Politics of Rights to Water

By Mangala Subramaniam, Editorial Board member for Gender & Society

Co-editing a special issue of the ‘Dialogues’ section in the 2015 December issue  (3/4) of the journal, Politics, Groups, and Identities (PGI), my co-editor and I discuss issues of environmental justice which includes water. Flint waterStruggle over water wealth throughout history has been central to changes in societal habitats and the quality of ordinary lives. For example, water riots, bombings, and many deaths occurred from 1995-2005 in various conflicts over water in Asia, South America, and Africa.

To make sense of the water crisis, scholars and policy makers have considered the role of the government in promoting privatization directly or indirectly, the economic costs and benefits of promoting efficient systems of managing water use and allocation, and the role of the community that represent race and class differences in negotiating and resisting privatization of water resources that are largely perceived by them (the community) as common property resources (see Current Sociology, Feb 25, 2014). The reliance on bottled water to meet the demand for safe water is not a new phenomenon. This too involves a privatized effort to utilize water in countries where there is limited regulation on accessing and bottling water profitably.

I (and Beth Williford) discuss this issue in a 2012 article in Sociology Compass and note that communities struggle as ground water levels deplete and the contamination of water adversely affects the health of those marginalized. It is also pertinent to note here that water fountains that once served as public sources of drinking water have been slowly disappearing. All these aspects are visible in countries across the world – India, Bolivia, Sierra Leone, Botswana and even the United States.

The recent Flint water crisis draws attention to a major issue: access to clean/safe water. An initial dismissal of the problem by state leaders including assurance of the safety of the water supply misled residents. Later officials advised residents not to drink unfiltered tap water. The crisis began when the source of water supply to Flint was changed from Lake Huron and Detroit River to the Flint river to save money. Among those affected are the more marginalized and particularly the poor. A photographic essay of the people behind the crisis was covered in a National Geographic piece last month, here.

Flint water protest_10.12.15
Flint water protests, October 12 2015

The right to clean water is a demand of people not only in Flint; but of people across the world. The 2010 UN resolution about the Human Right to Water (HRW) has opened new discussions about what this may imply for people around the world. On the one hand, there is promise in the UN resolution as it can hold states accountable but on the other hand it may be hostile to the needs of the marginalized (such as across class and race and even the indigenous). Water justice activists see potential in the HRW approach to provide safe and affordable water to all. Others call for ongoing conversations about the meaning and implementation of the HRW as ‘rights’ talk are viewed as biased towards individuated rights and the possibility of leaving marginalized communities with substandard access.

The HRW has enabled some progress toward a more just agenda for water, particularly given that it offers a policy focus on universal access to safe and affordable water, regardless of ability to pay. It can enable new conversations that take seriously the complex social relations of power that emerge from particular understandings of these rights. Such conversations must consider a range of actors involved in developing solutions to equitable access to clean water which means engaging in dialogues about what the HRW should mean and how it should be realized. These discussions should also include the implications of privatization of water resources in terms of both availability and access.

Mangala Subramaniam, Associate Professor in the department of sociology at Purdue University, focuses on the broad areas of gender (and intersections with caste, race, and class) and social movements. She has recently authored/co-authored articles in journals such as Contemporary Perspectives in Family Research, Current Sociology, and International Sociology.Her research focuses on issues that are at the center of gender politics, development, basic needs (such as water, health, and food), and the state.She has served as Secretary/Treasurer of the American Sociological Association’s Sex & Gender section and is the Treasurer (2016-17) of Sociologists for Women in Society. She also currently serves as Editorial Board member for Gender & Society.


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