The right to water: an interview with Mike Gonzalez

Mike Gonzalez and Marienella Yanes are the authors of The Last Drop: The Politics of Water (Pluto: 2015). Mike talked to Nick Evans about the fight to put the world’s water back under democratic control, and the wider connections between climate change and class struggle.

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Water Protests in Cochabamba, Bolivia in 2000

How does looking at the privatisation of water show what neoliberalism has meant for people in practice around the world?

Nothing so clearly represents what we mean by neoliberalism and globalisation as the commodification of water. In 1992 there’s a conference in Dublin whose conclusions are very odd, because on the one hand they conclude that it’s important that there’s a democratic control of water and that women are properly represented in the administration of water. But then they end with the assertion that water is an “economic good”. For us, twenty years on, it is absolutely crystal clear that the debate is between the concept of water as a good, bought and sold by commercial operations, as against the idea that access to life itself, to water, is a fundamental right, which should be administered by publicly responsible enterprises.

One of the themes of the book is democratic control over water. You suggest that certain developmental projects, including big dams, have squeezed out democratic control.

Dams are a huge issue. Dams were to be the solution to everything, dams were to control water, dams were to control rivers, provide guarantees of irrigation on a massive scale. Dams had a huge kind of symbolic significance, they were monuments to modernism. For a time the World Bank would only invest in monumental projects of this kind. Now the World Bank has withdrawn. It won’t invest in dams any more. The Chinese are now building dams across the world in order to replace the World Bank.

The problem in every case is that there was never consultation with the local people, there was never serious assessments of climate, of land, of the consequences of building, in the great rush of enthusiasm for this great modern miracle, and the effects are now coming home to roost. Twelve hundred dams have been destroyed in the United States over the last few years because they clearly are not doing their job. The Colorado River which used to be 40 miles across at the estuary doesn’t reach the estuary any more.

The people who know best – the terrain, the history, the climate in the region – are those who live and work there over time. They’re never consulted. Most of the time they have no power, but when they take power, as they did in the “water war” in Cochambamba in Bolivia in 2000, damaging policies can be reversed. So I think democratic control is meaningful. Meaningful because there’s absolutely no reason why proper community development projects devised in consultation with whole populations on a large scale, can’t then inform how water projects are developed.

Indigenous resistance is a theme of your book, as well as of Naomi Klein’s book on climate change, in her discussions about “blockadia”. Are there ways in which we in the Global North can learn from their struggles, can work with people on the front line?

This isn’t simply about supporting indigenous peoples, it’s about recognising that what might seem like a remote struggle in the middle of the Amazon jungle is an aspect of a fundamental struggle at the heart of globalisation. So although, for example, the great struggle over the Cajamarca mine in Peru for example is a struggle which can be articulated in terms of indigenous traditions, it is a very contemporary struggle, a war between big capital and the majority.

Unlike Naomi Klein, I don’t really think Capital will come to see reason. It’s battle, it’s a struggle, and to that extent, our role is very clear. Which is to be in solidarity, and to recognise the common struggle. Now that could be just a cliché, but the fact of the matter is that many of the actors in these struggles are not Peruvian companies: they’re Canadian, they’re Chinese, they’re North American, and they’re European. Bechtel is an American company. Suez and Veolia, which are the big oppressive presences in world water are French-based multinationals, so they are within reach. It might be going on in some remote piece of the jungle, but it’s also about us.

So we can identify with people struggling against these corporations, and be part of a battle against them in all sorts of ways, by trade union work, by trade union solidarity, by active solidarity, across the world. In particular, we need to identify the centrality of climate change in the whole global argument about class struggle and not to see it as a kind of a side issue.

How do we get people in the labour movement to engage with climate change and not just look away because it is so overwhelming?

We were extremely conscious of that issue and tried very hard to write it in a way that painted a global picture but at every point we tried to show that within that movement there are lots and lots of struggles to try to grasp that totality at the micro level. It’s a dilemma, it’s difficult.

Much of what I’ve read about water politics is either catastrophist – “we’re all dead, we’re all going to die of thirst soon or later” – or is about “what governments must recognise”… well governments don’t give a damn. Look at what the US and most of the European countries were doing at the UN climate conference in Copenhagen in 2009, which was conspiring with the representatives of big coal, big oil, big water to destroy the case put forward by the climate movement. Governments should be pressured, but we have to recognise that they are conditioned, contained and linked to the interests of big capital.

The catastrophist argument essentially says that this is a natural disaster. The point of the anecdotes in the books, the stories and the examples, is to demonstrate that in every case they are the consequence of human interventions. Unlike oil, water is potentially a renewable resource, and can be restored to be that, once they stop contaminating it, diverting it, poisoning it, burying it, or in other ways destroying the water resources.

Our aim was to find a balance between acknowledging this is a very serious and pressing problem and showing that it is within our capacities to change and restore water resources, and that it’s not a natural disaster, but a disaster made by humankind. Certainly, by a small number of humans.

It’s important to emphasise that it’s a small number of people causing the crisis as neo-Malthusian arguments often imply climate change, or water shortages, are caused by an increasing population.

These neo-Malthusian arguments are always there in the background. Anthony Giddens has just produced a book in which he argues for pricing water as a way of dealing with conserving it. But conserving water by pricing it is accepting that there will be those who cannot have access to water. And there are several hundred thousand of them marching across Europe now as we speak.

We don’t start from individual consumption. We say several times that 10 % of water is consumed by individual households, 90 % is consumed by agriculture and industry. It’s very, very important to lay that down because so many arguments are about personal conduct. I don’t think we should condemn people thinking about recycling, and not wasting resources but I don’t think the solution lies there, when agriculture and industry are consuming water at such an alarming rate.

The problem is it’s not immediately clear where agribusiness and industry is using the water. That’s why we talk about the concept of virtual water in our book. There are two things here: one is the amount of water, but then there’s also the decisions about what is grown, how it’s grown, and where it’s grown. What determines that is a global market whose demands shape agriculture and industry from one end of earth to the other. This market is created by enforcing some forms of cultivation, such as cotton-growing, at the expense of others.

Meanwhile the West is exporting its problems: California now has new regulations about controlling the use of water but they’re still exporting the problem. Alright, they’re growing fewer flowers because they’re thirstier. But they’re saying to Kenya and Columbia, they can grow flowers and not be able to grow you know food crops.

So we talk about virtual water to make people aware that talking about water is not just talking about what we drink but talking about its use on a grand scale, and to try and provoke the question: why is cattle-raising expanding at such a rate and taking up and destroying 25% of the Amazon Forest. Why? Because Brazilians eat a lot of meat? No, because there’s a worldwide meat industry. I’m not a vegetarian, but we need to understand the medium- and long-term consequences of organising the global economy in that way.

Most of the trade agreements that create the water crises you discuss happen behind closed doors, hiding behind complicated acronyms. How can mass struggles bring some of these corporate machinations to light?

We all want the tool that will prise open the box. The problem is the prising can take a little longer than we might like. But bear in mind for example that the Free Trade Area of the Americas was defeated under Bush. It was driven out. Partly this is because these were Left governments with an eye to their own mass base, who were reluctant to put themselves behind it because of the possibilities of an internal Latin American market. It was a major – the major next step in globalisation and it was defeated.

They hide behind language. It’s one of their tools, these impenetrable acronyms. We refer to the example of the Zapatista revolt that started on the day of the signing of the North American Free Trade Agreement on 1 January 1994, because nothing could seem further away from Washington than the backwaters of Chiapas, let alone these communities whose rifles were mostly wooden. Nevertheless, they exposed and unmasked a process that in 1994  was pretty much hidden from all of us. And then came Seattle. Today we can talk about the World Trade Organisation. In 1998 or 1997 nobody knew about it, nobody knew who they were.

Corporate power is big power. They have governments in their pockets. Part of our job is to unmask them, to say what they’re for, and to find examples of where they actually touch real lives in a local place, just as the Zapatistas did in their own way.

Isn’t there a problem when you say these things take time? When a problem like climate change is so great, and the timescale is so short, it’s hard not to want quick fixes.

People are afraid, people feel menaced by corporate power on a world scale, and they’re right. But that’s always been the problem for socialists, hasn’t it? The struggles build from below.

We always build from where we can fight back, and we organise towards the point where we can combine our struggles together to reshape our world. There is a pressing need to shape our world in a different way, so we can lead different kinds of lives. But the other side, the ruling class, will do everything it can to demobilise and disarm us by condemning us.

The answer is we have to fight back, we have to use what we have, which is the capacity of people to organise themselves in struggle. That’s what every example which we’ve been through demonstrates. I’m just back from Ireland, where the movement against charges for access to water is strong and growing. The authorities and corporations are claiming they’re lunatic environmentalists, they’re green terrorists, and all that stuff, of course. But the numbers are growing. In Ireland the government is trying to make people register with the utility company Irish Water so they pay for their water. I heard people telling me that not only have 40% of the Irish population not registered, but a 120,000 people have now de-registered – clearly, because the water movement has given them confidence. That’s an example which we should take hope from.

Interview by Nick Evans.

The Last Drop is available for sale from Pluto Press.

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