WATER & ITS POLITICS | A Brief Overview

Melina Nicolaides


On September 21st of 2014, the world witnessed possibly the largest ever demonstration on climate change in history, the People’s Climate March in New York City. It took place just a few days before world leaders and decision-makers were expected to debate environmental action at the United Nations Climate Summit. This summit, the largest high-level climate change meeting ever staged was regarded as the inaugural event for a series of international milestones concerning the environment - subsequent meetings such as those in Beijing, Lima, Geneva, the Vatican, Bonn, New York, Istanbul - to establish a new context for future global action. This sequence of conferences have the purpose of laying the groundwork leading up to the landmark Paris Climate Treaty Convention of December of 2015, that has the very ambitious objective of achieving a legally-binding and universal climate agreement between all the nations of the world.

The year 2014 ended with the worst-ever seen floods in Malaysia and confirmation by NASA and the NOAA that it was the planet’s warmest year on record, giving decisive emphasis to the fact that human activities are indeed changing the environment. With 99% of the global scientific community now unequivocally in agreement that the climate system has warmed since the beginning of the industrial revolution, and milestones such as the long-awaited January vote by the US Senate taking the first step towards acknowledging climate change as real and not a ‘hoax’, it has become clear that 2015 must be hailed as the crucial year for collective change and action on urgent global risk factors.

All of the many interconnected international efforts and initiatives over the past twelve months have created a momentum that has put the environment at the top of the headlines. Moreover, environmental concerns seem to be back more solidly in the conscience of the general public once again, as the effects of the phenomenon of climate change have become increasingly evident worldwide, and have also begun to affect people’s daily lives. As it has taken over twenty years for the public to come to terms with climate change, the same urgently needs to be done for the question of water.

The issue of the global water crisis is a multifaceted topic, and one which develops with new issues continuously; without doubt this discussion begins from within the basic truths that our planet is the only one known to be flowing with water, that it is the source of life itself, and that our oceans, seas, lakes and rivers cover most of this blue planet - yet only 3% of the Earth’s water is fresh, most of which is unrecoverable, and much polluted beyond practical use.



The relationship between the climate and the world’s water is an all-embracing one, and climate-related impacts on water sources are already widely documented: changes in precipitation patterns, melting ice and diminishing glaciers up to an eighth of an inch per year, and sea levels now rising at the rate of one meter per century, which today affect the Maldives archipelago to the Chesapeake Bay watershed - and which at the current rate of ascension could feasibly place Los Angeles, lower Manhattan, the cities of Venice and Amsterdam underwater in the next 200 years.

The water crisis also refers to the fact that a hundred times more plastic is entering the ocean than scientists can account for, and that we are polluting, diverting, pumping, and wasting our limited supply of fresh water at exponential levels

These climate impacts are also now being experienced as increased severe weather events - hurricanes and typhoons, flooding, and record-setting heat waves in Australia, Japan, Korea, China and Europe. Increases in the intensity and duration of droughts - Brazil is currently enduring its worst dry spell ever - in Sao Paulo, the most populated city in South America, taps have run dry and constant blackouts occur due to ineffectual generation of hydroelectricity. Last summer in Tulare County, California, due to extreme drought and dried up wells, residents could not flush a toilet, fill a drinking glass, wash dishes or clothes, or even rinse their hands without reaching for commercially-bottled water; after a four- year stretch of drought in that state, Tulare Lake, once the largest body of fresh water west of the Mississippi River, is now waterless.

The water debate also has to do with people’s decreasing access to clean drinking water, the desertification of the Sahel region of Africa, the drying up last summer of the the Aral Sea’s larger basin, and the one meter loss of level per year of the Dead Sea. The water crisis also refers to the fact that a hundred times more plastic is entering the ocean than scientists can account for, and that we are polluting, diverting, pumping, and wasting our limited supply of fresh water at exponential levels. It is estimated that today, over a billion people lack access to safe drinking water, and by UN estimations, 240 babies die a day due to consumption of polluted and unsafe water.

As far back in 2001, the CIA had already estimated that by 2015, almost half of the world's population will live in water-stressed countries. The reality is that the urgency of the water crisis is immense.

The global water crisis will very well be the defining crisis of our century and a significant driver behind geopolitical instability, resource nationalism and interstate conflict


Despite the fact that since the 28th of July, 2010, access to water was declared in a resolution of the General Assembly of the United Nations as a “fundamental right essential to the full enjoyment of the right to life and all human rights”, in reality, access to water is subject to major inequalities in the world. It is estimated that by 2025, 1.8 billion people will suffer from absolute water scarcity, and two-thirds of the world’s population will face acute water stress. Not only is it the world’s impoverished people who are the most vulnerable to the devastating effects of water shortages, but countries with still emerging economies can do little to mitigate the multiple adverse effects of their own water scarcity; around the world on every continent, many local and state governments suffering from budgetary and economic pressures and lack of revenue can no longer shoulder the responsibility of upgrading faulty water infrastructures or maintaining municipal utility services efficiently.

The political angle of the global water crisis has also recently become a much more noticeable component of the debate and received wide media coverage. Although the argument has been around for many years, in recent months it has become even more evident that water will very well be the defining crisis of our century: not only observable through droughts, storms, floods or degrading water quality, but as a significant driver behind intra and interstate conflicts. In a preview to the Davos WEF forum of January 2015 - that had climate change at the top of its agenda - nearly 900 experts that took part in a Global Risk Perception Survey rated water crises as the greatest risk facing the world in terms of global instability and potential geo-political impact over the next decade: foreseeing that extreme weather circumstances and widespread water shortages, intensifying due to climate change, will play a role in the growing threat of state crises and even terrorist attacks.

In the politics of water, conflict potentially arises in two basic spheres: the privatization and corporate control of water resources, and water access as the driver of territorial demarcation or expansion. The privatization of public water utilities and infrastructures, and exploitative water management schemes in the water sector have created a ‘water-market’ shaped and strengthened by political and corporate links and interests. In the sphere of ‘territorial water’, water is seen as territory definition, and wars and conflicts are generated by the need for water sources. In both cases - water - in theory a natural resource, a public good, and inherent human right, proves the reality that he who controls the water, controls everything.



In the first instance, water is subject to many evils - privatization, profit and extreme pollution: corrupt governments use water for economic and political gain; corporate giants force developing countries to privatize their water supply for profit, controlling public water systems, and fixing exploitative distribution and prices for water; Wall Street investors target desalination and mass bulk water export schemes in an attempt to corner the market the planet’s most life-giving and essential resource. Water, first defined as a ‘commodity’ by the UN in 1992, became the subject of a May 2000 Fortune Magazine article, which informed its investors that new stock market options in water privatization would become “one of the world's great business opportunities”. This trend is now manifested in the vast investment in foreign water economies and the massive international water trade.

Corporate giants, private investors, and corrupt governments competing for control of diminishing water supplies trigger conflict, provoke protests, lawsuits, and uprisings from citizens - the victims of water’s increasing commodification

As a growing source of power and jurisdiction, private water companies have gone from national to global as they develop into cartels; water is already owned by private water companies from main US cities (NYC to Las Vegas), to the countries of the Global South. In fact, the World Bank, which pushes privatization as a key solution to the water crisis, is the largest funder behind such water ‘management’ in the developing world, and together with the IMF, commonly demands water deregulation as part of loan conditions, or trade agreements to developing countries to promote privatization programs that will be implemented by European and U.S.-based companies.

In this growing trend of global consolidation, especially in such uncertain economic times, the new water barons - wall street banks and global investment firms, multinational corporations, even individual tycoons is growing. Water-grabbers buy up thousands of acres of land on which are major water resources such as lakes or aquifers, and transcend national boundaries to take control of water sectors by buying up and privatizing water rights worldwide by offering to ‘save’ water systems for strained municipal or state services. Through the constant creation of new water investments, ever more of the market share is captured of this ‘commodity’, that is on its way to becoming more valuable than petroleum.

                  Detail from "Platform for a One-Person Protest" ,    Park & Kim    

                  Detail from "Platform for a One-Person Protest", Park & Kim

Corporate giants, private investors, and corrupt governments competing for control of diminishing water supplies trigger conflict, provoke protests, lawsuits, and uprisings from citizens - the victims of water’s increasing commodification - fighting injustice and for the right to survive. Privatization and water-management efforts are increasingly being met with opposition, not just because of their inefficiency to provide local populations with affordable and clean water, but for exploitative results and human rights violations which environmental activists and human rights campaigners who advocate water as a basic human right and public good cannot so easily reverse.

There are many examples of protest worldwide, from perhaps the most well-known case in Bolivia in 2000 against US-company Bechtel’s attempts to privatize regional water supplies; others include opposition to British Biwater in Dar-es-Salaam, French-based Suez corporation facing protests in Argentina, and Peru and Brazil. In the district of Kerala, India, civil protests by local people against the misuse by the Coca-Cola Company for cola production and the water-bottling of local water resources - both of which depleted drinking water, and polluted the groundwater of its farming communities - began and continued after 2002. Protests against water privatization have also erupted from Indonesia, Pakistan, India, South Africa, Botswana, Mexico, Poland, to Hungary in reaction to the presence of large multi-national monopolies who believe water is a product which can be owned, and for which they are also able to set prices at will; one example, Bechtel’s Bolivia initiative attempted to inflate prices by 35 percent for the local Cochabamba area residents.

However, movements to stop or reverse this privatization trend are also many. In Europe for example, the citizens of Thessaloniki, Greece in a reaction to the government’s move to privatize water in May of 2014 as part of the country’s austerity measures, staged a self-organized referendum which had the overwhelming result of 98% against the bid by the Suez company. This initiative was hailed as a great day for local democracy and against the general privatization of public services. It was viewed as a proposition towards the need to guarantee the human right to water and sanitation in the European Union. It was also a source of inspiration later that year when the government of the Republic of Ireland consolidated water services into the Irish Water company to handle the introduction of water charges to its citizens - prompting one of the largest ever mass protests in resistance to the Irish government’s plan and also to its austerity policies.

The US was also faced with an overwhelming mobilization of citizen campaigners following the mass water shut-offs by Detroit City to its less-wealthy residents that began in the summer of 2014; while water was cut off to up to 30,000 households, corporations left enormous unpaid bills - in total, commercial and industrial users still owe $30 million in unpaid water bills. This provoked not only widespread citizen and water-activist demonstrations, but necessitated UN special-representatives to descend upon the city that October to remind the authorities of the international human right to water, despite the municipal bankruptcy.

As disputes between countries over access to water become more common, the need to secure freshwater resources is fast becoming every nation’s primary objective

As water availability and quality declines worldwide, an increase in competition for clean water will soon be the main pressure on societies and nations. Interstate conflict between neighboring countries, and regional and community conflicts around the globe caused by the threat to or lack of water supply have already begun; in water-scarce regions, tensions arise between businesses and local communities, particularly in still-developing countries where local populations are often not given access to reliable drinking water - many nations across the Middle East, Latin America, Africa, parts of Asia, and South East Asia do not have sufficient available or useable water resources, or are yet unable to develop infrastructures needed to have systems provide or to treat water for human consumption.

Territorial war and conflicts have for centuries been the result of the need of peoples to protect their regional water sources or compete to grab lakes, rivers, glaciers or shorelines. As disputes between countries over access to water become more common, the need to secure freshwater resources is fast becoming every nation’s primary objective. The need for military control of water will possibly lead to new geopolitical maps and power structure forms, in its extreme form what the CIA even before the 2003 invasion of Iraq called ‘hydrological warfare’. With water-possession as the guarantor of military and commercial security, water as the ‘commodity’ that determines the wealth and stability of nations, the stage is set for future wars over a resource that will be considered the twenty-first century’s oil.

As the concept of “access to clean water as a human right” gains more recognition globally, and as the inescapable links between water and issues such as dramatic increase in drinking-water prices, economic insecurity, health concerns, agriculture, food production and supply, rising produce prices, education, human migration, and even unemployment, become increasingly evident, the likelihood of instability and unrest intensifies. As the primary source of human survival in Nature - water - as the ‘blue gold’ of tomorrow grows in the global marketplace and as a leading principal in the world economy; likewise, in the arena of the politics of water, with its emerging water-supply superpowers in this new age of hydro-imperialism, water conflict may soon be on a par with those of the 20th century over energy sources.



While the universal legislation for access to clean water as a human right remains largely unenforced, the many sides of the global water crisis must finally be addressed to ensure that in our future, access to water as a common good is a right, not a privilege. Without forethought about the equitable sharing of global water supplies, this vital resource of the Earth that presumably belongs to everyone, will instead come to be considered as the key profitable - and strategically advantageous - property of the next decades.

At the risk of becoming a rare global treasure in the near future, WATER - its possession and control - will place ‘water-appropriators’ of all types, as the new colonialists, in opposition to the universal position such as was affirmed recently by the Vatican, of water as the archetypal and universal “gift from God” belonging to all mankind, that should not be polluted by the profit motive, nor used as a weapon of war.


Nicosia, November 2014

Introductory essay for the ‘Outflow’ presentation at the Kumho Museum of Art, Seoul, Korea