Water Commons

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Jay Walljasper:

"The water commons as a concept is easy to understand. And in a time when our planet is threatened by global warming, the importance of the idea is all-too-obvious.

Put simply, the water commons means that water is no one’s property; it rightfully belongs to all of humanity and to the earth itself. It is our duty to protect the quality and availability of water for everyone around the planet. This ethic should be the foundation of all decisions made about use of this life-giving resource. Water is not a commodity to be sold or squandered or hoarded.

There are perhaps thousands of campaigns taking place around the planet that draw on shared principles and advance the water commons, although likely not using that language. The water commons (not always in common parlance) can be a powerful, unifying principle drawing together our diverse but inter-related efforts."


"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."


Governance Typology

Karen Bakker:

The ‘public utility’ model

"The ‘public utility’ model of network water supply provision was thus, in many cases, a response to experiences with private provision of water supply in the 19th century. For much of the 20th century, governments ran most water supply systems, particularly in industrialized countries and urban areas.W ith the aim of providing universal access and the protection of public health, governments created public utilities which owned the infrastructure and in most cases provided services to consumers on a subsidized basis. Water was regarded as a public service, often run at the municipal level, and was frequently not metered. Where private companies continued to operate, their activities were strictly regulated

The justification for government control of water supply systems rested on twinned economic and ethical arguments. Drinking water supply was conceived of as a public good, a necessary precondition to participation in public life and a material emblem of citizenship. In economic terms, the high capital costs of water supply development projects, and the monopoly characteristics of water supply networks were used to justify state involvement. In most industrialized countries and urban areas, governments dominated the business of water supply throughout much of the 20th century. Where governments set up corporations to run water supply systems (as in the Netherlands) these tended to be non-profit.

The commercial model

The private sector model water supply is, in contrast, characterised by the management (and sometimes ownership) of infrastructure by private, for-profit corporations. There are many different types of private sector models. A privatized water supply utility, such as those created 1 ed in England and Wales in 1989, owns the assets and manages the infrastructure; this model is quite rare.

Private sector participation in water supply involves private corporations in the management of various aspects of (typically) municipally owned infrastructure; about 70% of the French population is served through these ‘PSPs’. Over the past decade, a rapid increase in ‘private sector partnerships’ (contractual arrangements under which private companies operate, manage, or even build water supply networks on behalf of government owners) has occurred. The majority of formal water supply systems around the world remain, however, municipally owned. Privatization usually entails commercialization, in which markets and market norms are applied to water supply management. Commercialization frequently involves the introduction of metering and associated changes in water rates. The principle of full-cost pricing (prices should reflect the full cost of the service) and economic equity (consumers should pay for what they use) are usually applied, in contrast to subsidised pricing and social equity (consumers should pay according to their ability/affordability) principles which frequently characterise public utility systems. Commercialization can also occur under public ownership; municipalities in the Netherlands, for example, have created publicly-owned commercialized water supply corporations.

The community model

Community-run water supply systems are most frequently managed as co-operatives. Many types of co-operative exist; a simple definition is ‘an enterprise owned and democratically controlled by the users of the goods and services provided.’ Users can be consumers, employees or producers of products and services. In most co-operatives, users are actively involved in aspects of management and decision-making. Effective (not necessarily efficient) management, in line with community norms, tends to be the goal of water supply co-operatives. In OECD countries, this model is most widely used in rural areas (approximately 200 water supply cooperatives exist in Canada, mainly in Alberta, Manitoba, and Quebec); in developing countries, the model is widespread. Water cooperatives are widespread in Denmark. Water cooperatives are also widespread in Finland, where there is a long-standing tradition of private participation in water services, through not-for-profit and self-sufficient “water associations” and cooperatives owned and managed by the consumers, especially in rural and sparsely populated areas. In Wales in 2001, the regional water and waste water company which had been privatized in 1989, was restructured into a non-profit corporation, owned by its members and prohibited from diversifying or operating outside of the Welsh region. The Bolivian city of Santa Cruz runs water supply as a not-for-profit co-operative, to which the majority of residents have access. The case of Santa Cruz contrasts with many cities in the South, where the poor obtain water from private vendors—delivering water to households by jugs or tankers—usually at a cost several multiples of that delivered via public water supply systems to the middle and upper classes." (http://www.forumonpublicdomain.ca/files/Bakker%20alternatives%20article.pdf)


Karen Bakker:

"The question of whether water should be treated as a commons or a commodity has a long history. In contemporary discussions, this question often occurs in the context of debates over the sharing of responsibility for water supply between the state, the private sector, and citizens.

These are pressing issues, given that private corporations are playing an increasingly important role as builders, owners and operators of water supply systems.

Debates over water supply governance centre around three idealized models of resource management: the ‘public utility’ (or municipal) model; the private sector ‘commercial’ model; and the community ‘cooperative’ model (Table 1). In practice, these models overlap: some governments, for example, choose to retain ownership while corporatising water services. In France, private-sector management of municipally owned water supply infrastructure via long-term management contracts is widespread. Other countries such as Denmark, with a long tradition of cooperative management of the local economy, prefer the coop model – provision by a non-profit users’ association in which local accountability is a key incentive.

How did these different models emerge? The answer can be found, in part, through analysing the history of urbanization and associated industrialization of water supply. As cities grow, some means of supply large amounts of water and removing large quantities of sewage becomes increasingly necessary. In 19 century European cities, universal water and sewerage networth ks emerged as the preferred model. Water was to be mass produced, abstracted in large quantities and treated at plants before being distributed through networks in densely-built up areas where economies of scale made supplying water feasible.

In many cities, private corporations built and operated the first water supply networks. Private companies operated in cities like Boston, New York, London, Paris, Buenos Aires, and Seville, typically supplying water to wealthier neighbourhoods; the poor had to rely on public taps, wells, rivers, or in the most desperate cases, stole water. The terrible cholera and typhoid epidemics of the 19th century, combined with an apparent inability or lack of interest on the part of the private sector to finance universal provision, led the state to take over the business of water supply infrastructure. In places where private companies continued to operate – as they did to a limited extent in France, England and Spain -- they were tightly regulated. Private water companies in the UK, for example, had dividends capped and were required to reinvest any remaining profits in the water supply business.

Significant differences exist between the public utility, commercial, and community governance models, despite the fact that these models overlap to some degree in practice. One important distinction is the role of the consumer: a citizen, a customer, or a community member. Each role implies different rights, responsibilities, and accountability mechanisms. Another difference, and an inflexion point of the international debate over water supply management, has centred on the socio-economic definition of water. Is water a ‘commons’ or a ‘commodity’? At the risk of over-simplification, the commodity view asserts that private ownership and management of water supply systems (in distinction from water itself) is possible and indeed preferable. From this perspective, water is no different than other essential goods and utility services. Private companies, who will be responsive both to customers and to shareholders, can efficiently run and profitably manage water supply systems. Water conservation will be incentivized through pricing – users will cease wasteful behaviour as water prices rise with increasing scarcity. Proponents of the ‘commodity’ view assert that water must be treated as an economic good, as specified in the Dublin Principles and in the Hague Declaration 2 3.

In contrast, the commons view of water asserts its unique qualities: water is a resource essential for life, the conversion of which into a business opportunity is unethical. From this perspective, collective management – whether by communities or the state – is not only preferable but also necessary; private ownership of water supply will, it is argued, invariably conflict with the public interest. Those who advance the ‘commons’ view assert that conservation is more effectively incentivized through an environmental, collectivist ethic of solidarity, which will encourage users to refrain from wasteful behaviour. The real ‘water crisis’ arises from socially produced scarcity, in which a short-term logic of economic growth, twinned with the rise of corporate power (and in particular water multi-nationals) has ‘converted abundance into scarcity’. As a response to the Hague Declaration, the P7 Declaration (2000) outlined principles ‘water democracy’, of decentralized, community-based, democratic water management in which water conservation is politically, socio-economically and culturally inspired rather than economically motivated.

Another focal point of the debate has been the question of whether water supply is a human right or a human need. W ater as a human right would be enshrined in legislation (as in South Africa’s constitution4) placing a duty on governments to ensure the fulfilment of this right. If water is a human need, on the other hand, governments would have no such duty. In the mid-20th century, international debates stressed the importance of water for health and sanitation in basic need requirements. In recent decades, the argument for treating water as a human right has been advanced, drawing on the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948), and made explicit in the Convention on the Rights of the Child (1986). The Water Supply and Sanitation Collaborative Council’s ‘Vision 21’5, the Cochabamba Declaration6, the Group of Lisbon’s W ater Manifesto7, and the Declaration of the P78 at their 4th Summit in 2000 have supported the inclusion of water as a ‘third generation’ right into international law. In practical terms, a human right to water would imply a basic volumetric allocation per person per day; ‘sufficient for everyone’s need, but not for everyone’s greed’. The difficulties of implementing such a right are well understood in South Africa, where many citizens have been promised, but not yet provided with the minimum level of 25 litres per person per day established by the government as ‘sufficient.’

Advocates of privatisation argue that private sector management of water supply infrastructure will increase efficiency, and deliver water to those who currently lack access. They point to the failure of governments and aid agencies to achieve the goal of universal water supply during the International W ater and Sanitation Decade (1981 - 1990), and to the low efficiency and low levels of cost-recovery of public utilities. Through efficiency gains and better management, private companies will be able to lower prices, improve performance, and increase cost recovery, enabling systems to be upgraded and expanded, critical in a world in which one billion people lack access to safe, sufficient water supplies. Privatization (the transfer of ownership of water supply systems to private companies) and private sector ‘partnerships’ (the construction, operation and management of publicly owned water supply systems by private companies) have, it is argued, worked well in other utility sectors.

This view has been strongly critiqued by those who argue that privatization entails the transformation of water from a commons into a commodity, an act of dispossession with negative distributive consequences that is emblematic of ‘globalization from above.’ The involvement of private companies invariably introduces a (pernicious) logic of the market into water management, which is incompatible with guaranteeing citizen’s basic right to water. Private companies - answerable to shareholders and with the over-riding goal of profit – will manage water supply less sustainably than public sector counterparts. Opponents of privatization point to successful examples of public water systems, and argue that private sector alternatives are not necessarily more efficient, and often much more expensive for users, than well-managed public sector systems9. They assert the effectiveness of democratic accountability to citizens when compared to corporate accountability to shareholders; an argument less easy to refute following the collapse of Enron, which by the late 1990s had become one of the largest water multinationals through its subsidiary Azurix.

Commercialization and privatization rescript water as an economic good rather than a public good, and redefine users as individual customers rather than a collective of citizens. Political controversy inevitably surrounds the introduction of the private sector into water supply management, as it almost invariably entails a redefinition of the relationship between the market, our government, the state, and one another. The question of ‘whether to privatize’ is thus more than merely technical; it is properly political debate about our worldviews of water, and of society. Making space for this collective debate is necessary if we are to move beyond what risks becoming a stale confrontation between market fundamentalists and ardent defenders of the state. Debates about water supply management are inevitably intertwined with broader issues, such as trade rules, development policy, and social movements. Questions about the respective roles to be played by communities, states, and private corporations raise broader issues of environmental sustainability and deliberative democracy; in debating private sector participation in water supply, we are also debating the relationship between markets, states, the environment, and one another." (http://www.forumonpublicdomain.ca/files/Bakker%20alternatives%20article.pdf)


"In her wide travels studying and speaking out on these issues, Maude Barlow (author of Blue Gold), sees signs of an emerging water commons consciousness. The efforts at this point are largely local, but when added all together she sees potential for a global movement to press claims to water as fundamental right for all.

• Uruguay amended its constitution to recognize the right to water free of charge as a basic principle. Colombia is considering a similar measure.

• A backlash against private operation of public water supplies is growing; it started in South America and has now spread to Africa and even the United States. The World Bank and UN have both been forced to back off from their touting of privatized water as the only way to ensure safe drinking water." (http://onthecommons.org/content.php?id=2015)


Daniel Moss:

"Across Latin America and Africa, consumer, human rights, and environmental organizations have campaigned successfully for constitutional amendments and laws enshrining water as a human right. At the recent World Water Forum in Instanbul, 25 countries signed a declaration affirming that same right (the official declaration weakly suggested that it was simply a human need). Here in the United States, a bi-partisan group of Vermont legislators working with the citizen’s group, Vermont Natural Resources Council, enacted legislation to protect the state’s groundwater. The 2008 law declares groundwater a public trust and requires industries to acquire permits for withdrawals of more than 56,000 gallons a day.

Yet it remains an uphill battle to shift policies and public consciousness to ensure that water is managed as a commons that belongs to everyone. This work is made more difficult by the fact that the principal venue for global water policy discussions is not the United Nations but the World Water Forum, a mostly pro-privatization, tri-annual gathering of government delegations, non-governmental organizations, international financial institutions, and private industry representatives. It is convened by the World Water Council, a French non-profit whose board of governors is dominated by the powerful water industry.

At the latest World Water Forum meeting March 16 to 22 in Istanbul, the dominant view of water-management issues prevailed. Whether discussing the Parisian water system or problems in South African townships, the prescription was the same: full cost recovery, which means that agencies, even public ones, that provide water must recover the full costs associated with delivering the service. This leaves the door wide open for privatization of our water. Increasingly pro-water-privatization development agencies, such as the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), are insisting that consumers pay more for water.

Full cost recovery policy is immoral, claim organizers of the People’s Water Forum – an alternative to the World Water Forum advocating that water to be managed as a commons for all rather than a commodity for the profit of a few. Water commons activists point out that the full cost recovery strategy is applied only selectively. Poor users who consume the least amount of water bear a disproportionate burden of the cost. A better system would use progressive taxation programs to support public water systems just as they do public schools.

Consider the example of the Finnish company Botnia, operating in Uruguay. Its production of cellulose products consumes 80 million liters of water per day, using a large percentage of the daily output of Uruguay’s public utilities at a low, subsidized price. Similar regressive anti-conservation subsidies are found throughout the world – especially in the United States – where irrigation water is priced far below cost, a boon for water intensive agribusinesses and a blow to family farmers.

Unlike air, it costs money to deliver clean water, so it’s necessary to put a price on its management while taking care not to turn the water itself into a commodity. But the largest users – and the wealthiest ones – should pay their fair share and subsidize water use by the world’s poorest families.

Citizens and government officials around the world have challenged the way we think about water. In Bangladesh and Brazil, for instance, public water utilities are seeking public loans rather than private equity to improve water delivery infrastruc¬ture. They are bucking the privatization trend, refusing financing from development agencies like the World Bank when privatization is one of the conditions to receive a loan.

Innovative financing approaches like this go hand in hand with new approaches to water management. Local authorities world-wide are beginning to base water governance less around often arbitrary political borders and increasingly around watersheds, through which the shared nature of water across boundaries becomes crystal clear.. This watershed governance approach has been at least partially inspired by the citizens group Tarun Bharat Sangh, which has shown great success increasing the water supply in this arid region by constructing johads—small-scale earthen reservoirs that help to harvest rainwater and improve the recharge of groundwater resources.

Maude Barlow suggests 10 principles to create and manage a water commons. These principles are broad-ranging, ranging from applying human rights and public trust law toward water management policies to improving conservation and public delivery. She, too, sees privatization of water supplies as antithetical to this notion of the commons. She cites the case of Felton, California, which has taken back its public water system after a failed privatization experience. Cochabamba, Bolivia is experimenting with community-managed water utilities to deliver quality water at fair prices. In South Africa, communities have rejected pre-paid water meters and pricing schemes that undermine families’ water security.

Adriana Marquisio, president of Uruguay’s water workers union, insists that public water management must be improved but is equally adamant that water remain a public good. She calls for measuring efficiency not just in terms of liters flowing per second but through public oversight over water fees and system improvements, public health indicators, innovations in community management, and the ecological health of groundwater reserves." (http://www.onthecommons.org/content.php?id=2463)

Key Book to Read

  1. Reclaiming Public Water. Achievements, Struggles and Visions from Around the World. By Brid Brennan, et al. download: The groundbreaking book on how reformed public water services can achieve the goal of delivering water for all.

More Information

  1. Blue Gold. By Maude Barlow.
  2. Many examples of innovative water policies are outlined in a new report, “Local Control and Management of Our Water Commons: Stories of Rising to the Challenge”, at http://www.onthecommons.org/media/pdf/original/WaterCommons03.pdf.
  3. Report: Our Water Commons
  4. Introduction: Water: commons or commodity? By Karen Bakker

Recommendations by Karen Bakker:

"For general references on water management debates, see www.thewaterpage.com. In Canada, for an NGO perspective critical of water privatization, see the Council of Canadians Blue Planet Project (www.canadians.org/blueplanet/index2.html), and for a corporate perspective supportive of private sector participation in the water sector, see the Canadian Council for Public Private Partnerships (www.pppcouncil.ca). For academic studies critical of the privatisation process, with a focus on developing countries, see the Municipal Services Project website (http://qsilver.queensu.ca/~mspadmin). Internationally, the US-based Public Citizen runs a campaign on water supply (http://www.citizen.org/cmep/Water/). The Global W ater Partnership is an influential network of companies, governments, and lending agencies committed to the Rio- Dublin principles (http://www.gwpforum.org/). For an international public sector union perspective, see the very comprehensive PSIRU website (www.psiru.org)"

Documentaries discussing water as commons

  1. "Le bien commun: L'assault final" - french speaking documentary ( excerpt ) , 2002 , by Carole Poliquin

" Son film identifie quelques biens communs dorénavant ciblés par les actionnaires : l’eau, les connaissances ancestrales sur les plantes médicinales, le patrimoine génétique des plantes, des semences, ainsi que les services publics. " ( http://sisyphe.org/spip.php?article1713 )