Water: The Warning Coming from South Africa

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By: Franklin Frederick / Source: Jornal GGN / The Dawn News / February 15, 2018

Cape Town, the capital of South Africa, home to over 3.7 million people, could be the first big metropoli of the world to completely run out of water. There are many causes to this extreme situation, including lack of planning and incorrect management of the crisis. But the main cause is a drought that has lasted three years already, caused by global warming. This May 11 will be “Day Zero”: according to the government’s predictions, if it doesn’t rain by that date, the entire water system of the city, except for schools and hospitals, will be suspended. Locals will have to go to water distribution points in order to get water, which is limited to 25 liters per person per day. According to an article published by Time magazine, the announcement of the probable end of water supply is already generating chaos in the city and it is estimated that this crisis will cost South Africa nearly 300,000 jobs in agriculture and dozens of thousand more in the services sector, such as hotels and food. Furthermore, if workers had to dedicate part of their working day to make lines to obtain water, the impact on the economy would be even greater.

But there is a sector of the economy that is profiting immensely from this crisis: the bottled water industry. The shortage is causing a real stampede to the supermarkets of Cape Town, each person trying to buy as many bottles as they can.

Thus, the reality of climate change in the global capitalist world, ends up benefiting the big water companies. The growing scarcity of water contributes to increase its economic value. Even worse: those same companies utilize the increasingly frequent water crises as a means to advance their agendas of privatization and impose their own “solutions” to the problem, presenting themselves as the owners of the “technical knowledge” and “management capability” required to confront the crisis. Under this point of view, the States should hand over the control of this precious natural resource to the “competence” of the private sector. The fact that capitalism, especially in its current neoliberal version, is the main culprit for global warming, is a fact that is mostly overlooked.

Furthermore, within the capitalist logic, we are not allowed to question the “wisdom” of markets, which decide over the utilization of a natural resource, because they are, by definition “rational” in their behavior, as well as the capitalist system as a whole. Individuals may be irrational, the simple consumers who have this system imposed on them in which they have less and less options and control. One of the main strategies of imposition of neoliberalism as a hegemonic paradigm in the contemporary society is the creation of the illusion that we only live for the present moment, without past, without history, and especially without alternatives. Water crises such as the one that Cape Town faces are perfect vehicles to create and impose this neoliberal illusion.

Nobody mentions the fact, for example, that in order to manufacture a 1-liter PET plastic bottle, we use two liters of water, or that the materials used to produce these bottles are derived from oil and that the millions of PET bottles made all over the world significantly contribute to global warming… Or that the trucks used to transport these bottles around the world also consume fuel oil which liberates even more carbon to the atmosphere, which also adds to the climate change…

And they also never mention that in certain places these PET bottles are produced and transported according to a completely insane logic. In Europe, for example, every day dozens of trucks transport San Pellegrino water bottles from Italy to France and other European countries. At the same time, other trucks transport Evian water bottles from France to Italy and other countries, and so on. An absurd allocation of resources that releases enormous quantities of carbon gas to the atmosphere.  If Western Europe took global warming seriously, they would have banned the production and commercialization of water bottles a long time ago, on the grounds that it is superfluous and useless. It would be a simple, feasible measure, that would be accepted and supported by all citizens with at least some conscience. In countries like France, Germany, Switzerland and Italy – to name a few – the water they have from the tap is perfectly safe and is of excellent quality. If this can not be done, we can not expect that other measures to reduce carbon emissions in the atmosphere that are more complicated, requiring profound changes in social organization and economy, may be taken.

The impact of agriculture on both global warming and production and conservation of water is immense. In this case, the market imposes a model based on utilization of products, principally fertilizers, also derived from Petroleum, that progressively destroy soil and its water retention capacity…Without mentioning the indiscriminate use, of which Brazil is the world champion, of pesticides which end up contaminating rivers, lakes and groundwater.

So as the Marxist philosopher István Mészáros, who recently passed away, wrote in ‘Marx’s Theory of Alienation’:

“Another basic contradiction of the capitalist system of control is that it cannot separate ‘advance’ from destruction, nor ‘progress’ from waste.- however catastrophic the results. The more it unlocks the powers of productivity, the more it must unleash the powers of destruction; and the more it extends the volume of production, the more it must bury everything under mountains of suffocating waste. The concept of economy is radically incompatible with the ‘economy’ of capital production which, of necessity, adds insult to injury by first using up with rapacious wastefulness the limited resources of our planet, and then further aggravate the outcome by polluting and poisoning the human environment with its mass-produced waste and effluence.”

Some big cities that may have to confront the lack of water in the near future are Melbourne, Australia, Jakarta, Indonesia, Mexico City and of course São Paulo. A fertile terrain for the advancement of the “solutions” of neoliberal capitalism. These cities then put enormous pressure on their surroundings, especially on rural areas, in the desperate search for water for their consumption. As such the conflicts between the urban and rural areas intensifies, as well as the destruction of nature, since the metropolises have to look for water in regions that are everyday more and more distant, which limits the access of the population in those same areas to this resource and damages entire ecosystems.

It is the threat that hangs, for example, over the region of Circuit of Water in Minas Gerais, perhaps the region with the greatest diversity in the whole world of sources of mineral water. More or less equidistant from the major Brazilian capital cities – São Paulo, Rio de Janeiro and Belo Horizonte, the water from this region is desired by private companies that could gain easy and exorbitant profits selling water to these big thirsty urban centers. Nestlé already is proprietor of the Water Park of the municipality of São Lourenço, and holds the right to explore and commercialize the water from its natural source. The neighboring cities of Caxambu Cambuquira and Lambari – in addition to other smaller municipalities – still preserve their water as a public good. There is a strong local movement against the privatization of water and the struggle there should have the support and respect of all, because it is a region with unique qualities. In the eyes of capitalist exploration, the specificity of each mineral water source, their therapeutic uses, their importance for the local ecosystem, their cultural, historical value etc., disappear, leaving the water just as a “commodity”.

The self-proclaimed “World Water Council” that brings together the big private companies of distribution and sanitation of water, along with the Water Resources Group – the initiative of Nestlé, Coca-Cola and Pepsi- are the powerful international lobbyists open to imposing their agenda of privatizations and “solutions” of the market to the problems related to water. They will be present this March in Brasilia, the capital of Brazil for the “World Water Forum”. The Executive Director of the Forum, Ricardo Andrade, that is also the Management Director of ANA -National Water Agency- gave an interview recently where, drawing from the example of the authorities in Cape Town, which calls the attention on the need to focus on the responsibility of the individual consumers.

However there is not one word in the interview about the responsibility of the private sector in the origin of the diverse problems that we face, nor on the necessity to change the economic system if we want to solve the urgent problems related with water in the world. Just in Brazil, according to a study published in 2016, the conflicts over water increased 150% in five years.

In the whole world these conflicts are increasing and tend to become more and more violent. According to the World Resources Institute, approximately 3.5 billion people will suffer from water shortages in 2025. With the neoliberal capitalism at war against the planet and society, there is nothing to look forward to from this side. On the contrary, this is the biggest problem!

A central worry of the authorities of Cape Town about the current situation is the chaos and possible violent conflicts in the city with the situation of the water reserves deteriorating every day. In this case, a possible measure would be reinforcing police or sending armed forces to contain the population. Nevertheless, measures like this can easily be taken as a way to impose anti-democratic decisions that favor the market and go against the society and the common good. Actually, the chaos provoked by the water crises and other extreme events related to global warming is part of the strategic neoliberal planning to impose their policies. Manipulated by big capital, climate change could be a powerful instrument to take away rights and democratic achievements, destroy the common good and privatize public wealth. This is something we cannot allow.

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