Water Politics

Underdevelopment and overconsumption drive water crisis
November 1, 2011

Water crises are often ranked second only to climate change in environmental challenges that we face in the 21st century. But, unlike climate change, “water crisis” is a slippery term. There is little agreement on what exactly the “water crisis” even is, much less agreement on how to address it.

We hear frequently expressed worries that “the world is running out of water.” But water is a renewable resource, neither created nor destroyed as it moves through the hydrological cycle. Although the world isn’t running out of water, however, there are serious localized problems of water scarcity, often exacerbated by increasing human demands and a shifting climate. And, despite widespread millennial predictions of “water wars” in the 21st century, states have tended to cooperate as much as come into conflict over shared water resources.

If there is a “global water crisis,” it is, like most contemporary environmental crises, one driven by the enormous inequalities that mark our current global society. Unsustainable and irrational patterns of water use, in other words, are driven by the twin phenomena of underdevelopment and overconsumption.


Although global poverty issues aren’t always thought of as “environmental” problems, there are compelling reasons to link the two. First, people in dire economic circumstances are often forced to engage in environmentally unsustainable behaviours. Countries desperate for export earnings may need to use more water to grow cash crops. Poor farmers similarly may not have the wherewithal to protect riparian zones.

Second, a condition of underdevelopment, by definition, means an inability to meet basic human needs. In other words, it is an “environmental crisis” in the sense of a failure to construct (or protect) an adequate environment for human life.

This failure is certainly visible with respect to water: Nearly a billion people today lack secure access to a clean water supply, arguably one of the most basic conditions for human existence. Two million or more young children die of diarrheal diseases annually, largely due to lack of clean water.

One of the targets for the UN Millennium Development Goals (MDG) is to cut in half between 1990 and 2015 the proportion of the population that does not have secure access to clean water. Even if the target is met, however, the number of people without secure access to clean water will still be about 850 million.

This gap in meeting basic human needs has given rise to conflicts – in some cases quite intense – over how best to assure the extension of water access to “the thirsty poor.” Importantly, the gap is recognized as not primarily a problem of physical water scarcity, but a lack of investment in the infrastructure necessary to assure that water is clean and to deliver it to where it is needed.

Private versus Public?

Through the 1990s, private sector actors such as large water multinational corporations, backed by neoliberal global institutions like the World Bank, argued that markets could succeed where states in the global South had failed. Conversely, and with increasing success in the last decade, a range of civil society organizations, including public sector unions, consumer groups, and environmentalists, argued that water ought to be conceived as a public good and human right, delivered by public agencies rather than private corporations motivated by profit.

In fact, however, institutions of modern water delivery almost everywhere represent a negotiated arrangement between various levels of governments and an array of private actors –- from individual water consumers to multinational corporations -– of costs, benefits, and rewards. That negotiation process deals with key questions: Who pays for the infrastructure to be built and maintained? Who pays for the water to be delivered through that infrastructure? Who allocates the water and on what basis? If an improved water supply increases economic productivity, who gets the “return on investment”?

An overly simplistic account of “public versus private” water provision can mean an insufficient appreciation of the ways in which states and markets (or political and economic power) are interconnected. While it is true that most states are at least nominally democratic, and an imperfect democracy is surely better than no democracy at all, few would suggest that this translates into pure political equality. Economic power (wealth), political power (the capacity to influence the decisions of governments and public agencies), and access to water, are all interconnected.

People living in poverty, because of their precarious existence, tend to be politically disorganized. They often lack both the economic resources to get clean water on the market, and the political resources to lobby governments for water delivery as a public service. Conversely, less time spent gathering water (or dealing with the ill-health effects of a lack of clean water), can mean more time for productive economic activity, and improved political power. Or, as Mark Twain more succinctly noted: “Water flows uphill, towards money.” 

Asserting the Public Interest 

Positive recent developments on the global level include an increasing recognition that private sector participation is not the “magic bullet” that its neoliberal proponents had claimed. There have been several “re-municipalizations” (local governments retaking control of water utilities from private companies), and multinational corporations have scaled back their ambitions over the last few years.

As well, the World Bank has largely stopped imposing water privatization as a condition for development loans (as it had in the past). And in 2010, the UN General Assembly passed a resolution recognizing a “human right to water,” which may provide additional political leverage. 

In spite of all these developments, however, it is important to recall that lack of access to clean water is fundamentally about investment in infrastructure. As such, the problem will only be solved by finding the political will to commit economic resources to the poorest, most marginalized part of the human population. In other words, to the extent that the water crisis is a problem of underdevelopment, it can only be solved by addressing issues of global inequality.


This brings us to the other end of the spectrum: the problem of overconsumption. For problems of resource scarcity in general, a wealthy minority of the world’s inhabitants consume far more than their share, and far more than is sustainable in the long run. The World Wildlife Fund, for example, estimates Australia’s ecological footprint at 6.6 hectares per capita –- 2.8 times the global average and three times what is sustainable given known ecological limits.

With respect to water use, it is similarly true that more economically developed populations consume more water, both directly (using more water in the home) and indirectly (consuming goods that require more water for their production). On the other hand, discrepancies of water use are not as extreme as with many other resources. But, remembering that physical water scarcity is always localized scarcity, and that the previously discussed problem of lack of access to clean water was a problem of underinvestment in infrastructure, it may be better to focus our attention on more spectacular forms of overconsumption, rather than on volumetric amounts.

Bottled Up

Consider, for example, the tremendous recent growth in consumption of bottled water. A generation or two ago, bottled water was almost entirely a luxury item. But it has become increasingly pervasive, visible in supermarkets, restaurants and cafes, and vending machines. To give a sense of the scale of change: in 1976, American bottled water consumption averaged about 6 litres per person per year. By 2006, that figure had grown to over 100 litres.

Bottled water is in some ways the ultimate form of spectacular overconsumption: consumers are paying hundreds or even thousands of times more for water in a plastic bottle than they would for water that comes out of their municipal taps.

Growth in the bottled water market has slowed in recent years, as anti-bottled-water campaigns have highlighted the irrationality and environmental costs of bottled water consumption. Governments have been pressured to remove bottled water from public facilities and events.  In Australia’s New South Wales, Bundanoon last year became possibly the first municipality in the world to ban the sale of bottled water entirely within the town; and this year the University of Canberra became the first Australian university to impose a campus ban on bottled water. In North America, of course, campus bottled water bans have been a focus of student environmental activism for the past few years now.

Even with these successes, it is worth briefly considering why people choose to consume bottled water, to see how these campaigns can move forward.

Convenience is often cited as a reason for buying bottled water. As a 2007 article in the New York Times noted: “It’s not so easy, walking down Third Avenue on a hot day, to get a glass of tap water.” To this it should be responded that it isn’t easy because Third Avenue has been built that way. Getting rid of the bottled water habit requires a commitment of resources to build and maintain convenient and accessible public water sources (drinking fountains, spigots for filling reusable containers, and so on).

More than Infrastructure

At the same time, a recent survey found that many people are concerned about the safety or cleanliness of public bubblers. Flowing water in public spaces appears unsafe compared to water sealed in a plastic bottle. Such beliefs, even if not consciously articulated, point to some of the broader societal changes that underlie the growth of bottled water consumption: the individualization of risk management and generalized distrust of government that has been both a cause and effect of neoliberalism. Getting people to “trust the tap” thus ought to be conceived as part of a much broader project of re-imagining post-neoliberal social life.

This connects to the third (frequently cited) reason for bottled water consumption: taste. In general, tap water does outperform bottled water in blind taste tests, but individual tastes, of course, do vary. And certainly there is a wide variety of bottled waters to choose from –- easily a dozen in most supermarkets. But even though such variety is available, few consumers have such heightened palates as to be able to tell the difference between so many brands. So what motivates this incredible market differentiation, which ranges from the upscale (Fiji Water and European brands such as San Pellegrino) to the more down-market (generic brands), and also includes niche market appeals to athletes and children (smaller-sized, Disney-themed bottles)?

Charles Fishman suggests that bottled water preferences have less to do with gustation and more to do with taste in the sense of individual discernment: “We want to brand ourselves -- as Madonna did -- even with something as ordinary as a drink of water. We imagine there is a difference between showing up at the weekly staff meeting with Aquafina, or Fiji, or a small glass bottle of Pellegrino. Which is, of course, a little silly.”

While Fishman is of course right that such distinctions are “a little silly” when consciously examined, our judgments about ourselves, about others, and about how we imagine others are judging us, are rarely subjected to such conscious rational scrutiny. Here again, this indicates the need for connecting anti-bottled-water campaigns to a much broader project of social transformation: imagining a form of social life where identity and social status are not primarily defined through individualized acts of consumption. 

Changing the Priority

Ultimately, the point of ending or at least reducing the consumption of bottled water can be seen not only as a means of reducing the environmental impact of our daily lives. Rather, and perhaps more importantly, it is part of a project of re-imagining how we interact with others and the world around us.

The tens of billions of dollars that are spent annually on bottled water consumption would go a long way toward alleviating the water-related problems of underdevelopment. But getting those resources moved from one pot to the other requires more than individual choices.

(Andrew Biro is an Associate Professor and Canada Research Chair in the Department of Political Science at Acadia University, in Wolfville, Nova Scotia. From January to June, 2011, he was a Visiting Associate Professor in the School of Political Economy at the University of Sydney.)