At the end of 2020 the water “futures” of California, the largest state in the United States in population and economy, were floated on Wall Street for the first time, under the banner of Nasdaq Veles California Water Index.¹ It was the first flotation of its kind, offering potential investors the opportunity to hedge against the future availability of water in California: in simple terms, to get rich from the scarcity of the most important substance for all human, animal and plant life to survive.
But while it may be the first of its kind, we can be sure that it won’t be the last.
The commodification of water is a war against working people
Of course the commodification of water is nothing new²: a look in the fridge of your local corner shop or supermarket will reveal bottles of water with any number of different labels—all ultimately owned by the same two or three companies.³ However, no less pernicious is the taking into private ownership of public water resources and infrastructure, a malign practice in which—predictably enough—the decaying imperialist behemoth of the United States leads the way.
In 2013 the then CEO of Nestlé, the world’s largest food and drink company, drew widespread criticism when he described water as “not a human right” but “a foodstuff like any other, which should have a commercial value.”⁴
In 2018 it was reported that, with the city of Flint, Michigan, facing a continuing crisis and public health emergency in relation to its water supply, in which up to 12,000 children in the predominantly black working-class city were poisoned with lead,⁵ Nestlé continued to pump out 400 gallons per minute of groundwater to bottle and to sell, for an annual administration fee of a mere $200 to the local government.⁶
The struggle for public ownership of water in Ireland
The Right2Water Campaign at its peak, between 2014 and 2016, struck at the heart of capitalism and its champions in the political class in Ireland.⁷ The demands were simple: no water charges for domestic water usage, and a referendum to enshrine in the constitution the ownership of Ireland’s water by the people of Ireland.
While the first demand has been met, we can be certain that this is just a temporary state of affairs while the ur-reactionaries of Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil and their slíbhín accomplices in the Green Party continue to hold power, probably at first under the guise of “excessive usage charges.”⁸ Securing the second, more fundamental demand should be the focus of any truly transformative, anti-capitalist strategy.
It’s important to note that the move to privatise water in Ireland in the last decade was driven by the EU Commission’s Water Framework Directive, under the spurious justification of “improving water quality.”⁹ As the example of Flint shows, the very opposite is likely to be the case. As we can see in any walk of life—whether transport, health, or housing—there is an inherent contradiction between quality and profitability.
Climate change, capitalism, and the international context
The internal logic of capitalism—the pursuit of increased growth and profitability above all else—forces it not only to over-exploit natural resources in the pursuit of short-term profit but to exploit in turn the resulting scarcity of resources for its own benefit.
The perverse image of Wall Street traders gambling on the scarcity of water is a microcosm of the wider state of affairs, where big corporations can steal clean water from the commons, or ownership by the people, to sell back at a premium in bottled form, where people die of lead poisoning, drought, and any number of water-borne illnesses, a fate reserved only for the most exploited of working people around the globe.
The battle to secure the public ownership of water in Ireland has only begun. But the international dimension of this struggle cannot be ignored. As the effects of climate change get worse, increases in drought and famine are inevitable on a global scale.¹⁰ It is clear that capitalism is incapable of arresting this alarming slide, precisely because capitalism is what caused it in the first place.¹¹ If left unaddressed, it is not the bourgeois class who will reap the bitter fruit and bear the brunt of their exploitative practices but working people.
As the rate of profit continues to fall,¹² and we enter another global economic crisis, the capitalists will manoeuvre in ever more desperate ways to fight the tides and maintain their bottom line. The key to this will be continuing to stake out private control over resources and infrastructures that were previously considered as the commons, or belonging to the people.
We must be steadfast and clear in opposing this, and in ensuring the public ownership of all natural resources for our generation and all generations to come.
- Kim Chipman, “California water futures begin trading amid fear of scarcity,” Bloomberg, 6 December 2020 (https://tinyurl.com/y5w6pmax).
- Ellen Chang and Mark Reeth, “7 ways to invest in water,” US News and World Report, 16 December 2020 (https://tinyurl.com/y4f3meaw).
- Caroline Winter, “Nestlé makes billions bottling water it pays nearly nothing for,” Bloomberg Businessweek, 22 September 2017 (https://tinyurl.com/ybmm4zs6).
- Peter Brabeck, “Water is not a human right but a foodstuff,” Youtube, (https://tinyurl.com/y2ebva8o).
- Andrew Keller, “United Way estimates cost of helping children $100M,” 19 January 2016 (https://tinyurl.com/y69926hj).
- Trevor Bach, “As Flint suffers and Nestlé prospers, many are asking: Who owns the rights to Michigan water?” 14 June 2018 (https://tinyurl.com/y3qgwx3k).
- Dan Taraghan, “Water charges by stealth,” Socialist Voice, June 2019 (https://tinyurl.com/y3dlb64a).
- “Irish Water charges in 2021,” Money Guide, Ireland, 6 November 2020 (https://tinyurl.com/y6c67an4).
- Environmental Protection Agency, “Water Framework Directive” (https://tinyurl.com/y3ge628j).
- United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, “UN warns climate change is driving global hunger,” 12 September 2018 (https://tinyurl.com/yah3sb3j).
- Jimmy Doran, “Climate change or system change?” Socialist Voice, October 2019 (https://tinyurl.com/y5gccruu).
- Michael Roberts, “The US rate of profit before the covid,” Michael Roberts Blog, 20 January 2021 (https://tinyurl.com/y4ll94x9).