The Politics of Water

“Water is life” is not some quaint indigenous metaphor. It’s common sense for many people, supported by solid science; and it has a pretty direct political implication. Living organisms depend absolutely on water, which means that any right to one’s life or the lives of other, including other living things, presupposes a right to water.

If water is turned into a commodity — something that exists in an economy of scarcity where one is only entitled to water if she buys it — then there is no effective right to water; therefore there is no meaningful right to live. And without that right, it seems, every other so-called right is phantasmal. How much more common of the commons is water?

The beating heart of neoliberalism is the denial that commons exist. All things are commodifiable.

Water politics is explosive politics.

Gandhi went twenty-one days without food and barely survived. I saw two consecutive food riots in Haiti in 1994. It’s difficult to describe that absolute social collapse in the face of Hunger — people wading through each other , grasping, screaming, running, sweeping bits of rice up out of the dirt, fighting each other like gulls, tearing things apart, surging dangerously close to the gunmen on the lines (I was one). Hunger is a phenomenon deserving of a horse for the Apocalypse.

How much more urgent is thirst than hunger, then? If you put twenty people in cells without water, from the weakest to the strongest, sometime on the fifth day, all twenty will be dead. Five days. Explosive. People clawing at the edge of the abyss. Worth at least one more Apocalyptic horse.

Every human society is situated near water. Water, in conjunction with culture, places limits on societies. Wars are fought over water. Water forces people to reach agreements on what happens upstream and downstream. Water runs over, under, around, and through our boundaries. Perhaps a sounder basis for political mapping would be watersheds — regions where water drains into common rivers, lakes, and seas — instead of the artificial lines we often use now. My current state of residence, Michigan, has eighty-seven watersheds and sub-watersheds that may make more sense than the current eighty-three counties that look mostly like boxes drawn on the map.

In late 1999 and early 2000, Bolivians — mostly indigenous — in the city of Cochabamba took to the streets in what would come to be known as the Cochabamba Water War. A huge American company, Bechtel, the onetime employer of former Secretary of State George Schultz, fronted by the local corporation, Aguas del Tunari, and backed by the World Bank, made a deal with the municipal government to privatize the water system. That is, the company would claim ownership of water, which it would then sell to everyone who needed it.

That went over like the proverbial fart in choir practice. The police then reacted badly to the resulting mass demonstrations — surprise, surprise — and things spun nearly out of control. This continued for weeks and ended badly all around. But when Evo Morales, an indigenous agrarian organizer, became the public spokesperson against the “privatization” of water, he ran for President as an agrarian socialist and was elected — to the chagrin of the Bolivian elite as well as Washington — in 2006. Messing with peoples’ water always has consequences.

In 2016, we saw the rise of the “water protectors” among indigenous North Americans standing fast in front of an oil pipeline at the Standing Rock Reservation in North Dakota. By February 2017, they were removed by militarized police in actions that shocked the world with its echoes of past genocidal land grabs by European settlers against the same people.

The greatest conflicts and crimes coming out of the Israeli occupation of Palestine, seldom mentioned by the press, have to do with water — Israelis taking it all for themselves and leaving the Palestinians literally high and dry. The land grabs, not dissimilar from those made by European settlers in North America a century and a half earlier, are all made at water points. The Syrian Civil War began with a drought that drove a million farmers into the cities where social services were already being dismantled, and that extra million in urban centers overloaded the infrastructure and threw the country into crisis.

The United States as a whole uses water at staggering rates, most of it on bad practices, wasting an enormous fraction of it. Industrial agriculture and now hydraulic fracturing oil and gas wells are pumping out major US aquifers faster than they can recharge, poisoning more water every day, lowering the tables until wells go dry, drawing off rivers and streams, and destabilizing soils, all by pump-pumping away with eyes fixed on the next business cycle and not on the threatening horizon of inescapable consequence.

The problem with this is that business people cannot make water. What they are doing instead is abusing water, abusing others by misusing the water, and making water ever scarcer. Scarcity strengthens the potential for conflict. Water is a natural phenomenon, essential to all life, and not reducible to a mere “resource.”

But water politics is more than distribution and access; it is a question of the stewardship of water, which is made far more difficult by the way we ignored watersheds in establishment of those boundaries. We pointed out how watersheds either make boundaries or cross them; which is a recipe for confusion and conflict. If water is the most urgent of urgent issues — something we established biologically — then the common stakeholders are no on each side of the river or broken into separate polities as you head downstream makes little sense. Political boundaries ought to be drawn along the ridgelines at the tops of watersheds and encompass them from headwaters to mouth. Save that for the next Constituent Assembly.

In terms of the tactical considerations of a politics of resistance to the status quo, water struggles are life and death for many. So these causes have persistence built in, though they cannot indefinitely draw publicity. When Dakota Access protests were at their zenith, there were many who parachuted in to show support; but the most important assist was the money sent to the core stakeholders by people who stayed out of the locals’ way. In the next missive from up this way, we’ll talk about the three statuses (stati?) for resistance politics engagement: (1) In-training, (2) dug-in, and (3) mobile cadres. Think (1) in college or trade school or internships, etc, (2) doing deep-engagement work where you live, and (3) small groups of light-on-their feet travelers with special contributions to make to specific “dug-in” struggles. For now, it’s enough to say that these struggles around water — Palestine, Dakota Access, Flint — are the highest strategic priority of any politics of resistance.

Because water is life.