Water and Imperialism

Water and imperialism


Water is essential, in various ways, to all human activity. Water is something that humans, literally, cannot do without. Every human needs water in order live and to have a good life. Societies need water in order to be provide for the survival of their populations. Usable water, as a resource, is finite and distributed unevenly across the planet. Most societies have difficulty providing water to their populations, especially in the Third World.  The inability to access water is referred to as the water crisis. The water crisis results in terrible human costs every year. And, as usable water becomes less and less available in the future, the brunt of the water crisis will befall Third World populations. The writings of  Vladimir Ilyich Lenin, social theorist and architect of the Bolshevik revolution, have framed discussions of imperialism and global poverty. Famously, it was Vladamir Illich Lenin who predicted cycles of world wars as  the powerful nations vied for the dwindling resources of the poorer nations. In the twenty-first century, there is increasing conflict over water. Lack of usable water will be a source of great instability.

Capitalist imperialism plays a role in the crisis.  And, it is the Third World that suffers from these water wars and social instability.  As activist and author Arundhati Roy states, “Empire does not always appear in the form of cruise missiles and tanks, as it has in Iraq or Afghanistan or Vietnam. It appears in their lives in very local avatars-losing their jobs, being sent unpayable electricity bills, having their water supply cut, being evicted from their homes and uprooted from their land. It is a process of relentless impoverishment with which the poor are historically familiar. What Empire does is further entrench and exacerbate already existing inequalities.”(1)

The effects of the water crisis are wide ranging. According to secretary-general of the United Nations at the time, Kofi Annan, “One person in six lives without regular access to safe drinking water; over twice that number—2.4 billion—lack access to adequate sanitation.” (2) Each year more than five million people die from water-related disease. (3) The World Health Organization states that 1.8 million children die every year as a result of diseases caused by unclean water and sanitation.  (4)

1.2 billion people have no sanitation facilities at all. 2.5 billion lack decent sanitation.(5) Fecal matter causes the majority of illnesses in the world. At any given time, half of the poor of the developing world are ill due to water supply, sanitation and hygiene. The biggest cause of infection is poor sanitation, usually related to water. (6)

In addition, agriculture and the water crisis are connected. Firstly, the water crisis is a significant factor in the world food crisis. Poor agricultural techniques waste water. And, overall, if agriculture remains on the same path, it will produce less and less relative to the growing human population. According to one source, “Irrigation-fed agriculture provides 45 percent of the world’s food supplies, and without it, we could not feed our planet’s population of six billion people.” According to the influential head of environmental research institute Worldwatch, Lester Brown, believes that water scarcity is now “the single biggest threat to global food security” (7) Much of the current irrigation is stressed, using more groundwater reserves than can be sustained. (8) As access diminishes, overuse of current water supplies results in increased pollution and environmental damage. This, in turn, diminishes water resources.  Thus, the water crisis is also a significant factor in the world food crisis.

Population growth will especially compound the problems in water and agriculture. A third of the world’s population live in “water stressed” countries currently. (9) This number will only increase in the coming years.  “Population and economic growth across Asia and the rest of the developing world is a major factor driving fresh-water scarcity. The Earth’s human population is predicted to rise from 6 billion to about 9 billion by 2050, the UN reports. Feeding them will mean more irrigation for crops.” (10) Feeding an increased population will mean more water.

This full brunt of the water crisis is suffered by the Third World. Access to water varies greatly from place to place. Looking at the distribution of access to water from one place to another shows that First World has more access than the Third World. This is exactly what one would expect. Privilege in one area accompanies privileges in other areas. Those with high incomes, those in the First World, have access to food, shelter, water, and other goods required for the good life.

The median income globally is about US $ 912.50 (US $ 2.50 per day). There are 2.5 billion people living on less than US $730 a year (US $ 2 per day).  By contrast, the median yearly  income of  a household in the United States was $46,326 in 2006. (11) The average person requires 5 gallons of water per day to survive. The average American uses 100 to 176 gallons of water a day. An average African family consumes roughly 5 gallons a day. (12) There are 2.9 billion without decent sanitation. (13) Those without access to drinking water are not in the First World.

The wealth and power of the imperialist nations translates into the ability to control access to water in the weaker nations. Imperialist nations use water as just another commodity, and they are not above brandishing their control of such a commodity for political ends. This has only increased with the rush toward globalization.

Water is increasingly playing a role in imperialist schemes against the Third World.  For example, one contention between the Palestinians and Israelis is the mountain aquifer underneath the West Bank. The Israeli state and settlers have dominated the groundwater supplies. Palestinians are charged three times more for water than Israelis. (14) Under International Law, Israel is required to provide drinking water to Palestinians. Israel is not allowed to deny it to them. (15) Yet increasing costs is one way to wage war against the Palestinians using water instead of bullets. By controlling water, its distribution and cost, the Israelis and their American allies are able to wield power over the Palestinians. Control over water means control over agriculture and food supplies, it means control over sanitation, and control over human life.

The water crisis also threatens to play a role in the reversal of Zimbabwe’s land reform movement. One consequence of the land reform movement in Zimbabwe has been an increase in water problems. Land in Zimbabwe had been controlled by Europeans, reducing the African population to pauperism. Mugabe’s land reform redistributed the land back to the majority African population. One unintended consequence of the land reform was that the new land owners proved unable to maintain the water systems and irrigation dams.

These problems can be manipulated by political forces. (16) The ex-land owners, those who had benefited from the old imperialist and white supremacist system  in  Zimbabwe, have a vested interest in a water crisis because they stand to benefit. Such a crisis could be exploited politically to oust Mugabe and return themselves to power. These forces are backed by powerful Western allies who seek to reduce Zimbabwe to the status of a colony.  (17)

The one example with a happy ending is the conflict in Bolivia. A water conflict in Bolivia also set an imperial power against a poorer people.  Bolivia is one of the poorest countries in Latin America. (18) Seventy percent of its population live in poverty. Ten percent of children die before age five. Bolivia’s economy was wrecked by hyper-inflation in the 1980s. A small ruling elite dominated Bolivian society. Sixty percent of the population is indigenous. Those of European background have historically had more privileges than the poorer and indigenous segments of the population. In Bolivia in 1999, Cochabamba auctioned its water supply in order to increase services. The water system was purchased by Aguas Del Tunari, a part of Bechtel, a large American corporation. As part of the purchase, the company was guaranteed a 15 to 17% rate of profit. After taking over the water system, Aguas del Tunari raised the water rates, some as high as 300%. (19) This sparked massive protests that lasted two months. The protesters accused the company of “leasing the rain” as they clashed with the Bolivian military. Hundreds were arrested and a  seventeen year-old boy was shot and killed. Journalist Luis Bredow describes the revolt: “Everyone was protesting, everyone…I’ve never seen anything like it in Bolivia. Housewives were throwing stones at the police. It really was a revolt.”

The water conflict intersected with traditional nationalist sentiment. These clashes nearly collapsed the government of Bolivia. The sale of the water resources had to be withdrawn.

The view that water is a commodity like any other has led to disaster in the Third World. According to Vandana Shiva:

“At the core of the market solution to pollution is the assumption that water exists in unlimited supply. The idea that markets can mitigate pollution by facilitating increased allocation fails to recognize that water diversion to one area comes at the cost of water scarcity elsewhere.

In contrast to the corporate theorists who promote market solutions to pollution, grassroots organizations call for political and ecological solutions. Communities fighting high-tech industrial pollution have proposed the Community Environmental Bill of Rights, which includes rights to clean industry; to safety from harmful exposure; to prevention; to knowledge; to participation; to protection and enforcement; to compensation; and to cleanup. All of these rights are basic elements of a water democracy in which the right to clean water is protected for all citizens. Markets can guarantee none of these rights.”

Furthermore,“Market assumptions are blind to the ecological limits set by the water cycle and the economic limits set by poverty. Over-exploitation of water and disruption of the water cycle create absolute scarcity that markets cannot substitute with other commodities. The assumption of substitution is in fact central to logic of commodification. “ (20)

The problem of water crisis can be solved in principle. According to one source, 97.5 percent of the Earth’s water resources are salty. Of the remaining water, only a single percent is available for humans. “Even this tiny proportion, however, would be enough for humans to live on Earth if the water cycle was properly functioning and if we managed our water use wisely.” (21)

However, the nature of capitalism is to view every resource, from labor to water, as a commodity. The water crisis cannot be solved on a global scale until there is a change in social relations globally. It cannot be solve under the current system of capitalism because the very nature of capitalism itself is to put a price on resources, to eliminate the commons. This being the case, it is likely that solutions will not be put in place for a very long time. And, in the meantime, this translates into increased conflicts, even wars over  diminishing access to water.

The reason that the water crisis won’t be solved in the short term is that imperialists have an interest in perpetuating the crisis. Capitalist imperialism is a system organized around profit, not human need. As long as there is profit to be made by “leasing the rain” or using the water crisis to destabilize political enemies, then the policy makers of the powerful nations will not act to solve the water crisis. It will be up to the oppressed nations to solve the water conflicts themselves as was done in Bolivia.

1. Roy, Arundhati. People vs. Empire. In These Times magazine. January 2005.

2. Hillary Mayell UN Highlights World Water Crisis for National Geographic News. June 5, 2003.

3. Pacific Institute,  Dirty Water: Estimated Deaths from Water-Related Diseases 2000-2020. 2002.

4. Global Citizens Core.  http://www.globalcitizencorps.org/issues.htm?page=issues_water&elon=1&gclid=CN7WgOrp7ZYCFRxNagodBmgurg

5  UNICEF/WHO. Progress on Drinking Water and Sanitation: Special Focus on Sanitation. 2008.

6. Water Supply and Sanitation Collaborative Council (WSSCC). 2008. A Guide to Investigating One of the Biggest Scandals of the Last 50 Years.

7. Africa’s Potential Water Wars. BBC News. 1999. http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/africa/454926.stm

8. World Water Crisis Underlies World Food Crisis. Environmental News Service. 2008. http://www.ens-newswire.com/ens/aug2008/2008-08-18-01.asp

9.The World Water Crisis. http://www.worldwaterday.net/index.cfm?objectid=E39A970B-F1F6-6035-B9F75093B863ED13

10. Wallace, Scott.  Is water becoming ‘the new oil’? Christian Science Monitor. 2008. http://features.csmonitor.com/environment/2008/05/29/is-water-becoming-‘the-new-oil’/

11. US Census Bureau. http://www.census.gov/

12. UN Water. Tackling a Global Crisis: International Year of Sanitation 2008. 2008.

13. UN Water. Tackling a Global Crisis: International Year of Sanitation 2008. 2008.

14. Ofori-Amoah, Abigail. Water Wars and International Conflict. 2004. http://academic.evergreen.edu/g/grossmaz/OFORIAA/

15. Water war leaves Palestinians thirsty. BBS News. June 2003. http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/middle_east/2982730.stm

16. Maoist-Third Worldists denounce imperialist meddling in Zimbabwe. http://monkeysmashesheaven.wordpress.com/2008/06/26/maoist-third-worldists-denounce-imperialist-meddling-in-zimbabwe/

17. Banda, Ignatius. Poverty: Water Wars Hit Rural Zimbabwe. IPS. http://ipsnews.net/news.asp?idnews=44294

18. Bolivia Country Report. CIA World Fact Book. 2008. https://www.cia.gov/library/publications/the-world-factbook/geos/bl.html

19. Joseph, Richard. The Water War in Bolivia. Counterpunch. March 26/7, 2005.  http://www.counterpunch.org/joseph03262005.html

20. Vandana Shiva.  Water Wars. South End Press. 2002. http://www.thirdworldtraveler.com/Vandana_Shiva/Water_Wars_VShiva.html

21.  World Water Crisis Underlies World Food Crisis. Environmental News Service. 2008. http://www.ens-newswire.com/ens/aug2008/2008-08-18-01.asp


1 Comment

Filed under Africa, Environment, Imperialism, Political Economy

One response to “Water and Imperialism

  1. Serve the People

    Another problem impeding the equitable distribution of water under capitalism is geography. Fresh water is unevenly distributed across the planet: some 20% of the world’s fresh water is found in the territory under Kanadian occupation, while some very densely populated countries have very little water. Under socialism, resources will be distributed more and more according to need, until finally society advances to the stage of communism, in which depriving others of resources will be unthinkable. Under capitalism, however, I wouldn’t bet on it.

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