The Last Drop: the politics of water

Mike Gonzalez and Marianella Yanes, The Last Drop: The Politics of Water (Pluto Press 2015), xii, 202pp.

Water is the very essence of life. Many Hollywood films such as the newly released Mad Max: Fury Road are based on a post-apocalyptic, dystopian vision of the future where there is an absence of water. In the film, having water is a sign of conspicuous wealth whilst controlling the water supply is the ultimate source of power. The film is the Hollywood expression of the growing concern over a global crisis in both the quantity and the quality of water. This crisis is given a clear and eloquent analysis in this powerfully argued book. Mike Gonzales and Marianella Yanes use the politics of water to deliver a bitter cautionary tale that lays bare the ‘evidence of how savage capitalism is’ (p.152).

In many ways, this cautionary tale is incredibly timely as we see neoliberalism in crisis and under pressure since the global crash. Neoliberalism has removed the gloves and ‘its true brutal nature is exposed’ (p.152). The fact there is the need to fight back against a case that water is now an ‘economic good’ (p.3), rather than a fundamental human right, shows just how far things have gone. The idea that capitalism sees water scarcity as ‘an opportunity rather than a problem’ (p.6), exposes the black hole where the heart of neoliberalism is supposed to beat.

The World Water Report of 2014 sees the crisis as ‘essentially a crisis of governance’ (p.1). In many ways, this is true. When the Millennium Goals were set, the aim was to achieve a decrease of 50% in the 1.2 billion people on the planet without access to clean drinking water and the 2.6 billion people without access to sanitation. In 2015, these promises remain largely unfulfilled with such devastating consequences as 80% of infant deaths being caused by water borne diseases in the developing world (p.22). This is morally profane in the twenty-first century. It is put down to the fact that no effective market solution has been found to conserve water whilst delivering it effectively and cheaply to the world’s population. However, the key to this book is that it looks beyond this ‘crisis of governance’. It recognises that this view of governance is based on the ‘values on which society and the distribution of wealth and resources is decided’ (p.152). So it is not just the governance but the fundamental values that guide this ‘marauding’ capitalism (p.139) that must be challenged.

Accumulation by dispossession

The underlying issue in the water scarcity crisis lies in the ‘critical ideology shift’ (p.23) that took capitalism in the 1980s into the neoliberal model. This model uses as its advertising gimmick that ‘the drive for profit would impel investment and improve living conditions for all” (p.32). This requires water to be redefined not as a public good but rather as a ‘commodity’, an ‘economic good’ (p.23). For a product to be a commodity, it needs to be the product of human work or material transformed by human hand, but water, like air and nature itself, is part of the global commons. This means that, just as in the first enclosures of common land under early capitalism, water needs to be enclosed and restricted. This is in itself nonsense on stilts as water by its very nature is ‘anarchic’ (p.23) and does not recognise the artificial boundaries on maps created by humankind. This artificial enclosure means that water is now a product that is to be priced, based on its exchange value rather than its use value. This allows for the process David Harvey in A Brief History of Neoliberalism (2007), describes as ‘accumulation by dispossession’ (p.24). The evidence is there before our very eyes in the nine billion bottles of water sold every year in comparison to a non-existent trade in bottled water in the 1970s.

Gonzales and Yanes are at their best here identifying how this artificial commodification of a public good is devastating for water as it is for other aspects of nature. This is down to the fact that ‘capitalism is blind to ecology’ (p.23). Through the transformation of the global commons into commodities, the complex interdependent web of ecology and biodiversity is undermined and irreparably damaged in the name of profit. Whilst neoliberalism’s failures to tackle ecological issues is all too clear in the case of water and of course climate change, it is worth noting that capitalism is also blind to morality. As soon as water becomes a commodity, it will and already does mean that some, indeed many, cannot afford it and will suffer the obvious deadly consequences.


With this critical shift in ideology, the transnational corporations placed pressures on government arguing that public control of water was a monopoly maintained by the taxpayers’ money. At the same time, the corporations could point to massive levels of leakage in the water supply, problems in extending water supplies to those in need, and issues around the quality of water. The neoliberal argument with water, as with other utilities, was that the market would find the solution. Privatisation was the answer to a failing public-sector control that was starved of cash.

The transfer of public water to the private sector could then take place, and this started in Britain in the 1980s under Thatcher. The purchasing companies were given a sweet deal with 25 year contracts, limited regulation and a £1.6 billion pound start up fund each. The result was predictable: total profits of just under £10 billion for the companies and price increases twice the level of inflation (p.29). This model was rolled out across the world with the same, predictable outcomes of huge profits to corporations and inflated prices for water. In Chile, the privatisation of water saw prices rise by 15% the following year whilst corporate profits rose by 197.6% (p.33) showing accumulation by dispossession in action.

The next question is whether privatisation delivered on its promises, such as driving down the cost whilst extending the supply. In fact, the cost of water has risen, with the number of people in water poverty also rising. The given definition for water poverty in the West is anyone who spends more than 3% of their income on water, yet with privatisation ‘it is not uncommon in developing countries for the poor to pay 20-25% of their income for water’ (p.20). Worse, multinationals driven by profit have not extended the water supply to those without access. In fact, as the head of Vivendi explained, water companies would not provide water to the poor without huge government subsidies (p.35). If we take South Africa as an example, the water companies have pulled out of the supply of water to the townships as it is not profitable, and fewer people have access to clean water in 2004 than ten year earlier (p.34).

As the problems with the water infrastructure became clear, the market again revealed its failures. Multinationals were happy to take responsibility for distribution where profits could be made, but were not interested in investing in modernising infrastructure to stop leakages and improve qualities. Gonzales and Yanes use Mexico City as a case in point, where the water supply was privatised in 1980. Today, one third of the water supply leaks into the ground at the rate of 12,000 litres per second whilst 95% of the population suffer from gastro-intestinal disorders (p.34). The river Lerma, from where the water was taken originally, is now dry, and the supply now comes from Lake Chapala, depriving the indigenous population of the Mazahua of their water.

Gonzales and Yanes are right also to point out that privatisation is part of the wider neoliberal project to create an ‘erosion of democracy’ (p.148). This has been seen with the imposition of technocratic governments within the EU, the removal of schools from democratic control under the Free Schools and Academies projects in the UK, andthe massive power of the neoliberal attack dogs of the IMF and the World Bank. Privatisation removes water from local, democratic control and national government control and for most countries places the control in the hands of foreign capital.

Agriculture and industry

Only 10% of the world’s consumption of water comes from the individual, domestic usage. Of the remaining 90% of consumption, 25% is consumed by industry and 60% is consumed by agriculture. Gonazales and Yanes explore these two areas to show how they exacerbate the water crisis.

In agriculture, the first green revolution, based on high yielding crops, has had devastating consequences. These crops are less high yield, and more ‘high response’ (p.77) in that they need incredibly high levels of fertilisers, pesticides and water. The authors identify three consequences of this revolution.

The first is that increasing amounts of water have to be diverted to irrigation with ten times the amount of water needed for green revolution crops over non-green revolution crops. Secondly, the high level of pesticide use means that these pesticides, which are in effect poisons, are entering the freshwater supply. The consequences for local biodiversity are massive, with areas like the Gulf of Mexico effectively becoming dead zones, where fish stocks are disappearing along with the Louisiana fishing industry as the Mississippi disgorges fertilisers and pesticides (p.78). The consequences for humankind are equally devastating with the WHO reporting on the rise of ‘cancer, birth defects and nervous system damage’ along with 2.5m deaths from water related diseases (p.79). Much of these effects hit the poorest communities in the developing world and go widely unreported by the western media.

Thirdly, the impact on local communities is massive in that many of the high yielding crops are cash crops for export. This sees the replacement of small, local farmers rotating crops and growing for local needs and local environmental conditions, with an agricultural industry which is based on a ‘monolithic, monoculture geared to global markets’ (p.80). This creates malnutrition and famine locally whilst flowers and vegetables are exported to the west. The real message here is that pollution and environmental destruction is exported to the developing world whilst the water rich West imports the cash crops and therefore the precious water as well in the name of profit. The blindness to ecology and morality is clear.

The damage to the ecosystem and water cycle created by industry is perhaps more widely understood, but is very clearly explained and illustrated by the authors. The covers the ravages to local communities, the environment and to the water supply created by the dam building projects of the second half of the twentieth century. The West exports the most environmentally damaging industries to the developing world. In particular, big oil and mining are the worst offenders and the lack of regulation means “70% of industrial waste is dumped into waterways and aquifers, contaminating the usable water supply” (pg84).

The authors provide many illustrative examples but perhaps the case of Peru is the clearest. The open veins of the country are exploited by multinational mining companies with mining worth $176 billion in 2007 whilst 62% of the indigenous population, whose land has been enclosed, live in poverty (p.88). The local populace mines the land for low wages, in terrible conditions whilst effluents pollute the streams and waterways on which their communities survive. The market allows the multinationals to accumulate whilst local communities are dispossessed of their wealth, their land, their rights and their future.

Enough is enough

The authors, having laid bare the workings of this savage neoliberalism highlight the fact that it has already ready led to mass resistance. Perhaps the most illustrative example here is the Cochabamba water wars, which have helped place water ‘on the agenda of a rising movement of anti-globalisation activists’ (p.121). These movements are critical and continue to fight ‘the depredations of neoliberalism and forge new instruments of democratic control of public goods and services’ (p.160). Gonzales and Yanes offer the reader a blueprint from which a new world water order can be formed, with at its heart the principle that ‘water is the basis of life, a common resource that belongs to all living beings as a right’ (p.160).

However the real strength of this book to me is clear in that just returning water to democratic, public control will not be enough. The authors are clear that the future has to lie in overturning capitalism as it is ‘the enemy of social justice, of democracy, and the scourge of the planet’ (p.170). The struggle against neoliberalism, and for the environment and humanity, will ‘build the new democratic structures on which a new world order can be founded’ (p.170).

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On Sept 19, 2023 ahead of the Climate Ambition Summit in New York City, climate activists gathered for a rally and civil disobedience outside Bank of America Tower in Midtown Manhattan as part of the March to End Fossil Fuels wave of actions resulting in multiple arrests. Activists demand Bank of America to “Defund Climate Chaos and Defend Human Rights” Photo: Erik McGregor (CC BY-NC 2.0 Deed)

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