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The Fight for Water is a Fight for a New Society

Ignoring clear evidence that the crisis is continuing, Governor Rick Snyder announced on April 6, 2018, that Michigan would close the four remaining centers where Flint residents had been picking up life-sustaining bottled water. Because of the poisoning of Flint’s water supply, the only way that Flint residents have been able to ensure their health and safety – and even their lives – has been to use bottled water.

Just days earlier – on April 2 – the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality approved a controversial permit for Nestlé Water North America. The permit allows Nestlé to increase the amount of water it withdraws from the state’s groundwater table, for its Ice Mountain brand of bottled water, from 250 gallons a minute to 400 gallons a minute. Nestlé pays only $200 a year to the state of Michigan to pump more than 130 million gallons of water each year.

The class contrast could not be more stark. The Michigan Department of Environmental Quality issued a finding that the water in the working-class city of Flint was safe with a filter – a contradiction in terms. The MDEQ allowed Nestlé, a global food conglomerate, to profit, despite the potential damage to Michigan’s lakes, rivers and streams.

This disparity between who gets water and who doesn’t is particularly sharp in Michigan. Flint residents are charged some of the highest water rates in the country. Many residents there have had their water shut off because they refuse to pay for water they cannot use. In Detroit, thousands of people have had their water cut off, because of inability to pay. However, while the fight for water is especially intense in Michigan, it is raging throughout the United States. For instance, people in Martin County, Kentucky, frequently wake up without any water at all, or with extremely low pressure, or boiled-water advisories. Many residents drink and cook with bottled water, because of concerns about the safety of their tap water.

There’s a cruel irony in the fact that Flint and Martin County, Kentucky are experiencing similar crises. Flint was the scene of the iconic Great Sit-Down Strike of auto workers in the 1930s. Martin County was the place where President Lyndon Johnson announced his “War on Poverty” in the mid-1960s – from a local resident’s front porch. Today Martin County, Kentucky is still one of the poorest counties in America. The bitter experience of these two historic places should serve as a wake-up call to everyone involved in the fight for safe, clean water. Our goal cannot be to go back in time to Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal or Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society. Today’s fight for safe, clean water is being fought out under very different conditions than the battles of the 1930s and 1960s.

The world has changed profoundly since the Flint sit-down strike, Johnson’s War on Poverty, and even since the Clean Water Act was passed in 1972, or the Safe Drinking Water Act, which became law in 1974. In the years since, we have seen qualitative changes in the economy. The introduction of electronics into production has led to the destruction of the old factory system – the system personified by Flint in its heyday – with dramatic results. At the height of the industrial era, the government was willing to grant limited reforms – including some health and safety laws and environmental legislation – in order to guarantee social peace. Today, the government is working in collusion with corporate interests to privatize public resources. We are seeing the merger of the State apparatus with the corporations.

All over the country corporate interests are driving the systematic effort now underway to privatize water, seize water resources, and deprive people access to safe, clean water. In 1977, the federal government spent $76.27 per person (in 2014 dollars) on water services. By the year 2014, that support had fallen to $13.68 per person. Today, we see increased poisoning, fracking, commercializing, and privatizing of the life-sustaining substance – water – by giant corporations.

Take the Veolia corporation, for example. Veolia Water North America is the largest private operator of municipal water systems and sewer systems in the United States, serving an estimated 10.5 million people in 32 states. Veolia Water North America is a fully owned subsidiary of Veolia Environment, part of a French-based multi-national. Founded in the nineteenth century during the reign of Napoleon III,  the corporation is the largest privatizer of water in the world.

Corporations like Veolia seek to profit off managing local systems that provide drinking water and sewage services. Wall Street investors work with these water privatizers to take advantage of cash-strapped local governments and entice them into selling or leasing off their water assets. This is happening at a time when many water systems are advancing in age, with some more than 100 years old. The advocates of water privatization love to promise savings to the public after a public water system is privatized, but the reality is very different. Privately delivered water costs 59 percent more than publicly delivered water. These hikes benefit the bondholders of the private corporation, often major corporate entities themselves, such as J.P. Morgan Chase and Wells Fargo. For the water privatizers, paying the bondholders is the top priority, and the need to pay them drives the process of cuts in services and safety.

All this has led to a truly massive water crisis in the United States. Lower income communities in both urban and rural areas are suffering disproportionately from unsafe and unaffordable water service. Access to affordable drinking water is becoming more problematic, and as many as 36 percent of U.S. households may be unable to afford water within five years, according to a 2017 study by Michigan State University scholar Elizabeth Mack.

An important element of the current water crisis is the political struggle over water safety and privatization. We are seeing systematic efforts to use the government as an instrument on behalf of the corporations in their campaign for water privatization.

For instance, the National Association of Water Companies (NAWC), which represents the U.S. private water industry, intensively and perennially lobbies the U.S. Congress and the Environmental Protection Agency to refrain from adopting higher water quality standards. The NAWC also persistently requests that all federal regulations be based on sound cost-benefit analysis, which means that public health is compromised for the sake of higher profits.

While corporations move to profit from water, the government is utterly failing to protect this vital resource. The Safe Drinking Water Act (SDWA) is the federal law that protects public drinking water supplies throughout the nation. Under the SDWA, the EPA sets standards for drinking water quality and is supposed to implement programs to ensure drinking water safety. The New York Times ran an article in in 2009 with the headline, “Clean Water Laws Are Neglected, at a Cost in Suffering.” The situation has only gotten worse since then. In reality, the EPA regulations are lax, are not being enforced, and have not been updated for years. Under the current administration, some may soon be revoked.

As the corporations, bondholders, and financiers are moving to seize once-public resources, they are assisted by a capitalist State apparatus, whose purpose is to promote and enforce the interests of the corporations at the expense of the public. The unfolding struggle for universal access to clean, safe water is placing a basic question before society: Who rules – the corporations or the public?

In July 2010, the United Nations General Assembly passed Resolution 64/292, declaring that access to clean water and sanitation is an essential human right. Today, defending this fundamental principle means challenging the corporations and bondholders, who are determined to take away the right to water and to compromise people’s health and environmental safety. To uphold the idea of water as a human right, we have to fight for universal access to clean, safe water – regardless of ability to pay. We all have to speak out against anti-democratic measures – like the emergency manager laws in Michigan and similar measures in other states and in Puerto Rico – laws that paved the way for privatization. Fighting for the recognition of water as a human right means fighting for the public ownership of water and other natural resources. It means fighting for the nationalization of water in the interests of the public.

This is a battle against an immoral system based on private ownership of the natural resources that are essential to life itself. The systematic campaign to privatize water systems and destroy environmental standards is not solely the work of cruel zealots fanatically devoted to the free market. We are not just fighting bad individuals. We are fighting a bad system.  This fight is inevitably a fight to abolish private property and create a cooperative society based on the distribution according to need.

Today, the fight for water is a fight for a new society.

July/August 2018 Vol28.Ed4
This article originated in Rally, Comrades!
P.O. Box 477113 Chicago, IL 60647 rally@lrna.org
Free to reproduce unless otherwise marked.
Please include this message with any reproduction.


Photo of Protest

30,000 March in Support of
Chicago Teachers Union Strike
Photo by Ryan L Williams
used with permission

The age-old vision of a world without scarcity, without exploitation, class domination, organized violence, and stultifying labor has been the dream of millenia. The new completely socialized labor-eliminating means of production ... sets the basis for its realization. Now human history can begin, the light of the individual shining in the full brightness of liberated life, that can only be realized within true equality and cooperation: communism, a cooperative society.

'Without Vision, the People Perish'
Rally, Comrades ! May/June 2011

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