Water as a Commons: Only Fundamental Change Can Save Us

By 
Maude Barlow

Half the tropical forests in the world – the lungs of our ecosystems – are gone; by 2030, at the current rate of harvest, only 10 percent will be left standing. Ninety percent of the big fish in the sea are gone, victim to wanton predatory fishing practices. Says a prominent scientist studying their demise, “There is no blue frontier left.” Half the world’s wetlands – the kidneys of our ecosystems – were destroyed in the 20th century. According to a Smithsonian scientist, we are headed toward a “biodiversity deficit” in which species and ecosystems will be destroyed at a rate faster than Nature can create new ones.

We are polluting our lakes, rivers and streams to death. Every day, 2 million tons of sewage and industrial and agricultural waste are discharged into the world’s water, the equivalent of the weight of the entire human population of more than 7 billion people. The amount of wastewater produced annually is about six times more water than exists in all the rivers of the world. A comprehensive new global study recently reported that 80 percent of the world’s rivers are now in peril, affecting 5 billion people on the planet.1 We are also mining our groundwater far faster than nature can replenish it, sucking it up to grow water-guzzling chemical-fed crops in deserts or to water thirsty cities that dump an astounding 200 trillion gallons of land-based water as waste in the oceans every year. The global mining industry sucks up another 200 trillion gallons, which it leaves behind as poison.2 Fully one third of global water withdrawals are now used to produce biofuels, enough water to feed the world. A recent global survey of groundwater found that the rate of depletion more than doubled in the last half century. If water was drained as rapidly from the Great Lakes, they would be bone dry in 80 years. Dirty water is the biggest killer of children; every day more children die of water-borne disease than HIV/AIDS, malaria and war together. In the global South, dirty water kills a child every three and a half seconds.

Knowing there will not be enough food and water for all in the near future, wealthy countries and global investment, pension and hedge funds are buying up land3 and water, fields and forests in the global South, creating a new wave of invasive colonialism that will have huge geopolitical ramifications. Rich investors have already bought up an amount of land double the size of the United Kingdom in Africa alone.

The global water crisis is the greatest ecological and human threat humanity has ever faced.

We simply cannot continue on the present path

Quite simply we cannot continue on the path that brought us here. Einstein said that problems cannot be solved by the same level of thinking that created them. While mouthing platitudes about caring for the earth, most of our governments are deepening the crisis with new plans for expanded resource exploitation, unreg­ulated free trade deals, more invasive investment, the privatization of absolutely everything and unlimited growth, which assumes unlimited resources. This is the genesis of the crisis. Quite simply, to feed the increasing demands of our consumer-based system, humans have seen nature as a great resource for our personal convenience and profit, not as a living ecosystem from which all life springs. So we have built our economic and development policies based on a human-centric model and assumed either that nature would never fail to provide or that, where it does fail, technology will save the day.

Two problems that hinder the environmental movement

From the perspective of the environmental movement, I see two problems that hinder us in our work to stop this carnage. The first is that most environmental groups either have bought into the dominant model of development or feel incapable of changing it. The main form of environmental protection is work to minimize the damages. The second problem with our movement is one of silos. For too long environmentalists have toiled in isolation from those communities and groups working for human and social justice and for fundamental change to the system.

The clearest example I have is in the area I know best, the freshwater crisis. It is finally becoming clear to even the most intransigent silo separatists that the ecological and human water crises are intricately linked, and that to deal effectively with either means dealing with both. The notion that inequitable access can be dealt with by finding more money to pump more groundwater is based on a misunderstanding that assumes unlimited supply, when in fact humans everywhere are overpumping groundwater supplies. Similarly, the hope that communities will cooperate in the restoration of their water systems when they are desperately poor and have no way of conserving or cleaning the limited sources they use is a cruel fantasy. The ecological health of the planet is intricately tied to the need for a just system of water distribution.

The global water justice movement is, I believe, successfully incorporating concerns about the growing ecological water crisis with the promotion of just economic, food and trade policies to ensure water for all.... We developed a set of guiding principles and a vision for an alternative future that are universally accepted in our movement and have served us well in times of stress. We are also deeply critical of the trade and development policies of the World Trade Organization, the World Bank and the World Water Council (whom I call the “Lords of Water”), and we openly challenge their model and authority.

Similarly, a fresh and exciting new movement exploded onto the scene in Copenhagen and set all the traditional players on their heads. The climate justice movement, whose motto is “Change the System, Not the Climate,” arrived to challenge not only the stalemate of the government negotiators but the stale state of too-cozy alliances between major environmental groups, international institutions and big business – the traditional “players” on the climate scene....

How the commons fits in

I deeply believe it is time for us to extend these powerful new movements, which fuse the analysis and hard work of the environmental community with the vision and commitment of the justice community, into a whole new form of governance...that will allow us and the Earth to survive.... At the center of this new paradigm is the need to protect natural ecosystems and to ensure the equitable and just sharing of their bounty. It also means the recovery of an old concept called the commons.

The commons is based on the notion that just by being members of the human family, we all have rights to certain common heritages, be they the atmosphere and oceans, freshwater and genetic diversity, or culture, language and wisdom. In most traditional societies, it was assumed that what belonged to one belonged to all. Many indigenous societies to this day cannot conceive of denying a person or a family basic access to food, air, land, water and livelihood. Many modern societies extend the same concept of universal access to the notion of a social Commons, creating education, health care and social security for all members of the community. Since adopting the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948, governments are obliged to protect the human rights, cultural diversity and food security of their citizens....

Also to be recovered and expanded is the notion of the public trust doctrine, a longstanding legal principle which holds that certain natural resources, particularly air, water and the oceans, are central to our very existence and therefore must be protected for the common good; they must not be allowed to be appropriated for private gain. Under the public trust doctrine, governments exercise their fiduciary responsibilities to sustain the essence of these resources for the long-term use and enjoyment of the entire populace, not just the privileged who can buy inequitable access.

The public trust doctrine was first codified in 529 A.D. by Emperor Justinian, who declared: “By the laws of nature, these things are common to all mankind: the air, running water, the sea and consequently the shores of the sea.” US courts have referred to the public trust doctrine as a “high, solemn and perpetual duty,” and held that the states hold title to the lands under navigable waters “in trust for the people of the State.” In 2010, the US state of Vermont used the public trust doctrine to protect its groundwater from rampant exploitation, declaring that no one owns this resource but rather, it belongs to the people of Vermont and future generations. The new law also places a priority for this water in times of shortages: water for daily human use, sustainable food production and ecosystem protection takes precedence over water for industrial and commercial use. An exciting new network of Canadian, American and First Nations communities around the Great Lakes is determined to have these lakes name a commons, a public trust and a protected bioregion....

Inspiring successes around the globe

Another crucial tenet of the new paradigm is the need to put the natural world back into the center of our existence. If we listen, nature will teach us how to live. Again, using the issue I know best, we know exactly what to do to create a secure water future: protection and restoration of watersheds; conservation; source protection; rainwater and stormwater harvesting; local, sustainable food production; and meaningful laws to halt pollution. Martin Luther King, Jr. said legislation may not change the heart but it will restrain the heartless.

Life and livelihoods have been returned to communities in Rajasthan, India, through a system of rainwater harvesting that has made desertified land bloom and rivers run again thanks to the collective action of villagers. The city of Salisbury, South Australia, has become an international wonder for greening desertified land in the wake of historic low flows of the Murray River. It captures every drop of rain that falls from the sky and collects storm and wastewater and funnels it all through a series of wetlands, which clean it, to underground natural aquifers, which store it, until it is needed.

The natural world also needs its own legal framework,4 what South African environmental lawyer Cullinan calls “wild law.” The quest is a body of law that recognizes the inherent rights of the environment, other species and water itself, outside of their usefulness to humans. A wild law requires a change in the human relationship with the natural world from one of exploitation to one of democracy with other beings.... In a world governed by wild law, the destructive, human-centered exploitation of the natural world would be unlawful. Humans would be prohibited from deliberately destroying functioning ecosystems or driving other species to extinction.

This kind of legal framework is already being established. The Indian Supreme Court has ruled that protection of natural lakes and ponds is akin to honoring the right to life – the most fundamental right of all according to the Court. Wild law was the inspiration behind an ordinance in Tamaqua Borough, Pennsylvania, which recognized natural ecosystems and natural communities within the borough as “legal persons” for the purposes of stopping the dumping of sewage sludge on wild land....

What can we do right now?

Every now and then in history, the human race takes a collective step forward in its evolution. Such a time is upon us now as we begin to understand the urgent need to protect the earth and its ecosystems from which all life comes.

Anything that helps bridge the solitudes and silos is pure gold. Bringing together environmentalists and justice activists to understand one another’s work and perspective is crucial. Both sides have to dream into being – together – the world they know is possible and not settle for small improvements to the one we have. This means working for a whole different economic, trade and development model even while fighting the abuses existing in the current one. Given a choice between funding an environmental organization that basically supports the status quo with minor changes and one that promotes a justice agenda as well, I would argue for the latter....

I want to leave you with these words from Lord of the Rings. This is Gandalf speaking the night before he faces a terrible force that threatens all living beings. His words are for you: “The rule of no realm is mine, but all worthy things that are in peril, as the world now stands, those are my care. And for my part, I shall not wholly fail in my task if anything passes through this night that can still grow fair, or bear fruit, and flower again in the days to come. For I too am a steward, did you not know?” – J.R.R. Tolkien

  • 1. C.J. Vörösmarty et al. 2010. “Global Threats to Human Water Security and River Biodiversity,” 467 Nature (September 30, 2010), pp. 555-561, available at http://www.nature.com/nature/journal/v467/n7315/full/nature09440.html
  • 2. César Padilla reports on the mining industry’s abuse of the environment in Latin America.
  • 3. See Liz Alden Wily’s essay in Part 1.
  • 4. See also the essay by David Bollier and Burns Weston.