Water Policy and Socialism—Imagining the Possibilities

by James Jordan, from a September 26, 2015 presentation at the Salt of The Earth Labor College in Tucson, Arizona

El agua es nuestraMichael Parenti has said that Capitalism takes living nature, transforms it into commodities and transforms commodities into dead capital. It takes life, soil, mineral, air and water, everything Mother Earth has to offer and transforms it from the living into the dead. It is the economics of zombiism, the world of the living dead, with no purpose greater than to consume and to consume until what we know of a vibrant world has been emptied of its vitality. If you look into the eyes of the capitalist zombie you’ll find nothing, just an unquenchable hunger where a soul used to be.

Socialism at its best must be about recognizing and honoring life in all its forms. It is not a static state, but an ongoing process informed by the will and effort of the collective human mind and body. It is a way humans organize themselves in relation to the greater whole of nature. Certainly socialism is full of its own history of ecological mistakes, some quite grave. However, because it is a dynamic process whose end result is aimed at the care of humanity and nature, it carries within itself its own seeds for the emergence of a mindful ecology. Socialism is reformable. Capitalism is not. Capitalism exalts the individual human over and above the very communities and ecosystems s/he emerges from and is tied to. Propelled and motivated by greed, it creates an artificial dichotomy that leads to its own destruction. Quite truly, if we want to save our planet, we must get rid of capitalism.

Water is the medium of all life on Earth. It makes up most our bodies and most our world. And that medium is in bad trouble. Since 1970, freshwater biodiversity has declined by 55% and by 33% in the oceans. Writing for the journal Science in 2006, an international research team reported that by 2050, the oceans will be depleted of fish. According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, July, 2014 world ocean temperatures were the hottest ever measured. Over all, 2014 was the hottest year on record and one year later, that record is about to fall to the heat of 2015.

Climate change, or rather, climate injustice is drying up our rivers and lakes and leading to the acidification of the oceans beyond the ability to sustain life. Pollution is killing our streams and groundwaters. This is a direct result of the unbridled rapaciousness of a political and economic system that thrives on war and plunder as preferable to integrated systems that put the health of land, water and people over the enrichment of the few.

It is more necessary than ever that socialists develop an overtly ecological consciousness, that our theories and practices be rooted every bit as firmly in our consciousnesses as children of the earth as in our identifications as workers and farmers and students. I hope that whatever brand of socialism we may use to describe ourselves, that it will be ecologically oriented.

Today we are seeing important new ideas and practices being developed in the socialist world, especially in Latin America. Of course, I am most aware of American socialism, North and South. So forgive me if I miss examples from other parts of the world. Some of the most seminal writings regarding socialism and nature can be found in the works of the Peruvian Marxist writer José Carlos Mariátegui, who fused Marxist ideas with indigenous experience. I also want to note that today Latin American ecological struggle is among the most intense on the planet. Global Witness reports that last year over 75% of murdered environmental defenders were killed in Latin America. But they counted no such murders in the leftist nations of Cuba, Venezuela, Bolivia or Nicaragua, and only one in Ecuador, and it is not certain if his murder was due to his environmental activities. So at the start, we see that those nations moving toward socialism, as compared with those firmly committed to capitalism, are much safer places to live if one is going to be an environmentalist!

Let’s consider a couple of things that I think show us graphically how Capitalism puts big profits above every consideration, human or ecological, when it comes to the commodification of water. Did you know, for instance, that during this time of extreme drought in California, 80% of water consumption is for agriculture? And where are most the crops grown but the state’s Central Valley, a place uniquely unsuited for such a scale of cultivation? These agribusinesses are utterly dependent on massive irrigation and the deployment of petrochemical fertilizers and pesticides. However, while Gov. Jerry Brown felt compelled to force urban water agencies to reduce use by 25%, there were no such requirements for the mega-farms. Under global capitalism aka neoliberalism, we have this absurd situation where the average vegetable makes a 3,000 mile journey to wind up on your dinner plate. That’s what happens when our water dependent food production is subject to the machinations of neoliberalism: big agribusinesses concentrate mega-production in unsuited land and make it more unsuited by the massive use of petrochemicals and practices that deplete the soil, coupled with distribution systems that are so insufficient they regularly turn tomatoes into world travelers, and in the process, release untold conaminants and carbon emissions into the atmosphere.

I see the same thing here in Arizona. When I was a boy in Alabama, cotton fields were everywhere; today not so much. Where I come from in DeKalb County, the family cotton farm has largely been replaced by big company owned chicken productions. Where is the cotton? A lot of it is out here in Arizona, out here in the desert. Cotton is one of the most water intensive crops in the world, needing six times more water than lettuce and 60% more than wheat. So, as you can see, from an ecological and human community perspective, water policy under capitalism really makes absolutely zero sense. Seriously, what is the logic of moving cotton production from freshwater rich regions like Alabama into the heart of the Sonoran Desert?

Water policy under capitalism always puts big corporate and agribusiness profits over communities–especially if they are communities of color or poor or working class. There is a reason that TCE (trichloroethylene) contamination by Hughes, now Raytheon, of Tucson’s water is a problem for Latino and working class neighborhoods but not for the foothills. The better off, Whiter communities are spared such indignities. And if we travel a couple of hours north and east, we can see senseless water policy and, yes, environmental racism in operation with the proposed Rio Tinto mega-copper mine at Oak Flats. Not only is that area sacred to the White Mountain Apache–it is the very bottom point of the area’s watershed.

A couple of hours in the other direction, into the Mexican state of Sonora, we encounter the Cananea mine, where union workers have been locked out for several years, and where the company, Southern Copper, a Grupo Mexico subsidiary with offices in Phoenix, has caused the largest environmental disaster in Mexican history, spilling 10.5 million gallons of sulfuric acid into the Rio Sonora. A few hours beyond we find ourselves in Hermosillo where water is being literally stolen from the Rio Yaqui in order to supply an industrial zone resulting from the North American Free Trade Agreement.

When I travel in Colombia and Peru, I see how big corporations are poisoning and robbing water resources. I’ve visited an indigenous village in Tolima, Colombia where they had no electric power other than from a generator, even though a big hydroelectric dam had been built right next to them. The energy that plant produces is being exported for sale elsewhere. In Peru, I’ve visited the Cajamarca River that has been poisoned and practically dried up because of the activities of the Denver based Newmont Corporation’s Yanacocha mine. Now Newmont wants to expand the mine even more to build the Conga mega-copper mine, a project opposed by some 80% of the local population.

But, you might say, in many ways the water system we have here in the United States, the heart of global capitalism, is the envy of the world. I know when I travel, I miss the hot showers, well-functioning toilets and the general potability that comes with life here in the USA. But we must understand that the system we do have is rooted in popular demand and built as a result of public works and publicly developed infrastructure. That system is also currently threatened by rapid privatization. I include as privatization the fact that so many of us are buying our drinking water from corporations, in plastic bottles—and it takes up to eight gallons of water to produce each of those bottles. It is incumbent on us to defend our public water works and to demand the safest, purest quality of water possible. We also must be mindful that the privileges we enjoy as US-ers are based on inequality and the US Empire’s theft of resources abroad. We commandeer the water resources of other countries largely for industrial and extractive purposes, and we leave those resources severely compromised. Even in our own country, not all is equal. In June, at the US Social Forum, I listened to a young woman from the Navajo nation talk about people there living without access to running water.

Is policy under socialism different? I am not going to try to give a comprehensive answer but will reiterate that socialism, rather than orienting toward the formula of nature/commodity/dead capital, is ideally oriented toward sustainable integration of human society within its natural setting. Socialism has committed serious errors in regards to water policies, especially during periods of rapid industrialization. (It must be recognized that this has occurred within contexts of lifting millions out of devastating poverty and, in the case of the Soviet Union, was necessary in order to be able to fight the threat posited by the rise of fascism in Europe.) Even so, waste and contamination of water is not intrinsic to socialism. As socialism evolves and the commodification of water is rejected, that water is in turn recognized as essential to our lives, and access to it is regarded as a right not only for humans, but for all integrants of our ecosystems.

Latin American nations that are moving toward socialism are starting from points of disadvantage. All have started out with high levels of poverty. They are, especially Cuba and Bolivia, among the hardest hit by global warming. With Cuba, there has been the added obstacle of the US blockade which impacts such infrastructure development as the building of treatment facilities.

One thing that almost always happens when a nation starts to move toward socialism in part or in whole, is that certain basic needs are attended to in a hitherto unprecedented way. In virtually every instance, movement toward socialism results in access for millions of persons to education, health care and housing. It is the same with water policies.

In Cuba, before the 1959 revolution, 85% of the people had no inside running water and over half the population had no toilets of any kind. Today, 91% of Cubans have access to an improved water source (95% of the urban population, 78% of the rural). Access to adequate sanitation is at a rate of 98% (99% for the urban population, 95% for the rural). Cuba is second among all Latin American countries for its access to adequate sanitation, after Uruguay. Access to the supply of improved water is now on par with other countries in the region. Nevertheless, much of the population still has to contend with regular water shortages and tap water is not generally regarded as safe for drinking. In April, I visited with members of Cuba’s Ministry for Science, Technology and the Environment. They made clear that the provision of safe drinking water and the over all improvement of the water infrastructure is a top priority. They emphasized the desire to build much needed water treatment facilities. They also noted that among the environmental threats they are dealing with are the ongoing effects of the British Petroleum oil spill off the coast of Louisiana. The US may blockade useful resources from reaching Cuba but is all too willing to share its ecological threats.

In Venezuela, the democratization of water policy was one of the first campaigns undertaken by the new Bolivarian government after the election of President Hugo Chavez. The government encouraged the formation of Water Community Boards, grassroots organizations that would manage water-related concerns within their neighborhoods. As of 2015, some 3000 WCBs have been established in communities previously excluded from adequate water infrastructure, especially in shanty towns and rural areas, benefiting more than 4 million people. Today, Venezuelan access to clean drinking water is at 95% in urban areas and 79% in the country. Sanitation services had increased from 62% in 1999 to 82% in 2008.

The situation has been extremely difficult in Bolivia because of the devastating poverty it is emerging from and because of the effects of climate change. In fact, the country’s entire water policy is currently undergoing review. But Bolivia has an active and militant history regarding water related issues and it was on the backs of the water wars of 2003 and 2006 against privatization by Bechtel, that Evo Morales came to power as a candidate for the Movement Toward Socialism.

Bolivia achieved 88% coverage overall for safe drinking water in 2010 and met its Millennium Development Goal regarding safe drinking water access three years ahead of time. But it still has sanitation facilities that are rated the worst in the hemisphere after Haiti, and the aging infrastructure results in massive loss of water resources.

What would water policy under socialism in the United States look like? I ask that we just take a moment to imagine a water policy that is run via participatory democracy, free of being beholden to big corporations. Imagine if we had policies developed around saving threatened rivers rather than drying them up to feed big agribusinesses and the military-industrial complex. Imagine how water policy would be affected if we got most our food from regional farms, grown sustainably, and engaged in trade between equally sustainable farms in other regions.

Capitalist water policy is all about turning water into money, that’s all. Under socialism, the possibilities are based on what we can envision for the good of humanity and the Earth. And that’s a lot.