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Privatization and Water Justice

Water is viewed in many different ways across cultures and governing bodies, but its privatization is where the largest justice problems with water are mapped out. The book “Blue Covenant” first describes the views of water itself throughout countries of different socio-political and socio-economic classes. Developed countries often treat water as a human right, while developing countries (namely indigenous peoples) define water as not something that cannot be owned. Water justice emerges not only between the cracks of each country, but within the countries themselves; it is intertwined with this commodification of water, because where access is unequal so too is justice.
Maude Barlow begins her book with the scientific aspect of our global water scarcity problem described through humans’ interference of the hydrologic cycle, but her subsequent chapters are what frame the unequal access and participation. This book is a very important piece of reflection on water issues in my opinion, because it describes the inherent problems with water privatization from a socio-political and cultural perspective. Water privatization is a model entrenched culturally in the “Global North” which assigns a value to water that can be monetized. The most striking aspect of water privatization in all countries is how well it covers up participation in the decision making process though. Access to water in developing countries is often non-existent due to being too expensive, lacking public infrastructure, or is at best accessible but contaminated; all stemming from the limitations in recognition and participation that the privatization of water creates. It is alarming to me that such an obstacle to equal water supply can be so widespread and virtually unopposed.
The root of this denied access to the decision making process of privatization is made clear by examining the vested interests, namely those global organizations such as the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank. These global organizations have several leaders from the top earning water companies, such as Suez and Vivendi (Veolia), which serve as board members and advisors. The international governing structures for funds are corrupt by shaping their plans around privatization; funding will not be allocated to countries unless they contract their water systems to private companies. When the governance intended to regulate and oversee the fair processes of resources are in bed with corporate partners, either for profit or by financial leveraging, it’s not difficult to see the lack of recognition towards the people most affected by privatization.
The global water crisis as described by Barlow is then outlined by the major players that pursue technology as the solution to commodify more water, or as she names them “water hunters.” In addition to the global partners that make privatization ubiquitous, water hunters like the bottled water industry, nanotechnology, and desalination firms fail to address the root problem in access to clean drinking water and the decision making process that regulates it. The problems do not start with inefficient allocation of water, but extend from the inability of people to purchase expensive water to having no representation at global water meetings that directly affect how their water systems are governed. This obstructs not only distributive justice, but fundamental participatory and recognition justice of people all over the world as well. The simple question that can identify whether or not people are being treated justly in water discussions is: who is not participating in the dialogue?
As the outlook for water justice is influenced most by governing bodies, an effective way to include people from the “ground up” is yet to be seen on a global scale. When public hearings are few and far between, and when voting for access to the most basic right to live is unheard of, the current situation of our global water crisis will continue to worsen. However, if governments and global funding organizations can examine Maude Barlow’s framework of looking at the underlying issues of water scarcity and ask themselves who is not at the table of these discussions, then will water justice move closer to becoming a reality.

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