmir, in June 2014 [Jaipal Singh/EPA]

To achieve universal water security, we need to let politics and culture drive water planning as much as economy does.

This March 22, World Water Day, we focus attention on global issues of water access. The statistics are not comforting. The poorest ninth of us – about 800 million people – do not have reliable access to clean drinking water.

This is the starkest form of “water insecurity” – the inadequate access of individuals and groups to fresh water.

The explosive growth rates and technological advancements of the past several decades notwithstanding, we have been unable to provide a global minority – numbering more than the entire population of Europe – the most basic of physiological requirements.

Policy experts often respond to water insecurity by focusing on the issue of physical scarcity, and calling for more water data – particularly measurements and forecasts on water availability – to improve water management. It is true that water managers probably could be more efficient if they had sounder estimates.

The concept of water insecurity could, however, catalyse much more than a technocratic and managerial response.

We should take the concept as invitation to root water access issues in particular historical, geographical, infrastructural, and political contexts. Water insecurity is an effect, rather than a cause, of sociopolitical domination and infrastructural exclusion.

Take the example of gender. Analysts of water insecurity who are too fixated on physical scarcity tend to neglect the many contributions women make to household production, without which the larger workplace-centred economy could not exist.

The World Health Organisation estimates that women shoulder about 65 percent of the burden of fetching water, the most fundamental economic activity for households without water access (PDF).

This time and labour could have been devoted to other security-enhancing activities, such as education, farming, or earning a wage.

A lack of water data did not cause this unfair distribution of water-provisioning work. Engrained structures of gender subordination distributed unpaid and time-and-labour-intensive jobs on to the backs of women.

Without appreciating gender dynamics, “water insecurity” remains an overly abstract concept. Another key factor is spatial unevenness.

‘Spatial unevenness’

A spatial approach to water insecurity reveals that water-insecure communities often reside in socioecological peripheries – regions without sufficient access to water because of a lack of political power and infrastructural connection.

Take, for example, the rivalry between Pakistan and India over the Indus river in northwest South Asia.

Pakistan and India signed the famous Indus Waters Treaty (IWT) in 1960 with the mediation of the World Bank (PDF) . Experts regard the treaty as a model of good transboundary governance.

However, central state elites arranged the IWT and they did not necessarily account for the needs of the many river-dependent communities residing within those states.

Ethno-regional minorities in both countries have protested for decades that IWT failed to account for their needs.

In Pakistan, the downstream province of Sindh feels that the upstream province of Punjab captured the lion’s share of IWT benefits and the associated construction programme, the Indus Basin Plan.

The people of the disputed Kashmir have the strongest case for political exclusion. Most, if not all, of the Indian and Pakistani engineering and policy elites involved in the negotiations agreed it would be too problematic and messy to give Kashmiris a political voice.

The Green Revolution of the 1960s, which relied on “thirsty” seeds, fueled increases in landlessness in both countries and transferred power and wealth into the hands of landed elites.

These technological and political changes probably have much more to do with rural water insecurity than any physical scarcity of water.

Listening to the masses

This March 20-21, when the Indus Waters Permanent Commission meets in Lahore, the commissioners should remember that water insecurity is less about national per capita water availability and more about the concrete communities in the basin whose water insecurity reflects broader social-spatial exclusions.

None of this means water data is not important to decreasing water insecurity. It does, however, mean that a sustainable solution must account for larger structures of domination and exclusion.

For Pakistan and India, it means relying less on engineering expertise and more on popular consultation when adjudicating water issues.

If the goal is to decrease deprivation and to equalise global life-chances, nothing is more practical than the democratisation of water planning, which means understanding water insecurity as an effect of deeper forms of social insecurity.
Historically, political establishments in both countries have mistrusted the impoverished masses, and have invested authority for water infrastructure planning in technocrats and experts.

Governing elites and members of civil society must wean themselves off this centuries-old habit, and listen more carefully to environmental and livelihood movements – often composed of the most marginalised populations.

There are organised groups of fisherfolk in the Indus delta, poor irrigating peasants in the Punjabi heartland, and Kashmiris living in the highlands where dozens of new dams are planned, who should be at the centre of any process of negotiating the Indus.

In other words, we need to find ways to let politics and culture drive water planning as much as economy and engineering does.

Democratisation of water planning

On the global scale, more capital needs to be available for the construction of new water infrastructures in the Global South.

This does not necessarily mean a rush to build large new dams, but rather a context-specific analysis of what new infrastructures would benefit the most deprived peoples of the world, those who live predominantly in Sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia, but also in pockets of racialised poverty in countries such as the United States.

In some locations, new infrastructures may indeed mean new dams, while in others it may mean upgrading sewage pipes or a treatment centre.

The point is that material infrastructure is necessary. We should meet the specific requirements of women, people residing in socioecological peripheries and other non-elite water users not as obstacles, but as imaginative challenges to our ideas about infrastructure and equality.

These recommendations may seem utopian and impractical. I accept the charge of utopianism, which is inherent to building a type of society not yet seen.

I reject the accusation of impracticality. If the goal is to decrease deprivation and to equalise global life chances, nothing is more practical than the democratisation of water planning, which means understanding water insecurity as an effect of deeper forms of social insecurity.

Majed Akhter is assistant professor of geography at Indiana University Bloomington.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.

  • I could not agree more with assistant professor Majed Akhter. Water security is a primary requirement to meet the most fundamental needs of every human. Food security is secondary to water security in numerous ways, including for food production and the cleanliness necessary for a healthy life. Unfortunately, concerns for both the water or food security of individuals is entirely incidental within the context of monetary economics. We certainly have the technical expertise to meet those needs for every person alive today. The Earth has an abundance of water. Extraction, purification and distribution are technical challenges with solutions already existing to meet each of those challenges, with ever more efficient solutions emerging on a regular basis. What does not exist is the monetary incentive to implement those solutions to meet the needs of everyone, especially for those without the ability to pay.

    The destabilizing influence this has had, is having and will have directly and/or indirectly impacts everyone. The monetary blindness so elaborately expressed for example in the Trump administration, fails to recognize this existential danger for humanity. Daily, Wall Street gambles with the lives of every human being alive today or yet to be born. The solutions will never emerge from monetary economics. They will emerge only from collaborative efforts both local and global by those of us that recognize the needs of the most vulnerable among us as essential to our own survival.

    A most peculiar aspect of implementing water and food security for all, is that monetary economics has no capacity to truly measure their benefits because there is no immediate monetary profit to be made. Money is blind to the real needs of people in numerous ways. Those with the greatest monetary wealth are the most blind of all.

    Recently in Argentina, all the monetary economic reports are dark, talking about the collapse of another economy because of the communist influences that have dominated for the last few decades. The most abundant source of “oil wealth” on the planet has succumbed to runaway inflation due to the influence of the global oil cartels who are attempting to bludgeon the people of Argentina into submission to the existing monetary hierarchy of power. Attempts to distribute that “oil wealth” for the benefit of all the people of Argentina have led to monetary economic disaster or so all the market pundits would have us believe. Never the less, I suspect that the local communal efforts of the people of Argentina to take back democratic economic control of their own lives continues apace, having fallen off the radar of money blinded Wall Street measurements. I read a recent report that many have begun to shift their exchanges to bitcoin as an alternative to the bank issued currencies that for some reason are either coincidentally or intentionally hyper-inflating. Until bitcoin, all money had been a centralized method of global domination and control directly tied to oil.

    What does this have to do with water security? Well oil is only essential to old style monetary economics, not to human life. Unlike water, oil extraction and use is becoming increasingly antithetical to a secure human future. The local efforts in Argentina to provide water and food security for everyone don’t register on monetary metrics. This, I think, is a powerful hint about the direction we should all be seriously considering as the global monetary economy continues to drive us toward the abyss. The old monetary metrics by which we have become so accustomed to measuring the worth of our lives are rapidly become obsolete. Communal efforts, or perhaps to use a less politically charged word, collaborative efforts by people who have been abandoned by monetary economics, to meet their basic needs are spreading rapidly and invisibly across the rapidly disintegrating landscape of global monetary economics. The Capitalist Oligarchy, left or right, is in an escalating panic as they see their traditional power and dominance beginning to slip from their control. The Trumps and the Clintons are increasingly desperate in their attempts to re-exert domination and control over all of our lives. It is important for us to understand what is happening and why least we also stumble around in blind monetary panic as Capitalism unravels itself. The life ground for us all has always and still exists outside the imaginary empire of money. If we fail to develop a better alternative to the centralized, life blind money of today, we are better off abandoning money altogether as we work collaboratively toward implementing the solutions we all need.

    The monetary economics of today that pervades our governmental institutions is the blind leading the blind. Economic democracy in our lives, our homes, our jobs requires us to move beyond traditional “moneythink” with all of its skewed values. Shared access to resources, to the rewards of our work efforts and to the benefits of the emergent and exponentially growing technical understandings, the gifts of humanity to itself, are the future of economics with or without money. Capitalism and monetary economics are a dark fairy tale we no longer have the luxury of fearing. They are the remnants of ancient social systems of domination and control, the divine rights of kings, the feudal lords, the ownership of humans as slaves that has become the wage slavery of today. Each and every one of us need only demand, without monetary cost, the most basic of human rights for ourselves and for all others to end the structural violence of a monetary economics that is stealing the future from us all.

  • Jon

    Condensing what Gary says below, based on the article’s comment:
    “What does not exist is the monetary incentive to implement those
    solutions to meet the needs of everyone, especially for those without
    the ability to pay.”

    It is imperative that we remove from the entire domain of monetary considerations the availability of a decent water supply. Further wildlife need water as much as we do, and they have no money to pay for it! Those who obstruct major progress in the domain ought to be arrested for crimes against humanity.