Water, one of the simplest substances, is also one of the most powerful. It has the power to quench thirst, to irrigate crops, to wash away disease. But Debbie Taylor argues that in the wrong hands it can become a formidable means of entrenching inequality in an already unequal world.
Almost the simplest substance on earth — just two molecules of hydrogen and one of oxygen — combine to make something hard and cold as ice, burning and ephemeral as steam, a sparkle of tiny droplets from the splash in a swimming pool. Or a hole of stinking black mud, a dank green pool at the bottom of a well, the yellow-brown seepage from a hollow scratched in the dry river bed.
Water drops from the skies, flows freely in rivers, bursts from the ground in springs. And there is more than enough for everyone. Surely something so simple, so abundant and free cannot be perverted? Yet in many countries water is used — not just for quenching thirst and washing clothes — but as a weapon that serves the powerful at the expense of the weak.
Driven from the rivers of their lush homelands, Bushmen and Aborigines now roam the burning deserts of Africa and Australia in search of water, or beg it from wells drilled for the new rulers of their land.
Water, so vital for life, becomes an instrument of power as soon as it is concentrated in a form that can be controlled. Free while still in the clouds, there is a price when it flows from the dam into irrigation canals. Free while it slowly percolates down through layers of soil, there is a price when it is coaxed to the surface again by well or pump.
Without air we die in three minutes; without water in three days. Without clean water death can come after 50 years of suffering with bilharzia or guinea worm — or at the age of six months after a short, sharp dose of diarrhoea. The World Health Organisation (WHO) estimates that over three-quarters of all diseases are caused by dirty drinking water, insufficient water for washing and inadequate sanitation. So water is not only vital for life, but vital for health too. It is just too important to be left to the market place.
And this is well-understood by societies the world over. Those who control the water source can control the livelihood of a whole region. So there must be rules about who takes how much water, at what time and for how long.
In the Hum Hills in northern Kenya water is so scarce the Gabra tribe go to great lengths to share it out fairly from their small dam. Viewed from a volcanic outcrop overlooking the plain are dotted, as far as the eye can see, small herds of Gabra cattle — ‘stacked’ in a circuit like aeroplanes over a busy aerodrome — waiting their turn to drink. Gabra elders take turns organising the allocation of water, allowing newcomers from afar three courtesy waterings before taking their turn in the queue.
In the Sanjo tribe of East Africa control of water is vested in a council of village elders who take as much water as they want then distribute the rest. And in Moalan society in Fiji those who live upstream are the ‘owners of water’, responsible for distributing it and settling disputes.
Some form of control is vital. But the potential for abuse is clear. Where the power is firmly linked to responsibility and answerable to local people it can be contained. But if control of water is just another manifestation of social divisions then this control in turn entrenches and increases the power of the most powerful. When a water pump is installed in an Indian village, the village outcasts — the Harijans — must still fetch their water from a contaminated pool or beg it from their neighbours.
A new water supply can bring, not only new water, but also a new social order. In the Mexican village of El Nopal the Indian people were well aware of the implications of a new water system. In 1971 Dr Iwanska, a US anthropologist, reported that although the villagers could together afford to have a few strategically placed stand-pipes installed or allow the wealthier families to pay for piped water to their own houses, everybody decided that either they would all have water at once, or they would not have water at all. Meanwhile they would continue walking the long distance to their dirty well. The risk that preferential access to and control of water would cause splits in their community was one they were not willing to take.
But usually people are not given a choice. Water development schemes are often started regardless of local peoples’ priorities and irrespective of the underlying social structures. Governments tend to assume that clean water must be a good thing; that even if just a few families benefit, that must be better than nothing. Yet when this happens the outcome foreseen so clearly by the El Nopal villagers can so easily occur.
This process — development for the few at the expense of many — can take place either as an unintentional consequence of short-sighted development planning; or as the result of wilful co-option of a neutral resource to increase and safeguard the power of one group over another.
And perhaps it was unintentional in Botswana. Most of the country is hot and dry. All water is underground and you must drill to reach it. But boreholes are expensive: only the wealthy can afford to hire rigs to drill them. The others must either pay for the privilege of watering their cattle at the rich man’s borehole or crowd their animals onto the over-grazed land around government boreholes. The result is increased income and sleek cattle for the big ranchers, thinner mangey cattle for the small herd owners. Control of water means prosperity. And prosperity means power in Botswana where a Parliament filled with the biggest cattle owners ensures that control of water remains in their hands. The late President Seretse Khama’s family owns nearly half of the boreholes in one district and the current President Masire owns the largest herd in the country.
Increasing inequality from development planning is most graphically illustrated by the results of the big water schemes. The theory is simple: take a dry valley and a wide river. Dam part of the river to form a lake, then control the release of water to provide electricity. Add irrigation canals to channel water to everyone’s fields and — hey presto — a better living for all.
In practice things are more complicated. To begin with, the demands of hydro-electric power and irrigation conflict. Irrigation needs a continuous regular flow of water from the dam. But hydro-electricity requires a water flow that fluctuates according to demand for electricity.
Lake Lanao is the second-largest lake in the Philippines. On its banks live the Muslim Maranao people — the ‘People of the Lake’. Their religion and their colourful batik clothing set them apart from the majority Christians who occupy the lowlands and staff the National Government.
And it is this government, funded by the World Bank and the Asian Development Bank, that manipulates the waters of the lake to feed city factories and homes with electricity. When it rains the Maranao villages and farms on the edge of the lake are flooded. When it doesn’t their rice crops die as their irrigation canals dry up — all so that water from the lake can remain constant for the hydro-electricity plants. The region is now policed by military patrols and shots ring out in the night as poverty and anger makes guerrillas of once-peaceful farmers.
In the worst cases people are just thrown off the land to be flooded by the dam’s reservoir. One and a half million peoples’ homes were claimed by the four biggest dams in Africa alone. And it was not to irrigate their fields nor light their homes that the dams were built.
When water is made available for irrigation, once again the benefits tend to be skewed in favour of the already powerful. In the early 1970s the World Bank made a series of loans totalling over $60 million to the Iran government for development of the Dez river valley in Khuzistan. In 1974 an estimated 17,000 people were moved off land leased by the government to large corporations like Shell International, the First National City Bank of New York, the Dow Chemical Corporation and Chase Manhattan Bank. Of nearly 200,000 hectares leased, less than one tenth was allocated to the Dez Farm Corporation — a government managed scheme for local farmers and landowners.
To be fair, those who were expropriated were compensated for the loss of their land. But the money was immediately swallowed up when they had to buy new houses — conveniently situated so that the farmers could be employed by the corporations.
The money to maintain big irrigation projects and repay loans must be found from somewhere — usually by levying a charge for once-free water. And to find the cash to buy water for irrigation a subsistence farmer must grow crops for sale rather than for food. Indeed many government marketing boards will buy only certain prescribed cash crops.
Dependent on just a few hectares of land for his whole family’s livelihood, the change-over to cash-cropping is a big risk for the small farmer to take. He may have to borrow money to buy seeds and fertilisers, only to fall deeper in debt if the price of his crop falls. The wealthier farmer can afford to hedge his bets with several crops; the small man just does not have that leeway. Also, given the choice, many a farmer would prefer a poorer, but reliable life growing his own food. But if he must pay for water that choice is denied him.
Dams and irrigation projects offer the most dramatic examples, but the same principles apply to all large-scale development projects set up in unequal societies — whether they involve water or not At best they will maintain the status quo with regard to wealth and power. More often, however, they exaggerate existing inequalities and make the poor and powerless still more vulnerable.
Small community-controlled projects which take special account of the needs of small farmers have a greater chance of success. But these too can flounder without a government wholeheartedly committed to changing the relationships between rich and poor, employer and employee, landlord and tenant
What good is water for agriculture to the family without land? Not much. But a family must benefit from a communal standpipe near their home and a simple pit latrine in their yard.
With clean water nearby some of the water-related diseases will be reduced and the heavy labour of carrying water from the river two or three times a day will be avoided. But while many studies show a reduction in water-related diseases when piped water and simple sanitation is provided, most conclude that the resulting improvements in health are relatively minor.
A 1966 report by WHO on ‘Diarrhoeal Disease Studies in Seven Developing Countries’ concluded that ‘where a piped water supply was available, diarrhoea rates were reduced but still remained at a high level. The real reduction was very little and of limited practical importance.’
So something is going wrong somewhere. Water is vital for health. And together with good nutrition, sanitation and health education, it is one of the best ways to combat disease. But lack of water, sanitation, food and education are all symptoms of a single underlying disease — that of poverty, and powerlessness that invariably accompanies it.
Water should be a formidable weapon in the fight for life, health and equality. But in most countries provision of water supplies are making only a fraction of the impact they would if they were backed up with more fundamental changes in the structure of power.
Any piecemeal approach to development is likely to be self-defeating. Too many agencies, governments and international organisations persist in seeing poor people, not as people without power, but as people without things — without food, without a change of clothes, without education, without electricity.
And for the next ten years — throughout the International Drinking Water Supply and Sanitation Decade — poor powerless people will be seen as people without clean drinking water and sanitation.
To provide them with the material things they lack will ease their burden a little, and it will certainly cost a tremendous amount of money, but it will leave their fundamental problem untouched. Because the people without water, food, education are all the same people. If subsidised seeds and fertiliser didn’t help them yesterday, why will clean water help them tomorrow? As Richard Feachem of the Institute of Tropical Hygiene in London asks ‘What faith is it that makes us think we can turn a poor deprived sick child into a poor deprived healthy child simply by providing clean water?’
Clean water is a start. But the best prevention of disease is the alleviation of poverty and redistribution of power.
This special report appeared in the pure and simple - water and the fight for life issue of New Internationalist. You can buy this magazine or, to get stories like this one through your door every month, subscribe.