The logic(s) of water*

water_bottle*Puerto Rico Daily Sun, 8 de mayo, 2009.  Une en una sola narrativa varios temas discutidos antes aquí, en el blog.

A few years ago I was driving through the center of the island with my family, a road-trip style summer vacation. Feeling thirsty, we decided to stop at a colmado. The kids wanted soda, the grown ups water. The owner sold us the former cheerfully, but refused to charge us for the latter. He felt funny, he said, charging money for water. We left his store with some soda cans, chips, a couple of free plastic water bottles, and a conversation topic for the rest of the trip.

The colmado owner’s discomfort with selling water came to mind as I read a recent headline in the Belfast Telegraph (April16th), about the mass suicide of 1500 farmers in the Indian state of Chattisgarh, driven to unbearable debt by insufficient or failed crops. The cycle that drove them to debt and thus their death involved falling water levels, at least partially due to large megaprojects such as dams, which affect the movement and circulation of water, the delicate ecosystems around water sources, and the locations and demographics of the human populations living near them.
The newspaper cites a spokesperson for the Organic Farming Association of India, stating that “farmers’ suicides are increasing due to a vicious circle created by money lenders. They lure farmers to take money but when the crops fail, they are left with no option other than death.” But 1500 dead farmers is a lot of dead people. The equivalent, says blogger Malika Chopra, of the passengers inside four jumbo jets. The sheer number of bodies means that this is not a phenomenon that can be dismissed as the fault of the farmers, or even the lenders. It is the kind of number that necessarily and urgently points to large-scale, structural factors.

Some of these factors may very well be related to lending practices, but not those of individuals. According to Vandana Shiva, a respected Indian scholar-activist and author of numerous books and articles, the benefits of the large dams built in post-colonial India are far outweighed by their ecological and social costs. Most of these dams, like other mega projects, are built with money from loans provided by major financial institutions such as the World Bank. While these loans may be requested to improve the economic health of developing countries, oftentimes lending institutions require a portion of the funds to be used for the kind of infrastructure development that may facilitate additional investments from multinational corporations.

Dams are used to redirect water to corporate owned, large agricultural land holdings. But small farmers also need water. In fact, all living things need water. Over 60% of our human bodies are water. As recently as March, however, water was denied status as a basic human right by the United Nations. Corporations profiting from water sales (especially bottled water) lobbied intensely for this to happen.

These corporations do not share the unease of the colmado owner who would rather give us the liquid in spite of having previously paid for it himself. A plastic water bottle in Puerto Rico costs over one dollar and nearing two in some fast food establishments – much more than the cost of the equivalent amount of gasoline. The processing of the plastic used for packaging the bottled water we purchase entails, in turn, the contamination and waste of a lot more water. And so our desire for the freshest water possible is part of a cycle that renders drinkable water more scarce and its drinker, more privileged. This sort of unsustainability characterizes the production process of most of the goods we consume today.

Incredibly, the environmental crisis precipitated by the production cycles that render water scarce in the first place can be used to sell bottled water. A popular brand in an elegant (and expensive) plastic bottle donates five cents of each bottle sold to humanitarian water programs that bring water to populations with no access to it. Their website is beautiful and makes the viewer thirsty for this particular, “ethical”, drink. The world-wide water crisis is a big part of their marketing and attributed to causes outside of human (and corporate) action such as geography and climate.

The vision that drove the quest for the declaration of water as a human right is one that sees water as outside the realm of the market, thus rendering it sacred, a shared resource of immeasurable value. In contrast, the dominant vision sees water as a commodity to be purchased, sold and priced according not to the logic of need but to the logic of marketing and the maximization of profit. The needs of those without purchasing power are relegated, at best, to the marginal realm of charity (as long as charity can boost sales.)

The dead farmers neither had purchasing power nor were they deemed charity cases. They only had the dignity of their labor and their responsibility towards their families. Ironically, the United Nations recognizes their basic human right to work – but failed to protect their access to the water that would have made their work (and their lives) possible.

[edited to add strip – it was just too perfect.]


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