Water grabbing is not a new phenomenon and has much in common with earlier resource grabs and what has been called the “enclosures of the commons.”
The purpose of the many powerful business coalitions that corporations have formed in recent decades is to ensure that corporate interests are advanced over the welfare, health and other interests of national populations and to undermine the democratic process for deciding government priorities and policies. What business leaders seek, and to a large extent have achieved, are “business-managed democracies”, that is, democracies where the politics and cultural life of nations are managed in the interests of business.
The new dimension of contemporary water grabbing is that the mechanisms for appropriating and converting water resources into private goods are much more advanced and increasingly globalised, subject to international laws on foreign investment and trade.
This page follows the trail of The Global Water Grab: A Primer (pdf) of 2012, with additional notes and updates:
- What is water grabbing?
- What are the key drivers of water grabbing?
- Who are the water grabbers?
- How is water grabbing related to land grabbing?
- What is the impact of water grabbing on local livelihoods, food security and aquatic landscapes?
- Who benefits from investment in water infrastructure?
- What is the relationship between water grabbing and the privatisation of water resources?
- How are competing claims to water access and usage currently dealt with?
- How can transboundary water resources be equitably and sustainably managed?
- What can people facing water scarcity do?
- What can be done to protect the human right to water?
What is water grabbing?
Water grabbing refers to situations where powerful actors are able to take control of or divert valuable water resources and watersheds for their own benefit, depriving local communities whose livelihoods often depend on these resources and ecosystems.
The ability to take control of such resources is linked to processes of privatisation, commodification and take-over of commonly-owned resources. They transform water from a resource openly available to all into a private good whose access must be negotiated and is often based on the ability to pay. Water grabbing thus appears in many different forms, ranging from the extraction of water for large- scale food and fuel crop monocultures, to the damming of rivers for hydroelectricity, to the corporate takeover of public water resources. It also inheres in a model of development which is underwritten by a trade in virtual water.[linkview show_cat_name=”0″ cat_name=”Water grabbing”]
What are the key drivers of water grabbing?
Water grabbing is an expression of an economic model of development in which capital accumulation is linked to increasing control over abundant and cheap supplies of natural resources, including food, water and energy. The outbreak in 2008 of a global financial crisis accompanied by extraordinary commodity price spikes and growing financial speculation in food commodities provoked a new round of water, land and resource grabbing as governments and investors sought assurances which could not be provided by increasingly volatile and unreliable markets.
It is worth examining this nexus between water, energy and food security in a little more detail. Rising oil prices and growing concerns that a “peak oil” period has been reached have rung alarm bells about the high dependence of modern economies on fossil fuel. The search for alternatives to non-renewable energy sources has focussed extensively on agrofuels: crops such as palm oil, jatropha, sugarcane and soya, grown as a source of liquid fuel for the transport sector and for industrial use.
Hydraulic fracturing (or fracking) generates a massive demand for water and water services. Each oil well developed requires 3 to 5 million gallons of water, and 80% of this water cannot be reused because it is 3 to 10 times saltier than seawater. The toxic fracking fluid (cause of cancer) is often left in the ground where it can pollute groundwater supplies.[linkview show_cat_name=”0″ cat_name=”Grabbing drivers”]
Who are the water grabbers?
Many different actors, both old and new, are involved in the global water grab. These include specialised water-targeted investment funds, transnational water companies, and the whole array of actors whose activities depend on the trade in “virtual water”.
One of the most striking developments in recent years has been the creation of private investment funds in which water features as a significant component of the investment portfolio.[linkview show_cat_name=”0″ cat_name=”Grabbing portfolios”]
A similar trend can be observed within the global water industry as private corporations spent much of the last decade seeking control over former public water services in countries such as Peru, Bangladesh and South Africa. Huge monopolies exist within this global water industry with two French water corporations, Vivendi and Suez, dominating about 70% of the world water service market.
The imposition of a for-profit water service model based on the “ability to pay” and geared towards greater levels of water consumption does not bode well for pro-poor outcomes nor for water conservation. However it has also faced considerable resistance, with many communities successfully stopping privatisation. A growing number of cities are now “remunicipalising” their water.[linkview show_cat_name=”0″ cat_name=”Remunicipalisation”]
What landgrabs have to do with it?
The causes of water grabbing are similar to those of ‘land grabbing’: the phenomenon whereby investors acquire or lease vast tracts of land, with negative socio-economic and environmental effects. An investor’s control of land usually comes with a corresponding control of water resources. Indeed, access to water could be the most valuable part of the deal.
Land and water grabbing are also related in that both involve a model of water use characterised by exploitation, exclusion, and profiteering. Land and water grabbing are driven by large-scale monocultural production of both food and non-food crops.[linkview show_cat_name=”0″ cat_name=”Landgrabs for water”]
What is the impact of water grabbing on local livelihoods, food security and aquatic landscapes?
The claim outside investors make to local water resources is often justified in the name of development. The argument is that sufficient water resources for ensuring the successful operation of commercial projects will help generate employment, boost agricultural productivity, contribute to the creation of new infrastructure, and open up additional revenue streams for the government. If these projects were managed in a sustainable fashion with proper consultation of affected communities, then some of these benefits may indeed be realised. In many instances however these development promises are contradicted by the reality on the ground.[linkview show_cat_name=”0″ cat_name=”Impacts watergrabbing”]
Who benefits from investment in water infrastructure?
Water grabbing is not limited to the direct extraction of water for the production of food, fuel and flex crops. It also involves various form of water infrastructure such as dams, reservoirs, hydropower stations, canals, and irrigation systems which divert and deplete water sources, potentially affecting entire river basins.
Governments often view these capital-intensive projects as vital to further economic development. The key question however is economic development for whom?
[linkview show_cat_name=”0″ cat_name=”Benefits watergrabbing”]
Fresh water commons are becoming degraded and depleted in both developed and developing countries. In the United States, diversion of water for expanded commodity crop production, biofuels and gas hydro-fracking is compounding the crisis in rural areas. In areas ranging from the Ogallala aquifer to the Great Lakes in North America, water has been referred to as liquid gold. Billionaires such as T. Boone Pickens have been buying up land overlying the Ogallala aquifer, acquiring water rights; companies such as Dow Chemicals, with a long history of water pollution, are investing in the business of water purification, making pollution itself a cash-cow.
What is the relationship between water grabbing and the privatisation of water resources?
The privatisation and commodification of water resources are key mechanisms through which water grabbing is effected. Water privatisation is not a new phenomenon, but the new round of water grabbing has certainly brought water into sharper focus as a commercial asset.[linkview show_cat_name=”0″ cat_name=”Water privatisation”]
How are competing claims to water access and usage currently dealt with?
A key issue which is raised by water grabbing is how competing claims to water access and usage should be mediated. This is a legal, political and, ultimately a moral question. From a legal perspective, there are a complex array of national and international laws governing water allocation. One of the problems with the current wave of water grabbing is that investors are targeting countries where national legislation on water rights is either non-existent, vaguely defined, or weakly enforced. Without adequate regulation and enforcement, the danger is that power will simply determine outcomes. Given that the bargaining power of local communities is nearly always less than that of the foreign investor, who also often enjoys governmental support, it is they that have the most to lose.[linkview show_cat_name=”0″ cat_name=”Legalisation watergrabbing”] “The Licensed to Grab” brief analyses and illustrates how international investment rules thwart the struggle for land and food sovereignty. It puts forward the case that – in sharp contrast to a grassroots-led, human rights-based land and food governance that is emerging to counter land grabs – the global investment regime:
- hinders necessary and important land redistribution and restitution;
- fosters land commodification;
- impedes the reversal of abuses of illegitimate and unjust land (and water) deals; and
- limits the scope of progressive agrarian and agricultural policies that protect small-scale farmers and public health.
How can transboundary water resources be equitably and sustainably managed?
River systems do not respect international boundaries. Water grabbing and the extraction, diversion or pollution of water resources in one region or country can therefore impact upon the availability and quality of water in another region or country. Transboundary water management of a river basin system is therefore essential. Integrated water resource management (IWRM) has been advanced in this context as “a process which promotes the coordinated development and management of water, land, and related resources in order to maximize the resultant economic and social welfare in an equitable manner without compromising the sustainability of vital ecosystems”.
According to The Global Water Grab: A Primer (pdf) the “success” of IWRM relies heavily on the ability of different states involved to collaborate closely in order to arrive at agreements on shared rights and responsibilities …
[linkview show_cat_name=”0″ cat_name=”IWRM”] Not to mention that the use of this model “legitimises” privatisation of land and water to begin with. Lubricating the screwing of the planet by pungently obnoxious necrotrophic parasites, eh?
The global response to the increasing water scarcity in the last twenty years has been water policy reforms directed towards the implementation of integrated water resources management (IWRM). IWRM was expected to promote the coordinated development and management of water, land and related resources in order to maximize the resultant economic and social welfare in an equitable manner without compromising the sustainability of vital ecosystems. This paper interrogates the applicability of the model using literature sources and personal experiences with the model. Literature at global level on the issue of IWRM has been split between optimistic peddlers of the model and the pessimists that in recent years have critically questioned the suitability of the model as a master prescription for varied and complex global river catchments catchments. The paper traces also the complexity of the definition of IWRM and the related implementation limitations of the model.
The paper further demonstrates how this model of water resources management is unlikely to work for different social and environmental contexts. The management should focus on addressing real water problems affecting communities rather than wasting resources on the philosophical complexities of the model.
What can people facing water scarcity do?
The question remains then what people facing a water deficit can do to guarantee their water security.
[linkview show_cat_name=”0″ cat_name=”Fighting water scarcity”]
What can be done to protect the human right to water?
Don’t allow for privatisation of common resources. Not even in some dark corner of a forest … Where already appropriated by the pungently obnoxious necrotrophic parasites, reappropriate for the peoples of this planet.
[linkview show_cat_name=”0″ cat_name=”Remunicipalisation”]