Water lubricates the global political economy; it is an essential service, infrastructure, a raw input to energy production and agriculture, increasingly an eco-system service and is necessary for life in all its forms. Water, its presence and lack, determines not only how and where, but also who, will survive. Which is simply to say, we cannot do without it. Yet 2 billion people continue to live without access to drinkable water and over 25 percent of the world’s population live in water stressed environments. These numbers are predicted to get worse as we face an intensifying global water crisis. But with increasing floods and extreme weather it is clear that the global water crisis is not just about a lack of water. So, what do we mean by a global water crisis? Why are we in crisis? What is the water crisis’ relationship to the ecological crisis? To the crisis of social reproduction? Or the crises of political legitimacy? And could it be a potential crisis for capitalism? These are all questions that animate my new book Water Struggles as Resistance to Neoliberal Capitalism: a time of reproductive unrest, in the Progress in Political Economy book series with Manchester University Press.
The history of water governance tends to reflect dominant historical socio-political trends and the ways that different societies understood our relationship to nature. In the early twentieth century across much of the industrializing world the control of water went hand in hand with a nation-building ethos through projects such as dams or irrigation systems. At the same time, urban water services were expanded as a way to counter the rise of disease following rapid urbanization following industrialization. These same services were then key targets for experiments in privatisation in the early stages of neoliberalism – Chile under Pinochet developed some of the most market-orientated water policies, and England’s water services are one of the few fully privatised water services and infrastructures thanks to Thatcher (recent news stories of rising prices and constant poor water quality show what the consequences of these experiments have been). In recent years we have witnessed a murkier division between public and private investments and governing rationales through dynamics of financialization. The 2023 UN Water Conference – the first dedicated UN conference on water in over fifty years – concluded with calls to further mobilise the private sector to fill the financing gap that faces SDG6 (water and sanitation). The claim I develop throughout my book is that the way water is managed, who it is allocated to, where, why, how and when shows a lot about what a society values. Water policy and struggles over water act as a revealing window onto the values, contradictions and potential points of rupture that mark our conjuncture.
By expanding social reproduction theory onto questions of nature, I offer a labour-orientated approach to understanding crisis and the ways that communities have resisted the expansion of the water commodity frontier. The book employs an incorporated comparison of two water grabs at different points in the hydro-social cycle: 1) the enclosure of water services in Republic of Ireland and the anti-water charges protests that erupted in opposition; and 2) the enclosure of water resources by the gas industry and struggles against the gas industry in rural Australia. Exploring two cases in the global north was a political choice in order to highlight both the way that policy experiments in the Global South during the 1990s/2000s are returning to the capitalist core, and that water grabs do not only occur in states with weak institutions who are more vulnerable to transnational corporations but rather that states actively create the conditions for water expropriation to occur. Focussing on the period between the 2008-10 global financial crisis (GFC) and the start of the Covid-19 crisis, I show how each water grab reflects a different, if inter-related, facet of a system that continues to undermine the capacity for life- making. In both cases water as nature, or water as social reproduction, were reimagined as water as commodity to resolve existing accumulation crises.
In Australia, nature has historically been employed as the ‘tap and sink’ underpinning economic growth through either extractive industries or agriculture. Yet with the unconventional gas industry we saw a more explicit overlap of the agriculture, gas, and water commodity frontiers. Drilling changed both the quality and quantity of water available and for rural communities this is a waterscape that their livelihoods and social reproduction capacity relied upon. Agricultural communities who were once the forefront of colonial white frontier expansion and key to the legitimation of the Australian state, found themselves on the periphery of state projects increasingly orientated towards the interests of the global gas industry. However, even in face of ecological, economic and an increasing political crisis – the state responded with an intensification rather than transformation of existing extractive policies.
In Ireland public water services were targeted for restructuring following the financial and European debt crises and working class communities shouldered the consequences. The dominant accumulation strategy leading up to the GFC was on being an English-speaking gateway to Europe for US transnational and financial corporations. The Irish state chased investment through friendly tax and land policies. Yet the lack of a welfare state and overreliance on income tax for state revenues meant it was highly vulnerable to financial crises: When global finance was doing well, Ireland’s economic markers were strong, yet when there was a financial crisis these markers – which are largely fictitious profits – tumbled. In contrast to other bailout states that had strict conditions imposed upon them, the Irish government used the crisis to re-introduce policies such as water metering and charges that had been on the political agenda for decades. They were, as one interviewee described, ‘the EU’s poster boy for austerity’. Introducing water charges (up until then water services had been paid for out of general taxation) and restructuring Irish water services would allow the state to borrow from international financial markets in order to fund much needed repairs of long-term leaky infrastructures. However, for many protesters this also signalled the first step towards future privatisation of an essential service; water policy reflected the wider issues of an austerity state that had prioritised the interests of the financial sector over its citizens. The economic crisis (Ireland exited the bailout in 2013) was fixed through the manufacturing of a social crisis for working class communities, and the Irish water grab was a “fix” that would allow for the continuation of the existing accumulation regime.
In both cases, policy response to crisis saw an intensification of what came before rather than transformation. Yet by doing so, the vulnerable position of each state’s accumulation strategies within the global political economy were made explicit. Underlying crisis tendencies were not resolved, but rather shifted to the conditions that make accumulation possible, namely, social reproduction, nature, and, increasingly, the state. Taking up David Harvey’s conception of a spatial fix and reading it through social reproduction theory, I develop the notion of a spherical fix to show how crises are moved between these spheres as a form of crisis management. A spherical fix defines these conditions as extra-economic but still intra-capitalist – accumulation could not happen without them – as such crises in these spheres may have the potential to be crises for capitalism.
However, this is not just a story of policymaking but also of resistance, as through the spherical fix communities were newly politicised, the political terrain was reconfigured, and new subversive rationalities emerged as labour gained class agency. In Australia, farmers “locked their gate” to the gas industry by first putting yellow triangles on their fences, and then declaring whole communities ‘gasfield free’. The community to be defended was produced through struggle in resistance to an invasive industry. The Knitting Nanas Against Gas (KNAGs) would protest by knitting in front of drilling equipment or politicians offices and play on the imagery of “nannas” caring for ‘the future generations of kiddies’. Cementing an underlying feeling that existing political institutions were no longer representative, the movement focused on participatory rather than representative democracy. By understanding that water is a flow resource that requires cooperation and inter-generational management, rural communities re-articulated society and nature as inter-dependent, countering socio-nature as an alienated relation underpinning expropriation. An incoherence with the dominant logics of the state and market emerged, defining a class antagonism drawn on ecological lines. Many drilling licences in New South Wales were bought back by the state and Victoria now has a moratorium on unconventional gas drilling, however, the next gas commodity frontier is the Beetaloo Basin in the Northern Territory which would have disastrous impacts for First Nations people and would emit 117 million tonnes of CO2 annually.
In Ireland, the focus on water as social reproduction infrastructure quickly evolved into a broader critique of the state and related institutions, including representational democracy. As well as over 50% of the population refusing to pay their water bills, the water charges protests were some of the largest public protests since independence and were the largest anti-austerity protests in Europe per capita. They brought together working class communities who had not been active before, trade unions and left political parties. Water as social reproduction and related infrastructure was understood as a collective right that should have been disarticulated from processes of capital accumulation. In making these demands, the limited capacity of the state to account for this collective right came into sharper focus: the material conditions for a collective right to water – well-resourced public infrastructure and social safety nets – alongside systems of political accountability could never be realised within the dominant accumulation regime orientated towards the interests of global financial capital. This call has since spread to other protests including housing, healthcare and especially the Repeal the 8th movement for abortion rights that concretised the contradiction of an expansion of social rights without any changes to the material conditions that would allow for those rights to be realised.
In each social struggle a common relation to expropriation allowed solidarity across and within communities. And communities concretised a key contradiction of neoliberal capitalism: the increasing incompatibility of the conditions necessary for profit-making and life-making. To return to the initial question of the global water crisis and its implications, much more than water appears to be in crisis, and although there has been no rupture in neither Ireland nor Australia the structuring conditions of global capitalism appear brittle after this time of reproductive unrest.