Water: source of life or source of profit? Against the privatization of water

                                        Leonardo Boff

Today there are two major issues that affect all of humanity: global warming and the growing scarcity of drinking water. Both require profound changes in the way we live, because they can produce a collapse of our civilization and deeply affect the system of life.

Let’s focus on the issue of water, which is coveted by big corporations in order to privatize it and make huge profits. It can be a reason for wars as well as a reason for social solidarity and cooperation among peoples. It has already been said that if the wars of the 20th century were over oil, the wars of the 21st century will be over drinking water. Nevertheless, it can be a central reference for a new world social pact between peoples and governments for the survival of all.

Let us consider the basic facts about water. It is extremely abundant and at the same time scarce.

There are about one billion, 360 million cubic kilometers of water on Earth. If we were to take all this water that is in the oceans, lakes, rivers, aquifers and polar ice caps and distribute it equally over a flat land surface, the whole earth would be submerged in water three kilometers deep. 97% is salt water and 3% is fresh water. But only 0.7% of this is directly accessible for human use. Of this 0.7 percent, 70 percent goes to agriculture, 22 percent to industry, and the rest for human and animal use.

The renewal of water is on the order of 43,000 cubic km per year, while total consumption is estimated at 6,000 cubic km per year. There is, therefore, an overabundance of water, but it is unevenly distributed: 60% is found in only 9 countries, while 80 others face scarcity. Just under a billion people consume 86% of the existing water, while for 1.4 billion it is insufficient (by 2020 it will be 3 billion), and for 2 billion it is untreated, which generates 85% of the observable diseases. It is assumed that by 2032 about 5 billion people will be affected by the water crisis.

The problem is not the scarcity of water, but its poor management and distribution to meet the demands of humans and other living beings.

Brazil is the natural water power, with 13% of all fresh water on the planet, amounting to 5.4 trillion cubic meters. Despite the abundance, 46% of it is wasted, which would be enough to supply the whole of France, Belgium, Switzerland, and Northern Italy.

Because it is scarce, fresh water has become an asset of high economic value. As we have moved from a market economy to a market society, everything becomes a commodity. Because of this “great transformation” (Karl Polaniy) there is now an unrestrained global race to privatize water and make big profits. This is how multinational companies such as the French Vivendi and Suez-Lyonnaise, the German RWE, the English Thames Water, and the American Bechtel, among others, have emerged. A water market involving more than 100 billion dollars was created. Nestlé and Coca-Cola have a strong presence here, seeking to buy sources everywhere in the world.

The great debate today is in these terms: Is water a source of life or a source of profit? Is water a natural, vital, common, and irreplaceable good or an economic good to be treated as a water resource and a commodity?

It is important to recognize that water is not an economic good like any other. It is so closely linked to life that it must be understood as something vital and sacred. Life cannot be turned into a commodity. It is one of the most excellent goods in the process of evolution and one of the greatest divine gifts. Moreover, water is linked to other cultural, symbolic, and spiritual dimensions that make it precious and charged with values that are priceless in themselves.

To understand the richness of water that transcends its economic dimension, we need to break with the dictatorship of the instrumental-analytical and utilitarian reason imposed on society as a whole. The latter sees water as a mere water resource with which one can do business. It only serves purposes and utilities. But the human being has other exercises of his reason. There is a more ancestral, sensitive, emotional, cordial, and spiritual reason, which goes beyond purposes and utilities, and is linked to the meaning of life, to values, to the symbolic, ethical, and spiritual character of water.

From this perspective, water appears as a natural common good, as the source and niche from which life on Earth emerged 3.8 billion years ago. Water is a global public common good.  It is the heritage of the biosphere and vital to all life forms. Life cannot exist without water.

Obviously, the dimensions of water as a source of life and as a water resource need not be mutually exclusive, but must be correctly related. Fundamentally, water belongs to the right to life. The UN declared on July 28, 2010 that clean and safe water and sanitation is a fundamental human right.

But it does demand a complex structure of collection, conservation, treatment, and distribution, which implies an undeniable economic dimension. This, however, should not prevail over the other, the right, but should make water accessible to all.

Everyone should be guaranteed at least 50 liters of safe drinking water free of charge. It is up to the public authorities, together with organized society, to create public funding to cover the costs necessary to guarantee this right for everyone. The tariffs for the services must contemplate the various uses of water, whether domestic, industrial, agricultural or recreational. For industrial and agricultural uses, of course, water is subject to price.

The predominant market vision distorts the straight relationship between water as a source of life and water as a water resource. This is fundamentally due to the exacerbation of private property that causes water to be treated without a sense of sharing and consideration of the demands of others and of the whole community of life. The principle of social solidarity and community of interest and respect for watersheds that transcend the limits of nations is still very weak, as it occurs, for example, between Turkey on one side and Syria and Iraq on the other, or between Israel on one side and Jordan and Palestine on the other, or even between the US and Mexico around the Rio Grande and Colorado rivers.

To discuss all these vital issues, the World Alternative Water Forum was created in 2003 in Florence, Italy. There, the creation of a World Water Authority was proposed.  It would be a public, cooperative and plural government body to deal with water at the level of large international water basins and its more equitable distribution according to regional demands.

At the same time, an international articulation was formed in view of a World Water Contract, which, since a world social contract does not exist, could be built around what effectively unites us all, which is water, on which the lives of people and other living beings depend. Similarly, now with the intrusion of Covid-19, a world contract to safeguard human life beyond any sovereignty, seen as something outdated, from another historical time, is urgently needed.

An important role is to put pressure on governments and companies so that water is not taken to the markets or considered a commodity. It is important to encourage public-private cooperation in order to prevent so many people from dying as a result of a lack of water or as a result of mistreated water.

Every day 6,000 children die of thirst and about 18 million boys/girls miss school because they are forced to fetch water 5-10 km away

It is very important to preserve standing forests and reforest as much as possible, as they guarantee the permanence of water, feed the aquifers, and mitigate global warming by sequestering carbon dioxide and producing vital oxygen.

Zero world hunger, as advocated for years by the UN Millennium Goals, must include zero thirst, because water is food and nothing can live and be consumed without water.

Finally, water is life, the generator of life, and one of the most powerful symbols of eternal life, since God appears as alive, the generator of all life, and the infinite source of life.

Leonardo Boff, ecotheologist and wrote The painful birth of mother Earth: a society of fraternity without borders and social friendship, Vozes , 2021.

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