The ravages and riches of the global economic crisis are nowhere more manifest than in struggles over water. While the corporate signals flashing from our televisions hypnotize us with the latest versions of the iPhone and plasma flat screens, the very foundations of what was once assumed to be an “immortal” first world quality of life are evaporating before us.
Water, perhaps our most taken-for-granted substance apart from oxygen (which has also been commodified: see the international carbon market), is one of the latest targets of a global wave of austerity that has extended northward after plaguing the Global South for decades. Ireland and Detroit have emerged as the latest battlefields in this global struggle over water, where the Irish government has imposed new water taxes that will bankrupt working-class families all over the country, while Detroit city officials have shut off water access for thousands of poor residents as of this past summer.
“From water life bloomed. Rivers of water are the blood that nourishes the earth, and of water too are the cells that do our thinking, the tears that do our crying and the recollections that form our memory,” wrote famed Uruguayan writer Eduardo Galeano in Children of the Days: A Calendar of Human History (2013). Across the Global North and South, everyday people are defending their right to water—their right to live.
On July 28, 2010, the United Nations General Assembly passed the historic Resolution 64/92 recognizing the universal human right to water and sanitation, calling upon all states and international bodies to provide financial resources, technology, and infrastructures that would guarantee “sufficient, safe, acceptable and physically accessible and affordable water for personal and domestic uses.” While the U.N. focused especially on fostering this need in “developing countries,” movements are increasingly wielding the notion of water a basic human right, as accessible and affordable, across the global North in this crippling age of austerity.
Earlier this past November, over 100,000 people marched across Ireland against the government’s new water tax, introduced on October 1 of this past year. Prior to the tax, Irish citizens were paying general taxes for their water services, like any other public commodity. As part of the Irish government’s 2010 bailout package with the EU and IMF, the new water charges are set to cost the average Irish household anywhere between 278-400 Euros ($350-500) extra annually. While this may cover the cost of a modest dinner for an EU or IMF official, the charges are no joke for the vast majority of working families that will be devastated by this measure. Much to their dismay, across the island, the working class is fighting back.
Apart from the thousands who have taken to the streets to express their rage against the water charges, protests that have been organized by the Right2Water campaign among other organizations, many everyday Irish are also engaging in militant direct actions to stop the taxes. Among them is Karen Doyle, a 43-year old mother of three from the quiet seaside town of Cobh, Ireland who was arrested for blocking a meter installation for the charges. A member of “Cobh Says No To Water Charges,” Doyle was one of three people arrested, supported by 50 others present for the blockade. Meanwhile, in the northern town of Letterkenny, another mother named Corinna McCalling, who was has four kids and can’t afford the charges, stated that she “will physically stop them…I will never pay for water because I feel we are already paying for it.” On top of already paying for water in general taxation, 56-year old Dette McLoughlin has reported that many residents of Galway prefer to purchase bottled water because of the parasitic cryptosporidium outbreak in the water supply, making the additional water tax a real insult to injury.
There is no question that the organizing and militancy in Ireland is truly inspiring. As Andrew Flood, the National Secretary for the Workers Solidarity Movement, told me, “After six years of austerity, the water charge resistance movement in Ireland is a moment of unprecedented revolt and popular mobilization.” But only time will tell, Flood notes, what it will bring. “Much of the mobilization is semi-spontaneous and organized via social media. This is very new so its hard to know what the longer term implications are beyond being certain that the experience of these mobilizations is giving a very large number of people the tools to organize in the future.”
Meanwhile, in Detroit, Michigan, the ‘Wild West’ of North American capital, the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department terminated water service to more than 15,000 poor and working-class households with late bills this past summer, while ignoring the outstanding bills amounting to $9.5 million by 40 businesses across the city. These shutoffs affect nearly 40% of the city population, and have been condemned by the United Nations as a human rights violation. As the first UN Special Rapporteur on the right to safe drinking water and sanitation Catarina de Albuquerque noted in her visit to Detroit this past October, the water shutoffs are affecting the poorest communities of Detroit, who are mostly African American. Recognizing that the struggle over water is global, groups like the Detroit Water Brigades, a rapid-relief response group providing emergency water to families in need and advocates for affordable payment plans, are coordinating solidarity efforts with Right2Water in Ireland.
Activists and organizers in this transatlantic struggle against the commodification and privatization of water undoubtedly must look towards the Global South with a rich legacy of battling against neoliberal capital’s encroachment of this basic resource. In late 1999, as part of an agreement with the IMF, the Bolivian government sold the city of Cochabamba’s water supply to a private company named Bechtel, which dramatically increased water bills anywhere from 35 to 200%. By early 2000, thousands of Cochabamba residents took over the city’s streets, militantly demanding the revocation of this contract. After a long and bloody fight, Cochabamba officials were forced to withdraw the privatization measure, keeping the water supply in public hands. From EU/IMF imposed water taxes in Ireland, to the shutting-off of water supplies in Detroit, to the privatization of water of Bolivia, these are the markers of neoliberal austerity. And as the people of Cochabamba showed so well, only direct action gets the goods.
Yesenia Barragan is a PhD Candidate in Latin American History at Columbia University. Based out of NJ/NYC, she is the author of Selling Our Death Masks: Cash-for-Gold in the Age of Austerity on Zero Books.