World Water Day

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Water Rights

In this article, Mangala Subramaniam, author of Contesting Water Rights: Local, State, and Global Struggles, reflects on the struggles for rights to water.

Among the environmental specters confronting humanity in the 21st century, shortage of water is at the top of the list in the developing and the developed world. Water-abundant regions have become water-scarce, and water-scarce regions face water famines. According to the World Resources Institute, more than a billion people currently live in water-scarce regions, and as many as 3.5 billion could experience water scarcity by 2025.  While knowledge of patterns of water use is scattered, it is estimated that about 4000 cubic kilometers of fresh water are used each year globally.  

Increasing water scarcity has been accompanied by an increasing push to treat water as an economic good, priced in such a way as to recover the costs of production directly from its users in some parts of the world.  Such privatization is being resisted in developed and developing countries: a prime example is the April 2000 “water war” in Cochabamba, Bolivia , or the protests that have erupted in Argentina, Uruguay, South Africa, India and other nations.  

In struggles over the control of water resources and access around the world, local knowledge and on-the-ground activists combine with interconnected global networks to resist privatization. At the center of the local-global struggles is the ‘ambivalent’ state, which creates and enforces privatization policies on the national and sub-national levels; but occasionally retreats as resistance intensifies.  Scholars have examined globalization processes and the role of citizens negotiating and resisting privatization of water resources that are largely perceived by them (community) as common property resources.  Interestingly, much of this scholarship assumes a monolithic state and an even implementation of the neoliberal agenda and less attention to the implications of the gender, caste, and class dynamics locally and in the global networks that have sought rights to water.   

Local communities have targeted corporate and state power in responding to dispossession, as privatization efforts have focused on accumulation for profits  rather than resisting environmental degradation and declining access to local sources of water.  For instance, in the late 1990s, the Tarun Bharat Sangh (TBS) movement in Rajasthan in northwestern India engaged in the rejuvenation of traditional systems for water harvesting along the river Arvari. Holding a water ‘parliament’ twice a year to settle disputes and conflicts pertaining to water use and pasture land has helped to promote democratic governance of scarce water resources. 

This collective initiative in a developing country has similarities to the citizens group in Stockton, California, engaged in protesting the privatization of municipal water supply. In Stockton, a mayor proposed to award a $600 million, 20-year contract, to OMI-Thames, Inc. to manage and operate its municipal wastewater utility.  In response, the Concerned Citizens Coalition of Stockton (CCCS) formed in 2001 to wage a four-year grassroots campaign that culminated in a legal victory to defeat the privatization of their municipal water utility. The company was required to return control of the utility to Stockton, effective March 2008.  Although TBS is engaged in mobilizing people in rural areas and CCCS is urban based, their goals are similar: they challenge privatization and demand a ‘say’ in who controls water resources. 

Unlike CCCS and TBS, the Plachimada struggle in Kerala state, India, is about protests against the excessive utilization of ground water by Coca-Cola.  In response to depletion of their water resources, local residents came together in 2002—without any formal organization or leader. While Coca-Cola received support from the Kerala state government, the state High Court, and local opposition political party leaders, the local panchayat (a locally elected governance institution) responded in the favor of the peoples’ struggle. Adopting a legal route, the panchayat filed a case against the Kerala state, and the Coca-Cola plant was shut down in 2005.  In this case, the local government pursued a policy that differed from the Kerala state government and the national government’s agenda to attract and support private investment. As happened in Kerala, the multi-layered structure of state institutions can enable citizens’ protests. 

These local challenges, however, are not wholly separate from the global networks of activists and organizations protesting water privatization. Several multinational water corporations and international bodies such as the World Bank came together in 1996 to create the WWC, which organizes the World Water Forum (WWF) once every three years, a weeklong conference about water usage, access, conservation, and sanitation. But even this is not straightforward: the WWC has direct links with two of the world’s largest water corporations, Suez and Veolia. 

As an alternative to the WWF, activists and scholars representing the rural poor, organized labor, and the environment formed the “People’s Water Forum” (PWF, also known as the “Alternative World Water Forum,” or AWWF) to run concurrently with the WWF. These forums—held in Florence, Geneva, Mexico City, Istanbul, Marseille, and Korea—are organized by loose coalitions within countries or regions, involving a wide range of organizations, transnational unions, international environmental networks, and identity-based groups. Though many of these groups are formal organizations, others are loose or informal networks.  

Despite cultural, regional, political, or even ethical and moral differences even amongst these activist groups, the right to clean water is a demand of people across the world. The 2010 UN resolution on the Human Right to Water (HRW) has opened new discussions around the world.  On the one hand, there is promise in the UN resolution: water justice activists see potential in the HRW approach to provide safe and affordable water to all. But on the other hand, it may be hostile to the needs of the marginalized: some are calling for ongoing conversations about the meaning and implementation of the HRW, as ‘rights’ can be biased towards individual rights, possibly leaving marginalized communities with substandard access.

The HRW has enabled some progress toward a more just agenda for water, particularly given that it offers a policy focus on universal access to safe and affordable water, regardless of ability to pay. It can enable new conversations that take seriously the complex social relations of power that emerge from particular understandings of these rights. But such conversations must consider the diverse range of actors involved in developing solutions to equitable access to clean water. Efforts to coordinate water resources are based not only on local, global, state, corporate, and social activist interests – as evidenced here – but also on local constitutive politics of inequalities – gender, class, and caste – among the actors themselves, be they communities, individuals, or state institutions.


Fen Montaigne, “Water Pressure,” National Georaphic, September 2002

World Water Assessment Programme, Water in a Changing World: The United Nations World

Water Developmenet Report 3 (Paris: UNESCO, London: Earthscan, 2009)

J.  Budds and G. McGranahan, “Are the debates on water privatization missing the point?

Experiences from Africa, Asia and Latin America,” Environment and Urbanization 15, no. 2 (2003): 87–113

cf. O. Olivera Cochabamba! water war in Bolivia (Cambridge, MA: South End Press, 2004).

See also S. Spronk and JR Webber, “Struggles against accumulation by dispossession in Bolivia

The political economy of natural resource contention,” Latin American Perspectives34, no. 2 (2007): 31–47

B. Derman, “Cultures of development and indigenous knowledge: The erosion of traditional boundaries,” Africa Today 50, no. 2 (2003): 67-85.

P. Bond, “Globalisation/commodification or deglobalisation/decommodification in urban South Africa, Policy Studies 26, nos. 3-4 (2005):337–58.

A. Snitow and D. Kaufman with M. Fox, Thirst: Fighting the Corporate Theft of our Water (San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass, 2007)

JE Castro, “Water struggles, citizenship and governance in Latin America,” Development 51, no. 72-76 (2008)

E. Royte, Bottlemania: Big Business, Local Springs, and the Battle over America’s Drinking Water (New York: Bloomsbury, 2009)

Steven Solomon, Water: The Epic Struggle for Wealth, Power, and Civilization (New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 2010)

Mangala Subramaniam, Contesting Water Rights: Local, State, and Global Struggles (Cham: Palgrave Macmillan, 2018)

See the following, among many other references: 

Vandana Shiva, Water Wars: Privatization, Pollution, and Profit. (Cambridge, MA: Southend Press, 2002)

O. Olivera Cochabamba! water war in Bolivia

A. Snitow et al., Thirst

David Harvey, The New Imperialism (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003). See also:

K. Bakker, “Neoliberalizing nature? Market environmentalism in water supply in England and Wales,” Annals of the Association of American Geographers 95, no. 3 (2005):542-65

E. Swyngedouw, “Dispossessing H2O: The contested terrain of water privatization,” Capitalism Nature Socialism 16, no. 1 (2005): 81-98

S. Spronk and JR Webber, “Struggles against accumulation by dispossession in Bolivia.”

Food & Water Watch, The Price of Privatization Stockton, CA, Report (2007)

See C. R. Bijoy, “Kerala’s Plachimada Struggle: A Narrative on Water and Governance Rights”

Economic and Political Weekly, Oct 14, 2006; and P. R. Sreemahadevan Pillai, The Saga of Plachimada (Mumbai: Vikas Adhyayan Kendra Publications, 2008).

“A judicial intervention,” Frontline, 21(2), 17 January 2004 (accessed 10 July 2017):

“Resistance in Kerala,” Frontline. 21(3), 31 January 2004 (accessed 10 July 2017):

“Kerala’s plight,” Frontline. 21(6), 26 March 2004 (accessed 10 July 2017):

cf. Ananthakrishnan Aiyer, “The Allure of the Transnational: Notes on Some Aspects of the Political Economy of Water in India.” Cultural Anthropology 22, no. 4 (2007): 640-658.

V. Perera, “Engaged Universals and Community Economies: The (Human) Right to Water in Colombia,” Antipode 47, no. 1 (2014). See also O. Mirosa, and L. M. Harris, “Human Right to

Water: Contemporary Challenges and Contours of a Global Debate” Antipode 44, no. 3 (2012): 932–949.

About the author

Mangala Subramaniam is Professor of Sociology and Chair and Director of the Susan Bulkeley Butler Center for Leadership Excellence at Purdue University. Dr. Subramaniam’s research addresses social inequality in global contexts - gender, race, caste, and class issues and their intersections – and the dynamics of state and social movements. Her current projects include environmental justice, particularly water rights and the politics of HIV prevention. Her most recent research area is higher education. She examines faculty satisfaction, recognition, and climate within universities with emphasis on gender and race. She is currently an Associate Editor of Social Problems, a major journal in sociology. See for more details.

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