By David Klayton, Environment Issue Analyst for Water

In today’s rapidly globalizing world, a common debate persists as to whether water should be considered a human right or a commodity. Personally, I firmly believe that water is a human right, as it is necessary for humans to live. However, I will not deny that there is legitimate reason to argue the opposite, that water is a commodity. Instead of putting my opinion up against others’ in this difficult debate, I’d like to take a brief look at how the privatization, and thus the commodification of water goes against its ultimate theoretical goals.

The dominant economic model for the past three decades has been neoliberalism, and the dominant ideal of neoliberalism is privatization. Within the context of neoliberalism, privatization takes on several different goals, from the shrinking of the state’s role in society to the expansion of the free market. While many argue that neoliberal economics support only the upper class and big business, a major tenet of neoliberal theory is that state-shrinking will lead to a significant decrease in taxation, and this decrease in taxation enables the lower class to have more money to spend in the free market as consumers.

However, with such a strong emphasis on the free market under neoliberal economic theory, privatization leads to large corporations owning the rights to utilities and natural resources—water, for one. A major goal of the free market economy is to increase competition, which in turn should decrease costs, but it is not uncommon in a neoliberal economy for single corporations to obtain monopolies on resources. And when a monopoly is reached, the profit-oriented corporations are free to jack up their prices, as their consumers have no other method available to attain the resource in question.

Examples of monopolized water have been popping up all over the world in the last three decades of neoliberalism’s popularity. Consider Cochabamba, Bolivia in the 1990s—Bechtel, a giant multinational corporation, gained control of the water supply. The company raised prices, leaving many of the low-class inhabitants of the city unable to pay for their water. Bolivians eventually retaliated and drove the company out of the country. Or consider the series of companies that have held control of South African water supplies the last fifteen years. Today, millions of South Africans are left without access to clean water. Examples such as these are not at all uncommon today in any region of the globe.

Is all of this fair? Denying the low class access to water may not be a goal of neoliberal economic theory, but its implementation has led to exactly this problem. Even if one does not believe that water is a basic human right, one needs to take a look at these historic examples of the negative effects privatization of water has had. It is imperative for the future of humankind that we ensure that everyone, no matter what socioeconomic class, has access to clean water.