Claiming & Protecting Water

Water Wheel


A surge of people power in parts of the world, especially Latin America, is beginning to ensure that water is protected as part of the global commons, making it free or cheap, accessible, clean, and democratically managed. The last few years have seen popular pressure win new legal precedents, constitutional guarantees, and types of management.

Several principles are behind the rising wave: Water is the patrimony of humanity and nature, and therefore cannot be sold to private hands. Governments must protect universal access to water, which may not be based on ability to pay. The people – or an accountable representative in the government, union, and/or citizens’ organization – must have democratic input into its use and protection.

The size of the movement represents the scope of what’s at stake. Mark Twain said, “Whiskey’s for drinking, water’s for fighting over.” Never mind that it is an essential element of life. In case after case around the world, water has been turned into a profit-making commodity. Municipal water systems today are often controlled by distant corporations and stock markets. Combined with pollution and government mismanagement, this has caused dire water poverty and scarcity around the planet. Results include people being unable to pay for drinking water, rivers no longer flowing, and outbreaks of diseases like cholera.

By necessity, but also driven by a different vision, citizens are both effectively resisting threats and creating alternatives. Here are just a few examples:

  • In April 2008, the grassroots group, Coalition against Water Privatization, won a landmark lawsuit, granting people in the Johannesburg township of Soweto, South Africa, the legal right to have double the free tap water they were getting, and without the burden of pre-payment meters. After years of helping mount the political and legal pressure that ultimately led to the victory, water activist Virginia Setshedi said, “When I sat in that courtroom and heard the judge give that decision, I felt like I did when I heard that Mandela was free from prison.” An appeals court ruling later weakened the legal right, but the Coalition against Water Privatization is confident that the highest court in the land will strengthen the judgment, once the case is heard later in 2009.
  • Constitutions in South Africa, Uruguay, Ecuador, and Bolivia now enshrine water as a human right, making it harder for delivery systems to be sold into private hands. In Colombia, Costa Rica, Mexico, El Salvador, and Italy, advocates are working toward the same goal with their respective constitutions.
  • Communities across the U.S. and Canada have triumphed against sweetheart deals that allowed Nestlé to pump water from rivers, lakes and aquifers, to then sell for 1,000 times the cost of tap water. They have done this by convincing town councils and planning commissions to back out of the deals (Maine), mounting successful legal challenges (Michigan), and making Nestlé look so bad that it had to scale back its projects (California).
  • After years of public pressure, the local government in Kerala, India, ruled that residents’ access to water trumped that of corporate power, and ordered a highly polluting and water-consuming Coca-Cola plant to close down in 2005.

  • The Council of Popular and Indigenous Organizations in Honduras has successfully utilized the courts and direct action to stop corporations from building hydroelectric plants. These plants would have flooded Maya-Lenca lands and limited the use of the rivers that people have depended on for eons.

Elsewhere around the world, people are bringing their water back – or preserving what water they do have – through conservation, ecological sanitation systems, reforestation, rainwater collection, watershed protection, and more. They are fighting dams (which, by disrupting the water’s natural flow, have the potential to disrupt the surrounding ecosystem and literally drown nearby communities), pollution, and other forms of destruction to this precious part of nature.

Citizens are also inventing ways to democratically govern the resource’s use. Though the challenges are immense, villages and cities are meeting their needs through cooperatives, public, and community management. (Public-private partnerships, a euphemism for privatization, is not considered a viable option by water rights warriors.) A variation on the theme, public-community partnerships, holds exciting potential. One such partnership is between a public water company in Uruguay and a water cooperative in a very cash-poor village in Bolivia. What may sound like a dry transfer of technology and information is anything but. The exchanges are between people excited about the possibilities for sharing advice, equipment, and support – like between the impassioned Uruguayan water worker Adriana Marquisio, who is thrilled at how she and her colleagues might help guarantee water delivery for everyone in Huancayo, Peru, and Nelly Avendaño, a feminist activist who formed the Water Defense Front in Huancayo.

In a world where wealth, resources, and political power are usually concentrated in a small group, the crest of water victories shows what highly informed and organized popular movements can do. In most parts of the world, water privatization is still the dominant trend, but we are seeing that the battle can be won.