water

A fascinating report produced by the Strategic Foresight Group, a Mumbai-based think tank, shows that cooperation across political boundaries in the management of water correlates quite highly with peace – and that the lack of cooperation correlates highly with the risk of war. 

The report states its conclusions quite bluntly:  “Any two countries engaged in active water cooperation do not go to war for any reason whatsoever.”  The report offer intriguing evidence that commoning around water ought to be seen as a significant factor in national security and peace – and as a way of avoiding war and other armed conflict. 

Trans-boundary water cooperation, as defined by the report, does not simply consist of two countries signing a treaty or exchanging data about water.  It means serious political, administrative, policy and scientific cooperation. (Thanks, James Quilligan, for alerting me to this report.)

To give the level of cooperation some precision, the report’s authors came up with a “Water Cooperation Quotient” for 146 countries, based on ten parameters.  These include the existence of formal agreements between countries for cooperation; the existence of a permanent commission to deal with water matters; joint technical projects; ministerial meetings that make water a priority; coordination of water quality and pollution control; consultation on the construction of dams or reservoirs; among other factors. 

One of the most striking findings of the report:  “Out of 148 countries sharing water resources, 37 do not engage in active water cooperation.  Any two or more of these 37 countries face a risk of war in the future.”  The regions of the world that face a higher risk of war – i.e., countries with low or nonexistent levels of trans-boundary water cooperation – are in East Africa, Middle East, and Asia. 

This means that roughly one fourth of the nations of the world “exposes its population to insecurity in its relations with its neighbors.”  It also means that water bodies that are not subject to cooperative management are suffering from serious ecological decline – reductions in the surface area of lakes, deeper levels of rivers, pollution, and so forth.

The report notes the particular cooperative actions that countries have taken to manage their respective water supplies.  Singapore, with no natural water resources of its own, reduced its pressures on Malaysia by sourcing water from rainfall, recycling, desalination and imports.  South Africa obtains access to water in a river that it shares with Lesotho, and in exchange is helping the less-developed Lesotho build dams that provide hydropower and economic development.

Farmers in the small town of Hoxie, Kansas, have been pumping water out of the Ogallala Aquifer six times faster than rain can naturally recharge it.  This is a big deal because most of the town depends upon the flow of water to grow corn, which is the mainstay of the local economy.  But here’s the remarkable thing:  In order to preserve the water at sustainable levels, the farmers have agreed among themselves to cut back on their use of the water by 20 percent for five years. 

As Dan Charles of National Public Radio reported (October 21):

A few years ago, officials from the state of Kansas who monitor the groundwater situation came to the farmers of Hoxie and told them that the water table here was falling fast. They drew a line around an area covering 99 square miles, west of the town, and called together the farmers in that area for a series of meetings.

They told the farmers that the water was like gasoline in the tank. If every one agreed to use it more sparingly, it would last longer.

Proposals to cut back water for irrigation have not been popular in parts like these, to say the least. In the past, farmers across the American West have treated them like declarations of war. Raymond Luhman, who works for the groundwater management district that includes Hoxie, says that’s understandable: “Many of them feel like the right to use that water is ...” he says, pausing, “it's their lifeblood!”

It’s also their property. Under the law, it’s not clear that any government can take it away from them, or order them to use less of it.

But in Hoxie, the conversation took a different turn.

Contrary to the “tragedy of the commons” parable, which holds that no single farmer would have any incentive to rein in his or her water consumption, the farmers of Hoxie found a way to cooperate and overcome their over-consumption problem.  They came up with a set of rules to reduce their water usage for a five-year trial run; had the state government make it a formal requirement; and installed meters on everyone’s pumps to verify compliance. 

“Love, Me, I’m a Liberal”

Maybe it’s time for the commons and liberalism to have a frank talk.  Liberals would seem to be natural allies of the commons; they certainly often profess its values and goals, however superficially.  But the politics that liberals generally deliver -- even in their re-branded guise as “progressives” – tends to be seriously disappointing.   

Consider this little vignette recounted by the New York Times last week.  It was a story about declining sales for soda, the rising popularity of water and First Lady Michelle Obama’s role as a cheerleader for healthy choices.  This paragraph jumped out at me:

“Last month, Michelle Obama heavily endorsed water, teaming up with Coke, Pepsi and Nestlé Waters, among others, to persuade Americans to drink more of it.  Health advocates complained that Mrs. Obama had capitulated to corporate partners by not explaining the benefits of water over the sodas they sell and that her initiative promoted even greater use of plastic bottles when she could have just recommended turning on the tap.”

What could be more quintessentially liberal:  sincere, passionate commitment to a laudable social goal (drinking water instead of sugary soda) but no willingness or courage to fight for the right choice – tap water.  The reason is fairly obvious:  What would the corporate benefactors think?

The corporate backers of the First Lady's anti-obesity campaign are only too willing to bask in the socially minded glow. The brand director for Dasani, the bottled water brand sold by Coca-Cola, proudly declared, “…We are looking to lead in packaging and sustainability because those things also matter to out customers.” 

Yes, let’s sell more bottled water in “sustainable” plastic bottles.

The Remunicipalization of Water

After the binge of privatization of municipal water systems in the 1980s and 1990s, citizens and city governments are starting to realize what a big mistake they made.  Privatization resulted in higher rates and lower water quality, service and public accountability.  As William Harless describes in the Wall Street Journal (August 19), many municipalities are now mounting lawsuits and ballot measures to try to regain control over systems that they had ceded to private companies.

In Ojai, residents will vote next week on whether to buy back their water system from Golden State Water Co., a move that the company opposes.  A lawsuit in Worchester, Massachusetts, is trying to regain public control over the city’s water system, which had been sold.  And in Connecticut, some towns are objecting to higher rates that have resulted after their systems were acquired by Aquarian Water Co. of Bridgeport, Connecticut, which consolidated the rates for the towns it serves. 

It is satisfying to see the glittering promises about privatization exposed for what they are: glittering promises.  For more on this theme, check out the work of a group called In the Public Interest, one of the most aggressive Washington, D.C.-based policy opponents of privatization in the US.  The group's website has lots of materials explaining how and why privatization of public resources is a bad deal for taxpayers and citizens.   

It’s been said that the fate of any great movement is to be cannibalized by the mainstream or to die.  I’d like to suggest two others paths:  zombiehood and courageous re-invention.

Zombiehood is a mode of living death in which people mindlessly repeat old advocacy forms that clearly aren’t working.  This is the fate of much environmentalism today – a professionalized, bureaucratized sector that is afraid of taking risks, innovating or defying respectable opinion.

It is refreshing, therefore, to recognize a notable departure from zombie-environmentalism, the Great Lakes Commons, a new cross-border grassroots campaign catalyzed by On the Commons to establish the Great Lakes as a commons.  Here is a bold idea with the nerve and intelligence to strike off in some new, experimental directions without any assurance that it’s all going to turn out.

For the past 40 years, environmental activists have looked to legislatures, regulators and international treaties to “solve the problem.”  Guess what?  It’s not working.  Governments are too corrupt, corporate-dominated, bureaucratic or just plain stalemated.  The Great Lakes Commons is an attempt to launch a new narrative and activist strategy based on some very different assumptions.  It’s trying to organize people in new ways, through commoning, and to imagine new forms of governance that will actually protect the Great Lakes.  It doesn’t just want to raise money and collect signatures for petitions.  It wants to nurture new types of human relationships with this endangered regional ecosystem.

As the Great Lakes Commons website points out, Great Lakes policies are biased toward private and commercial interests.  The political management regimes do not reflect ecological realities.  And the people living near the Lakes are treated as bystanders who have little power to affect government decisionmaking.  For all these reasons and more, the ecological health of the Great Lakes has deteriorated over the past several decades, and now there are new threats from hydro-fracking, radioactive waste shipments, copper-sulfide mining and invasive species. 

The Great Lakes Commons Map

A week or two ago, I blogged about the rise of new sorts of eco-digital commons that blend virtual spaces with environmental management.  It's a bit of serendipity to learn this week about the a fascinating new online tool, the Great Lakes Commons Map.  The map is an interactive platform that solicits contributions and conversation by people who love the Great Lakes.  The idea is to turn a resource that is often seen as belonging to no one into one that is actively stewarded by everyone.  How?  By inviting everyone to post their own videos, text, photos and comments about specific portions of the Great Lakes.  Over time, it is hoped that the site will help build a new shared “mental map” and shared space for people to talk about the Great Lakes as an integrated bioregion -- and to take action to defend it.

The map was created by Paul Baines, an environmental educator, and Darren Puscas of reWORKit (“web production for unions and social change”).  Here is Haines' video introduction to the map.  Haines hopes that the website will help people annotate their conservation projects, cleanups, ecological education and restoration initiatives, activist efforts, walking tours, historical markings, and other Great Lakes projects on a single site, and thereby illustrate how and why the Lakes are a commons.  Anyone can post their own personal stories, reports of threats to the Lakes' ecological health, alerts that seek to organize and educate, notices about upcoming events, etc. 

Haines eventually hopes to make it possible to post and share video and audio on the site; use SMS and Twitter feeds for reporting and campaigning; host workshops and training on community mapping; and translate the website into other languages. 

What’s especially beautiful about the site is its use of Ushahidi, an open source, interactive geospatial platform for the crowdsourcing of information in crisis situations.  The platform has been used to enable the geospatial visualization human trafficking, for example.  Haines adapted it to serve as a way to crowdsource information, images, video and more that can create a new shared cultural space for saving the Great Lakes.

How does commons activism differ from conventional political action, and how might it transform the very practice of democracy and governance?  In a must-read essay, Tommaso Fattori explains how several voter referenda in Italy on June 12 and 13, 2011 validated the commons.  He describes how the votes – two to prevent privatization of water management – represent a stunning repudiation of the market/state duopoly and its anti-democratic “public/private partnerships” to carve up the commons.

Fattori's essay is called “A CounterStrike Strategy: Fluid Democracy – Story of the Italian Water Revolution”; it originally appeared in the Rome-based review Transform! in September 2011. (I located the article on the website for Social Network Unionism, a group dedicated to “a peer to peer, transnational commons, and hyperempowered labour class movement.” Thanks for the alert, Michel Bauwens!)

The June referenda were a shock to the Italian political and corporate establishment because voters resoundingly rejected laws that privatized water, supported nuclear power and granted special legal immunity to the Prime Minister and other government officials. It bears noting that Italian referenda can only repeal existing laws that are disliked; they cannot write new ones. That makes the results even more remarkable. With more then 57% of the eligible Italians voting, each of the four referenda received 94% or more of the vote!

While common lands and waters are being stolen by investors and developers the world over, the Supreme Court of India decided it was not going to look the other way.  In a bold, surprising ruling, the Court made a sweeping defense of the commons as commons. 

In the January 28 decision, the Court held that the enclosure of a village pond in Rohar Jagir, Tehsil, in the State of Punjab, by real estate developers was a totally illegal occupation of the commons.  The developers, who were appealing a lower court ruling, had filled in the pond with soil and started building houses on it.  The Court ruled in unmistakable terms that the pond/land must revert to the commoners immediately and the illegal occupiers must be evicted.  Even more remarkable, the Court held that similar enclosures of common lands elsewhere in India must be reversed even if they have been in effect for years.  (Thanks, Trent Schroyer, for alerting me to this case!)

You can read the 12-page decision by Markandey Katju here [pdf file].  Given the ideological capture of American jurisprudence, it is astonishing and inspirational for me to encounter a no-nonsense affirmation of the rights of commoners by the highest court of any nation.

The Rural Commons of India

The Foundation for Ecological Security (FES) is a pioneering advocate of the commons in India, especially on behalf of the poor.  At the recent conference of the International Association for the Study of the Commons in Hyderabad, which FES co-hosted, the organization displayed a series of posters that make clear the commons is a vital resource for survival and ecosystem stability in India.  I found the posters so captivating that I asked for copies of the images so I could share them here.  Each comes with the following tagline....

 

 

 

 

 

 

....and each features photos and short statements about why and how the commons helps poor communities.  Here are some of the posters: 

 

 

Water Flowing Underground

No one complains about the convenience of getting water from the tap, but there is something deep within us that loves drawing fresh water from the ground, the way generations of humans have done. Is it the special taste? The cool moistness of that spot of ground? Or is it the wondrous mystery that hovers around a well?

Photographer Kay Westhues of South Bend, Indiana, became so entranced by the continuing appeal of artesian wells — water that flows naturally from the ground, and usually routed through a pipe — that she created a website, Well Stories about "our relationship with the water we drink." The sites features photos of old artesian wells in the Midwest, and gather stories from the people who make their own personal meccas to gather water from the wells.

As Westhues explains on her website:

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