Friday, 6 September 2013

Privatisation, financialisation and neoliberalisation of water

Following on from my discussions with Sarah Hendry in Dundee, I’ve been exploring the idea of privatisation of water resources, and how this is playing out in the UK and around the world.

In London, I met with Dr Kate Bayliss, who has worked extensively on the issues surrounding the privatisation of water utilities, particularly in sub-Saharan African countries. Water has a dual nature: it is a human right, whilst also often being a commercial input, for the production of crops as well as industrial uses. Kate’s work highlights the challenge of retaining a focus on social justice and equity, when water utilities are privatised and operate under commercial principles. She has also recently engaged with the issue of financialization of water, when water utilities and water services are treated as financial products. She told me about a new trend in financial markets: water-related exchange traded funds. Water is an essential service, and exists in a highly specific local context – but these new financial instruments extend the process of commodification into financialization, further separating water from its context.

I went on to met with Dr Jessica Budds of the University of East Anglia. Jessica has been a critic of Chile’s water markets for many years, and one of her most recent papers examines the political ecology of water, and in particular, the relationship of water to power structures in Chile. Her historical analysis of the privatisation and creation of water markets in Chile demonstrates the link between not only the ideology of the powerful, but the way in which the privatisation of water strengthened their position. She also introduced me to the concept of the neoliberalization of nature. The tools that we use to manage our natural environment shape the discourse that we use to describe and engage with it – so the commodification of water can extend the neoliberal ideology to our relationship with nature. 

Jessica gave me a lot of new ideas to get my head around, and a new perspective from which to engage with the way that environmental water management in the context of a water market is changing the way that we perceive of and engage with the natural environment. Of course, political ecology always asks us 'what is the natural environment?', so I'm trying to disentangle the layers around that concept. In many ways, it's not really possible to separate the environment from humanity, as we define the environment as a social construct, as well as physically shaping it through our actions (even where and when we lived in it much more harmoniously than we do now).

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