Maya del Mar's Daykeeper Journal: Astrology, Consciousness and Transformation
In Association with

APRIL 2007

by Susan Pomeroy

Water Wars: Privatization, Pollution, and Profit, by Vandana Shiva. South End Press, 2002. $14.00.

This little book is becoming more timely by the second. If water is this century's oil (see Jessica Murray’s feature article in this issue), we can expect international wars, internal conflicts, and profiteering to be the result. This book, a roadmap to understanding global water politics in the years to come, is short, comprehensive, and to the point. Vandana Shiva, author, scientist and activist, is a woman ahead of her time.

Just last week, here in California, a court ruled that the way California distributes water (east to west, north to south) is illegal and must be reconfigured, potentially affecting millions.

This morning, both the New York Times and the Financial Times carried the same story: the benefits of climate change, it turns out—warmer winters, longer growing seasons, melting sea ice—will mostly accrue to the wealthier, northern-hemisphere, temperate-latitude countries. Ironically, these are the countries whose industrial development has contributed the most to global warming. Equatorial and southern countries, on the other hand, will suffer more widely from the adverse consequences of rising temperatures and rising sea levels, more violent tropical storms, water shortages, and drought.

The handwriting is on the wall. And what shall we do about it? Some of us, obviously, will profit. Investors in publicly owned water utilities, in publicly traded companies like Coca-Cola (Dasani bottled water) and PepsiCo (Aquafina), and giant global corporations like Bechtel and Suez, will profit monetarily from the fact of human suffering—while asserting that markets must regulate the price and supply of commodities, and water is a commodity like any other.

Others, like Indian scientist and activist Vandana Shiva, ally themselves with public rather than private interests.

Shiva summarizes the current state of global water politics succinctly in this small volume. She writes about the commodification of water, which she sees as a clash between two cultures:

A culture that sees water as sacred and treats its provision as a duty for the preservation of life and another that sees water as a commodity, and its ownership and trade as fundamental corporate rights. The culture of commodification is at war with diverse cultures of sharing, of receiving and giving water as a free gift. The nonsustainable, nonrenewable, and polluting plastic culture is at war with civilizations based on soil and mud and the cultures of renewal and rejuvenation.

What causes water scarcity? In India alone, Shiva makes an excellent case for the paradoxical impact of many activities once thought to be the saviors of the Third World, among them: the Green Revolution (water-intensive mono-cropping), large-scale dams (diverting and changing regional hydrologies), deep tube-wells (depleting non-renewable aquifers), deforestation (which destroys the ability of forests to absorb and release water), mining (destroys water catchments), and of course, climate change.

"Cowboy economics," says Shiva, rooted in the water-grabs during settlement of the American West, are at the root of many cultural changes in the use and distribution of water resources. In precolonial India, water and irrigation resources were locally managed for the good of all. Now, water is a thing to be bought and sold—and the ancient community networks which used to manage this important resource are disappearing as well.

Shiva does not neglect the role of multinational corporations, aided and abetted by the policies of global organizations like the WTO and the World Bank. She sees this both in the bottling and selling of drinking water (generally shown to be of no better quality than tap water), and in the privatization for profit of water resources around the world by North American and European-based companies like Bechtel, Suez Lyonnaise des Eaux, Vivendi, Aguas de Barcelona, Thames Water (and the list goes on).

One of Shiva's most interesting contentions is that wars over control of scarce water resources, which are occurring around the globe today, are often couched as ethnic conflicts. "Hydro-jihads," says Shiva, such as tension between Turkey and Iraq involving the Ataturk dam and control of Euphrates River water, are emblematic of struggles to come. The ongoing conflict between Israelis and Palestinians, says Shiva, is another example of a water struggle (at least in part)—over use of the waters of the Jordan River—which has been mistakenly explained exclusively in cultural and religious terms.

What is the answer? Shiva is a scientist, and her role is to inform and inspire. She is also a political activist involved in very specific local efforts as well as the general fight against global apathy and propaganda. In the end, says Shiva,

Protection of vital resources cannot be ensured through market logic alone. It demands a recovery of the sacred and a recovery of the commons. And these recoveries are happening.... Sacred waters carry us beyond the marketplace into a world charged with myths and stories, beliefs and devotion, culture and celebration. These are the worlds that enable us to save and share water, and convert scarcity into abundance.

Many years ago, Marin County in California, where I lived then, underwent a drought. People curtailed toilet flushing, lawns went dry, houseplants withered. Years later, friends from other parts of the country still laughed at my habit, ingrained during the drought years, of turning off the tap after rinsing each dish, rather than just letting the water run the whole time.

Conservation, in a hotter, dryer world, will become very important for some of us. Even more critical, however, is understanding the interlocking political, economic and ecological pressures brought to bear on our water supplies—pressures which will increasingly affect everyone in the world. These complex relationships are often hidden from our view in a haze of media propaganda, easy assumptions, and a culture of consumption. Shiva's book is a quick—and relatively painless—way to cut through clouds and get down to reality.