The question of who controls water and for what purpose makes water inherently political. Whether it’s water sources, water production such as desalination plants and waste treatment, or water services, private industry and financial markets are approaching water as the “it” commodity of the coming decade. Water grabbing is a form of accumulation by dispossession. Risk is shifted from private investors to the public whilst profits are siphoned off in the opposite direction.
Water management is becoming increasingly technocratic with environmental economic models allocating water according to economic efficiency, offering market-based solutions to complex social and political problems. The rationale being that an effective price on water would result in responsible consumer practices and reduction of water use. Instead, this has commodified water (it now has a price, a way to measure its use, and a market) and subsequently put downward pressure on those least able to pay – it is a regressive form of taxation. Yet water is not like other commodities; if we cannot afford to pay for it, we cannot survive.
Critically, commodification facilitates privatisation and outsourcing of what should be essential services as investors can now see the “value” of water and related services. Nominally public companies now operate according to private law – profit, and efficiency rather than service and equity. Yet, the full-cost of social and environmental impacts cannot be captured in a market system; there is no adequate price for life.
As detailed in my recent report for the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation, communities are fighting back! Resistance has delayed and reversed privatisation, watered down austerity programs, protected eco-systems, and highlighted the interrelated racial, gender, and class dimensions of water infrastructure.
European-based water movements have been critical in the global fight against water-grabbing. These movements have been critical and central to anti-austerity struggles since the crisis, and in some cases have pushed for critical discussion on what is the public under neoliberalism – demanding democratic, transparent, and sustainable public management of water resources. Recent struggles have included:
- The water charges protests in Ireland that sparked the largest social movement since independence.
- The Italian water referendum where a resounding 95% of the population voted to keep water services in public hands and the establishment of the Italian Water Forum and Naples Declaration.
- Public water and remunicipalisation has been a central demand of the municipal movement in Spain, and different management models in Catalunya have proven that public management based on democratic participatory models can work.
- The remunicipalisation of Paris’ water services in 2010 was a symbolic hit against the two largest global (French) water companies (Veolia and Suez). Remunicipalisations have continued across France.
- Re-nationalisation of water services is back on the agenda of the Labour Party in the UK as research has consistently shown the failure – from a user’s perspective – of Thatcher’s privatisation program.
- In Portugal, the town of Maffra has remunicipalised their water services, and the Portuguese trade union STAL has successfully negotiated a collective agreement for water service employees.
- The Troika-dictated privatisation of water services was the target of the successful 2014 referendum in Thessaloniki, Greece, and managed to exclude water services from the general sell-off of public services. Public water worker unions across Greece have been reconnecting households that were cut off due to non-payment.
- Activists across the Balkans have been organising communities and lobbying business and governments to protect the last wild rivers in Europe from hydro-electric power plants. In Serbia, activists have established the Right2water platform to link these ecological movements, with calls for public management and related health risks on polluted water sources.
- Berlin has also remunicipalised their water services.
There are also regional campaigns and platforms working to link these local and national campaigns. These include: the European Water Movement, and the first successful European Citizens Initiative (ECI), Right2Water that collected over 1.9 million signatures.
Whether responding to ecological threats or privatisation, these movements are part of the global struggle for water justice, a struggle that begins with water, but is not limited to it. The demand for water justice captures and critiques environmental crises, health concerns, energy demands, and the dominance of economic valuation over everything else – it demands the transformation of our current system.
Activists have learnt that these movements work best when they include broad alliances often overcoming the previously assumed unassailable chasm between environmental activists and the union movement. Alliances use water as the common denominator to bring together different groups showing that water effects everyone. Trade unions have been critical and in some cases water movements have linked with other left-wing campaigns. Many movements have rejected direct alliances with political parties, instead pressuring from the outside. Legislative or constitutional change has been a common goal, but activists understand that such change can be temporary, requiring constant monitoring and the establishment of transparent and democratic management and implementation processes so that changes are not wound back. The use of referenda and other public declarations have been important to show strength and broad community support. However, these would not have been successful without careful planning and research by activists, who could put forward alternative models.
Ultimately, the Right2Water is framed as a collective right that has concrete demands attached, rejecting the dominant individualised rights discourse. It is this demand that holds so much political potential. These movements are pushing beyond the accepted neoliberal narrative that “There is No Alternative,” demanding that we come up with one and experimenting with bottom-up and different conceptualisations of the public, and democracy whilst doing so.
Water movements are going to the heart of not just the quality and type of service and access we require, but what kind of state – or public – we demand. Water struggles show that being “public” is more than a state-based ownership model but must operate outside the profit motive and financial markets. Movements such as those in Catalunya and Italy, argue that public management must be transparent, accountable and democratic – broadening our ideas of democracy beyond mere representational or electoral forms. These movements emphasise that the pursuit of profit and a truly public ethos are incompatible. The public should not only be exclusive of private interests, but transparent, participatory, and governed according to social need.
People are mobilised when their water is threatened. Although such wins are never permanent, they help build community power and political memory, feeding into future campaigns. But what does a right to water concretely mean? For the European (and global) movements, this is not just a transfer of ownership from private to public hands, nor a cheaper water bill. A Right2Water is a challenge to neoliberal water management, the market, and the increasing commodification of life.