NASA’s ongoing mission to Mars seeks to find signs of life on the red planet. To determine if extraterrestrial life ever existed there, the robotic rovers scour the rocky surface for one essential element: water. Indeed, life and water are inextricably linked.
The most enduring human societies owe their proliferation in large part to the rivers, lakes and other sources of freshwater that cradled their development. Today’s global society is even more dependent on this finite resource. Unlike our addiction to fossil fuels, humanity’s need for fresh water is utterly unavoidable.
Access to water, an element essential to all life, is a basic human right. Intuitively obvious, this fact has also been enshrined in international law committing signatory nations to ensure their citizens access to clean water, “equitably and without discrimination.”
Many have failed in this commitment. One-sixth of humanity lacks access to clean water. A water crisis—largely of human manufacture—plagues the globe with such severity that in 1995 the vice president of the World Bank declared, “If the wars of this century were fought over oil, the wars of the next century will be fought over water.” While no country has yet been “liberated” by the military aggression of another due to the value of its fresh water reserves, political battles over this indispensable resource are already raging — arguably, nowhere more so than in Latin America.
As this NACLA Report details, an intolerably large number of poor Latin Americans are denied their essential right to water. Maude Barlow and Tony Clarke examine the extent and impact of water privatization region-wide, noting the growing political backlash as Latin Americans take the global lead in demanding “water democracy.” María Rosa García-Acevedo and Helen Ingram explore how, as water demand outstrips supply along the U.S.-Mexico border, the interests of the powerful displace concern for equity and conservation. David Barkin emphasizes the historical, political and cultural variables behind the water crisis afflicting Mexico City. He sees some gains from privatization in that Mesoamerican megapolis, though the fundamental problems persist.
Margaret Keck and Rebecca Abers describe an alternative approach to water administration in Brazil, one with a democratic, participatory component. The authors warn, however, that dominant interests whose privileges are at risk may sabotage the model. Finally, Carlos Vilas presents his case study of water privatization in Buenos Aires as a cautionary tale about entrusting public services to profit-seeking private companies.
The Report authors concur that the region’s water crisis is partly the culmination of historical malpractice, and that enduring social disparities are responsible for the highly inequitable patterns of water access in the region. Clearly, better management and a new, sustainable culture of use are needed. Even more vital, however, are the ongoing efforts of Latin Americans who are challenging underlying structural inequalities as well as the values and institutions that commodify the fundamentals of life. These are struggles that ultimately concern us all.