The state of Michigan is finally addressing Flint’s lead-tainted water crisis by funding bottled-water distribution in the community. But residents aren’t out of the woods yet; much of the water distributed was donated by companies like PepsiCo and Walmart, effectively making a large portion of Flint dependent on the largesse of some of the world’s biggest and most ethically pockmarked companies for an essential, life-sustaining good.
This dynamic speaks volumes about how and why water has become a major site of contention both in the United States and globally. Is the future for the world’s poor waiting in line for a bottle of Dasani?
Hate that Dirty Water
The Flint crisis is the direct result of Governor Rick Snyder’s imposition of an emergency manager, who prioritized bond payments over local democracy and safety. Emergency management was also the culprit for the water catastrophe in neighboring Detroit, where the city shut off water services for about 40 percent of its residents in 2015 — many of whom were not even delinquent on their bills.
Meanwhile, last year in Baltimore the city threatened to shut off water for nearly 25,000 low-income residents who were behind on payments. Notably, Baltimore businesses, government offices, and nonprofits that were also in arrears did not receive shut-off notices.
Similar situations are fast becoming an international phenomenon — especially in indigenous communities.
The First Nations community of Shoal Lake near Winnipeg, Manitoba offers a glimpse of Flint’s possible future. Shoal Lake — like roughly two-thirds of First Nations reserves in Canada — is currently under a boil-water advisory (meaning that all water on the reserve must be boiled to kill E. coli before it can be drunk or otherwise used). Shoal Lake has been under the advisory for seventeen years, with no end in sight.
Shoal Lake residents are forced to live with dirty water despite the fact that the reserve taps the same water source used by the city of Winnipeg. But while Winnipeg has access to clean municipal water — made possible by a water treatment plant — Shoal Lake is not so lucky.
Instead, it is stranded on a man-made island (formed after a nearly century-old decision to flood a portion of traditional Ojibwa land to create an aqueduct for Winnipeg’s water system) with no way to get to the mainland except boat or a decrepit ferry. This leaves Shoal Lake residents, many of whom are impoverished, unable to even drive to a nearby town to purchase clean water or other basic supplies. The community has long demanded its own water treatment plant, but has been roundly ignored by the Canadian government.
In New Mexico, the Navajo nation is facing a major water crisis after a 2015 toxic spill in the Gold King Mine dumped three million gallons of wastewater into the Animas and San Juan Rivers in Colorado. Unlike other communities like Farmington (thirty miles upstream) which have water reserves, Navajo farmers rely on the river water for drinking and farming.
Resistance movements have developed in response to such attacks. The Navajo Nation is planning to take legal action against the Environmental Protection Agency, which caused the spill but didn’t warn the community until twenty-four hours had passed.
In Detroit, community self-help and advocacy groups like the Detroit Water Brigade are calling for the resignation of Governor Rick Snyder and his associates. Detroit residents have also found ways of tapping into the municipal supply in order to keep water flowing despite shut off notices.
In Shoal Lake, despite thin promises by the Trudeau government to build an all-weather road connecting the community to the Trans-Canada Highway, residents continue to demand justice. In 2014 the community began offering satirical tours of its own “Museum of Canadian Human Rights Violations,” launched in tandem with the Human Rights Museum in Winnipeg. Representatives of the community have also taken their case before the United Nations to demand redress, or at least shame the Canadian government into action.
And in Flint, protests have had at least a rhetorical effect upon the Democratic primary, with both Bernie Sanders and Hilary Clinton calling for Governor Synder’s removal and pledging sweeping action to remove lead from public works and clean up water supplies.
More practically, there has been widespread refusal to pay for poisoned water, echoing tactics once used to defeat the Thatcher government’s poll tax in the UK. Recently, city residents filed a class-action lawsuit seeking damages from state and municipal officials, for accrued injuries along with the cost of addressing the long-term effects of lead poisoning.
These struggles call to mind the epic fight over water in Bolivia that brought down several governments. In early 2000, under pressure from the International Monetary Fund, Bolivia attempted to privatize the municipal water system of the city of Cochabamba, which would have led (by some estimates) to a 35 to 50 percent spike in water rates, pricing much of the city’s poor out of the market entirely.
The privatization attempt generated such mass opposition and sustained protest over a four-month period that the government eventually backed down from the move and turned over operation of the city’s water supply to a coalition of community leaders.
Concerns about water contamination and local control of water supplies have also driven protest movements elsewhere in Latin America. Canadian-owned mining companies are a particularly common target; in the last few years mass protests against companies like Eldorado Gold and Eco Oro have occurred in Colombia, Nicaragua, Ecuador, Peru, Bolivia, and the Dominican Republic, as well as other parts of the world including Slovakia, Greece, Romania, and Israel.
The demands of all of these movements are, at heart, quite similar: the right to clean water, free from pollutants, and available to all. Such demands align them directly opposite a global capitalist class that views water as a lucrative expanding market.
The Sewer Socialists
In the United States, water is largely taken for granted as a public service. But the earliest municipal water systems in the US were privately owned and provided service only to those who could pay. Over time, however, public concern over the health risks of open sewage, along with the Republican Party’s philosophy of “internal improvements” to infrastructure led to the development of publicly owned systems.
Beginning after the Civil War, citizens began pushing for public referendums that would establish publicly owned drinking water systems. By 1900, there were about three thousand municipal water systems in the United States with an approximately fifty-fifty balance of public and private ownership. The establishment of the first federal-level drinking water regulations in 1912 further pushed public ownership along, and by the mid-1950s most municipal water systems were publicly owned.
Much of this movement into public ownership was linked to the New Deal’s public works spending on water projects. The 1972 Clean Water Act and the 1974 Safe Drinking Water Act represented gains for the environmental and consumer rights movement in pushing the idea of water quality, not just ownership, as a fundamental right.
The US Left was also a major advocate for water rights. Indeed, the term “sewer socialists” might have originally been intended as a pejorative, but it was nevertheless accurate for the kind of constructive vision of socialism most typified at the municipal level in the 1920s and 30s in cities like Milwaukee. There, municipal-level socialists as well as congressional allies such as Victor Berger emphasized addressing the concrete effects of uncontrolled industrial capitalism on the lives of working people.
Many of the so-called sewer socialists were on the right wing of the Socialist Party of America and held conservative social views, but their constructive vision was a positive one. It focused on new sanitation measures, public parks, beautification of common spaces, and, critically, bringing water and power systems into public ownership. What distinguished these thinkers from the Progressives who pursued similar policies, however, is that the Socialists believed that common ownership of essential goods could be used as a springboard for a wider conversation about the exploitative features of private property writ large.
But early advances have not guaranteed stable access to clean water, in the United States or abroad.
Margaret Thatcher was an early pioneer of water privatization in the Global North. In 1989 she privatized the water supply and sanitation systems in England and Wales, causing municipal water charges to balloon by 46 percent in the first decade after privatization. In Northern Ireland and Scotland, where water remained (and remains) under public control, similar price rises did not occur.
The English and Welsh privatization also created disincentives to maintain infrastructure, which led to increased leaks and sewer flooding incidents. Coupled with government subsidies to the private providers (notably debt write-offs), the loss of employment, and greatly increased executive compensation which followed privatization, the net effect of water privatization in England and Wales was a mass transfer of wealth upwards.
More recently, as part of its EU-mandated austerity package, Greece was forced to offer its municipal water systems for private tender, which French–owned Suez and Veolia, the world’s two largest private water delivery companies, were particularly keen on acquiring.
Ironically, many countries within the EU, including Germany, have recently purchased their municipal systems back after citizens experienced exorbitant water price hikes following privatization. An earlier attempt by the Samaras government to privatize the water system in Athens was blocked by Greek courts as unconstitutional amid mass protest, and it remains to be seen what fate will await this new attempt.
The Shrinking Commons
Most struggles around water are largely defensive. But as Bolivia’s “water wars” showed, they have the potential to launch broader political movements. The initial focus on water invited a broader set of demands regarding wages and political power in the country. The water protests are now considered a turning point in Bolivian political life, opening wider democratic possibilities and mobilizations which culminated in the election of Evo Morales as president in 2006.
In Ireland, the push to move all water service into a pseudo-private company while introducing poor-punishing water charges was part of a wider set of austerity measures. Protests against its implementation led to mass demonstrations and a payment refusal movement under the “Right2Water” banner. These protests brought many new activists into the anti-austerity movement, and are considered one of the central factors in the defeat of the Fine Gael-Labour coalition in the country’s recent elections.
Battles over water also have the potential to spark international solidarity. The Council of Canadians is now working with Detroit community organizations to secure water supplies, thus connecting individual sites of struggle into a larger narrative.
The essential nature of water, and the increasingly desperate struggles to maintain access to it, calls attention to broader questions about the erosion of the public space and the rights and guarantees which flow from it. As more and more services and goods fall into private hands, the psychological space of what can be imagined as collective rights, or what we might term “the commons,” shrinks ever further.
Taking water back under community control with a demand for universal access can lead us to imagine a much greater expansion of the commons, and to seek democratic control in areas of our lives far beyond. Unless communities organize, resist, and demand democratic control and unconditional access to basic goods, we’re all living in Flint, Shoal Lake, and Cochabamba. Some of us just have the luxury of not knowing it yet.