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Discussion Guide: Whose Water?

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Welcome to the YES! Discussion Guide Series

YES! Discussion Guides are designed to help you explore your own experiences, opinions, and commitment as they relate to material found in YES! magazine. We especially encourage you to use them in group discussions, classrooms, or study circles. We believe that when people gather to talk with mutual respect and caring about the critical issues of our time, they create a powerful avenue for constructive social change.

You're welcome to download the articles from the website and photocopy them free of charge. If you'd like to purchase multiple copies of YES! or subscriptions for your class or group, please phone 1-800-937-4451 and ask for the Discussion Group Discount.


Water is crucial to the existence of life on this planet. Water's unique physical properties make complex, abundant life possible. Yet with human water use growing twice as fast as population and more and more water being made unusable by pollution or waste, clean fresh water is growing ever scarcer. Many are predicting that water may be to the 21st century what oil was to the 20th. Like oil, water scarcity lies at the heart of many of the world's worst conflicts, and, as they once looked at oil, the world's corporations see water as the next great commodity for their profit. But is there a different path, a way to share water, fostering abundance rather than exploiting scarcity?

This discussion guide centers on the following articles. You might want to discuss a different one at each session.

The battle for water
By 2025, one-third of the world's enormous human population will lack access to clean water and two-thirds will suffer from water shortages, if trends continue. Corporations see this problem as an opportunity—what people need, they will pay for, and they will pay more if it is in short supply. Privatization is also touted as a solution; treat water like any other commodity and the market will take care of getting the product to where it is needed.

But, say Tony Clarke and Maude Barlow, where privatization of water has been tried, mainly in the Third World, it has brought disaster. Water should be treated not as a commodity but as part of our commons, the property of no one, the necessity of all. They outline three principles that lead to solutions to water scarcity and a three-pronged strategy for advancing these principles.

  • How do you experience the fresh water you use in your own life? To what degree does it feel like a commodity? a commons? How do you get water for your daily needs? Have you ever experienced a water shortage? What was the source of the shortage (drought, contamination, plumbing problems, etc.)? See if you can make an estimate of how much water you use in your daily life? Which of your activities or needs use the most water? Where else do you see a lot of water being used? Do you believe the uses are necessary or wasteful?
  • What industries in your community use the most water? What industries cause pollution of the water in your community? • Have you changed your ways of using water in response to shortages or contamination?
  • Has water gotten more or less scarce in your area? What forces do you see influencing the scarcity or abundance of water as you experience it where you live—population growth, climate changes, changes in the makeup of the local economy and the dominant industries.? Are there any programs in your town, county, or state to conserve water? If so, what kind of successes have they had and why?
  • Do you drink the water from your tap? Why or why not?

Tap water takeover
As Clarke and Barlow write, although corporations at first looked to the Third World as a source of profit from water, they now see First World water need as the hottest profit opportunity. The world's largest purveyors of water services are three transnational corporations based in Europe—Suez, Vivendi and RWE—and they are coming soon to a tap near you. These companies are striving to enter the U.S. water market, through acquisitions of smaller companines and through contracts with governments around the country. Carolyn McConnell describes what these global corporate strategies have meant for communities, in particular the community of Montara, California. There, a highly organized though tiny community succeeded in taking its local water utility back as a public good after RWE acquired it by swallowing a smaller water company. Other communities are struggling with the same issue, sometimes striving to reverse or prevent corporate ownership of water utilities, other times fighting against allowing their governments to grant lucrative contracts to corporations to run water utilities.

  • How do you receive water and where does it come from? Who owns the water system you use? Who owns the water
    itself? Who do you believe should own water?
  • What is the history of water service in your area? Are you and your neighbors satisfied with the service and quality?
  • Are any private water corporations attempting to enter your community? What do you see as the dangers or opportunities
    of corporations owning the water system, owning the water itself, or contracting to operate the water system?
  • Has water become a public issue in your community? In what ways? Do you feel you have a voice in how water is managed in your area? What organizations are working on the issue?

Turning scarcity in abundance
Vandana Shiva says she has watched her country become water scarce as a result of the Green Revolution and international policies favoring privatization, even though advocates of these policies proclaim them as the solution to water scarcity. The argument that turning water into a commodity will solve water scarcity is flawed, she argues. There is no substitute for water, and higher prices for water will not promote water conservation, but instead lead to water waste by the rich and lack of water for the poor, she says.

The real solutions to water scarcity are ecological and democratic, Shiva argues, and they come from local traditions that manage water as a common good, many of which are now being revived throughout India.

  • What is it about Green Revolution and World Bank policies that cause rather than solve water scarcity?
  • How do the local traditions for managing water that Shiva describes work to promote water abundance?
  • Are there elements of these traditions that can serve as models for managing water in your community?
  • What traditions in your heritage do you know of that successfully managed water? Have you learned any techniques for conserving water from your family or neighbors?

Bringing back desert springs
The Hopi flourished in their arid environment for hundreds of years. Yet now, the worst drought in 1400 years and the massive pumping of an aquifer under Hopi land are devastating the ecology. Still, Hopi traditions of desert agriculture are keeping crops alive through the drought, while the Hopi, the Navajo, and environmental groups struggle to stop the drawdown of the water under Hopi lands by Peabody Coal.

  • In a bizarre and wasteful cycle, the huge amount of water Peabody pumps from under Hopi lands serves to transport coal to a power station that was built to lift water from the Colorado River to California. Now it also powers the growing populations of southern California, Arizona, and New Mexico. Water also directly generates power from dams in many areas. Does water play a role in creating your power? Is this a good use of water?
  • What role do population growth and sprawl play in water scarcity, including water pollution, in your area?
  • What responsibility for water conservation and water-conscious development do those who live in arid areas have? Should development be limited where water is scarce?
  • What role does water play in your sense of the sacred? What traditions have you participated in that revere water?

 


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