New Formulation

February 2003, Vol. 2, No. 1



Review by Lex Bhagat

Water Wars
Water Wars: Privatization, Pollution, and Profit
By Vandana Shiva
Boston: South End Press, 2002
Reflected in Water
Reflected in Water: A Crisis in Social Responsibility
By Colin Ward
London: Cassell, 1997

No Images Available

Ripples of the Society: People’s Movements in Watershed Development in India
Edited by Prem N. Sharma
New Delhi: Gandhi Peace Foundation, 1998

It used to be free, now it costs you a fee.
Mos Def, “New World Water”

We turn the faucet or open the spigot, filling a glass or jug. We turn the cranks at the well for hours or hear the sputtering of a diesel engine by the pump, filling tanks. We collect pails after a summer storm. We drink. We bathe (and some of us wash our cars). We give water to our plants. We wash our food. We sing in the rain. We contemplate by the ocean or picnic by the river. We make journeys to waterfalls. Every living thing, every day, needs, finds, and consumes water. Its fluidity passes through us, making all life on earth possible. There is something special about water.

So it is alarming to hear Vandana Shiva state: “Although two-thirds of our planet is water, we face an acute water shortage. The water crisis is the most pervasive, most severe and most invisible dimension of the ecological devastation of the earth. In 1998, 28 countries experienced water stress or scarcity. This number is expected to rise to 56 by 2025.”(1) Currently, more than a third of the world's population does not have access to clean drinking water and predictions indicate that the figure will rise. These forecasts of scarcity explain the oft-quoted statement of World Bank Vice President Ismail Serageldin: “If the wars of this century were fought over oil, the wars of the next century will be fought over water.” An undeniable crisis presents itself, then, to this generation, in forms as varied as the methods of water collection. For those suffering dehydration, or dying of cholera because their community’s drinking water is fed to suburbs or lettuce fields, the call is clear. But it is just as clear for those working toward sustainability (in agriculture, technology, or economics), or for peace and social justice, that as in the twentieth century there was a pressing need to implement radical alternatives to petroleum hegemony, in the twenty-first century we must implement equitable solutions to the water crisis.

Shiva's Water Wars and Colin Ward’s Reflected in Water are global, expansive considerations of the contemporary water crisis. Both are informed by a conviction that water has been and must remain a commons, and that proposals to further tie water into market relations offer no solutions to water scarcity. On the contrary, it is marketization that creates scarcity in the first place. As Shiva claims, “The water crisis is an ecological crisis with commercial causes but no market solutions. Market solutions destroy the Earth and aggravate inequality. The solution to an ecological crisis is ecological and the solution for injustice is democracy. Ending the water crisis requires rejuvenating ecological democracy.”(2) Or as Ward sadly notes, “Responsible water use depends not on pricing the poor out of the competitive market, but on following the elementary principle of fair shares for all, a concept that every child learns from infancy until it is driven out by the political realism that determines that might is right.”(3) This is an essential point, which they both firmly state—one that is unheeded by the mouthpieces of marketization who reduce water scarcity to an expression of over-consumption due to overpopulation and “luxuriant lifestyles.”

While both books are written from different yet complementary perspectives, and Ward's work draws heavily from examples in the British Isles and Shiva’s from South Asia, both cover many of the same topics and share much common ground. Both authors touch on the development of modern municipal water works; hydroelectric dams of the mini and mega variety; impacts of climate change on the world's waters; disturbances to the hydrologic cycle by sprawl, industrial forestry, the Green Revolution, and mining; international law regarding water rights, and conflicts over shared water resources; the theoretical foundations of privatization—”prior appropriation” and Garett Hardin’s thesis of “the tragedy of the commons”; the exploits of major water service corporations, especially Suez-Lyonnaise des Eaux and Thames Water; and peoples’ movements dealing with specific manifestations of the crisis.

Ward’s Reflected in Water is a slim volume of twelve essay-like chapters that could each stand on their own in a classroom or study group setting. Each essay is a succinct description of the issue in historical context, well referenced for further research. The book does not aim to make a particular argument or support a singular thesis; rather, “it simply seeks to give a short and simple account of the immense social issues raised locally and globally by our universal need for water, and by the various water crises now facing the world.”(4) Instead of making a central point, Ward presents a wealth of information colored by an emphasis on decentralism, commons, and local control. The decentralist perspective is tied to concrete instances. For example, a discussion of the impacts of cotton plantations and golf courses in Africa leads to the contention that “old fashioned imperialism is dead, but has been replaced by a far more efficient economic imperialism, which obliges the poor world to destroy its precarious economy and environment, to benefit the consumer economy of the rich world. Water which could be managed to provide a local livelihood is squandered for the sake of a highly competitive export market or for the tourist industry.”(5) Or to contrast, remarking on British public conservation campaigns in 1976 and 1995, Ward observes:

The public response [in 1976] was even more interesting…. [The National Water Council wrote that] “the potential for voluntary savings by the public and by industry during a water crisis was vast. The Save It publicity campaigns during the drought cut water demand by 30% in some areas.”

By the time of the drought of 1995, the climate had changed. The public placed the blame on the water companies and the companies blamed the public. The Secretary of State for the Environment, John Gummer, advised people to follow the precepts of 1976 and recycle washing-up water on the garden and put a brick in the [toilet tank.] My local newspaper, hardly a radical journal, pointed in a leading article to the difference between then and now: “But then, water was public property. We have since been re-educated by Mr. Gummer and his Cabinet colleagues to think of water not as a natural resource, but as a capitalist product. Newly-privatised water companies have sought to justify exorbitant profits by telling us what a vastly improved service they are providing. . . . Are we not entitled to expect that, as long as we pay our bills, we should be able to use just as much of the stuff as we like? And should it matter to the profit-centered water companies whether we choose to use it for watering our gardens or flushing the loo? Isn’t the buyer entitled to use it as he likes—just like any other commercial product? Of course, such attitudes do not fit in well with conservation, but if conservation had been properly considered at the time, perhaps privatisation would not have seemed such a good idea.”(6)

Which leads to one of the fundamental differences between Ward’s and Shiva’s books. Reflected in Water abounds with the sensibilities of municipalism and regional planning. For instance, the history examined in the book faces its first great rupture in the appearance of the industrial city, which required the creation of large mechanisms for water provision and sewage systems. There is no question of whether large sewers and aqueducts will exist, but of how they will be managed: for private gain or the common good? By means of central authorities or local councils? The book is never ideological, and its realist history sadly presents privatization almost as an inevitable process (a throwback to Marx’s stages?). Municipal waterworks transformed water as commons harvested by private labor at the household or village well to a product provided by public authorities. This first transformation makes possible its further transformation into a commodity, which was held off for two centuries by “a water ethic” that viewed water as “a necessary common good [rather] than as a commodity.”(7) Throughout the book, alternatives to privatization are presented as superior for people and essential for survival, but privatization is also depicted as a process nearly complete, and no exits are referred to.

Where Ward’s book aims to inform and is written for the enlightened citizen, planner, community organizer, or local politician needing an account of the issues from a decentralist perspective, Water Wars is penned in an activist voice, containing both a call to arms for the global justice movement and forceful arguments against capital’s theoretical framework for privatization. Shiva’s assertions in Water Wars are these: that the water crisis is produced by capitalist development; and that water wars are not coming, they have been with us.

The argument on capital and crisis is made succinctly in the chapter “Converting Abundance into Scarcity” by examining the disturbance of the water cycle through mining, industrial forestry (in particular, eucalyptus and pine monocultures), and the Green Revolution with its monocultures of water-hungry crops and introduction of IMF-financed tube wells. Her claim of water wars rests on the numerous conflicts she traces, beginning with the water war of Los Angeles in 1924, where the farmers of Owens County, California repeatedly blasted the aqueduct that would bring their water to Los Angeles, until armed guards were stationed along the structure. She also addresses disputes that have not been characterized as water wars because they have been couched as ethnic or sectarian conflicts, such as between Israel and Syria over the National Water Carrier Project, and Israel and Palestinians over the West Bank, and in Punjab. And she deals with state repression to defend agribusiness’s water rights. The sinister quote of an Indian politician sums up the inhumanity of capital: “We will not give one drop of water from sugarcane; instead a canal of blood will flow. Cane and sugar factories are the glory of Maharastra.”(8) California agribusiness has waged a colder war against the native communities of the Colorado River Valley and the people of Arizona since the inception of the Hoover Dam. The great unnamed water war of today is between finance capital and communities, to privatize what commons they have not yet appropriated.

And it is a war that Shiva seeks to document here, providing an inspiring answer to the question: How can one resist? In page after page, she looks at a WB/IMF/McState agenda for a project, the ecological critique of it, and the popular opposition to it. For example, in discussing the problems of salinization due to irrigated monoculture, Shiva observes:

The shift from rainfed food crops to irrigated cash crops like cotton was expected to improve the prosperity of the farmers. Instead, it has led to debt. . . . The total loans taken by farmers increased from [U.S.]$104,440 in 1974 to $1.1 mil[lion] in 1980. While farmers were struggling with unproductive land, banks were making payment demands. At the same time, irrigation authorities levied a development tax on water, known as a betterment levy. The latter increased . . . from 38 cents to over a dollar/acre for cotton. A fixed tax of 20 cents/acre was effective with or without water use.

In March 1980, the farmers formed the Malaprabha Niravari Pradesh Ryota Samvya Samithi (Coordination Commitee of Farmers) and launched a non-cooperation movement to stop paying taxes. In retaliation, government authorities refused to issue the certificates needed by the farmers’ children to enroll in school. On June 19th, 1980, the farmers went on a hunger strike in front of a local official’s office. By June 30, 10,000 farmers gathered to support those on hunger strike. A week later, a massive rally was held at Navalgund, and farmers went on another hunger strike. When no response came from the authorities, the farmers organized a blockade.

About 6,000 farmers gathered in Navalgund, but their tractors were damaged and the rally was stoned by authorities. The same day, angry farmers seized the irrigation department, and set fire to a truck and 15 jeeps. The police opened fire, killing a young boy on the spot. In the town of Naragund, the police opened fire at a procession of 10,000 people, shooting one youth. The protesters responded by beating a police officer and constable to death. The protests rapidly spread to . . . other parts of Karnataka. Thousands of farmers were arrested and 40 were killed. In the end, the government ordered a moratorium on the collection of water taxes and the betterment levy.(9)

The book recounts many struggles such as this, in which popular movements confront violent state authorities. The popular movements organized against the Narmada River Project are especially well documented and complement Ward’s survey of mega-dams. Missing from Shiva’s work, however, are examples of sustainable hydropower projects—which Ward brings into the discussion by drawing from cases in Scotland and Nepal—leaving a taste of activist negativity in the mouth. Completely missing is any consideration of the Tennessee Valley Authority, the utopian regional planning project in the southeastern United States, which Shiva merely mentions in passing as the model for the Krishna Valley Authority. But Shiva is not out to celebrate utopian schemes or machinations of development. She aims to validate traditional water systems that hold the keys to resolving the current crisis and to applaud the spirited defense of the commons currently being waged on the margins of capital’s appropriation of water.

Since ancient times, water was recognized as a usufructuary resource, outside of property relations, and thus its appropriation by capital is an event of historic significance. What type of culture could enable the privatization of water? Ward does not answer this question directly but merely traces the process as it unfolds, thereby unwittingly presenting it as an inevitable by-product of industrialization. Shiva, on the other hand, notes a beginning of privatization in the doctrine of prior appropriation, or as she calls it, “Cowboy Economics”: “It was in the mining camps of the American West that the cowboy notion of private property and the rule of appropriation first emerged. The doctrine of prior appropriation established absolute rights to property, including the right to sell and trade water. . . . Champions of water privatization, such as Anderson and Snyder of the conservative Cato Institute, not only acknowledge the link between current privatization efforts and cowboy water laws, but also look at the earlier western appropriation philosophy as a model for the future.”(10) The circumstances that created this doctrine are, of course, capital’s favorite form of “primitive accumulation”: the opportunity to create something from nothing by pirating the resources of an other—in this case, seizing water from the Indians and ecosystems of the western United States. It is helpful to indicate a beginning of a historic event in order to conceive of its end.

Cultural considerations are prominent in both books and present challenging questions for anti-authoritarians, such as: What is the culture of the commons? Ward, tracing British history, interprets the cultural values of various periods as “reflected in water.” These are quite useful for anyone living in the North. Shiva, drawing many of her examples from India, overwhelms the reader with cultural details and references. Sadly, this is one of the striking problems with the book. India is a vast land, with many languages and peoples. Shiva’s attempt to be so all-inclusive is destined to fail. The indigenous water systems that she describes are inspiring, but she provides insufficient context for the barrage of names, traditional terms, and exhaustive reference to local geographies.

This is certainly not meant to suggest that local knowledge and solutions are irrelevant but so many local solutions run across the reader like an eroding flash flood instead of the deep and broad river that local expertise is. A greater problem is presented by the superficial way in which Hindu spirituality pops up here and again in the book. (Her final chapter, “The Sacred Waters,” is a thankful exception to this problem.) I highly recommend Shiva’s book for activists engaged in global justice struggles, but for readers piqued by the numerous examples she culls from India or interested in a deeper consideration of the culture of the commons, I recommend a slim, splendid, well-illustrated, and eminently readable volume edited by Prem N. Sharma of the Gandhi Peace Foundation called Ripples of the Society.

Ripples of the Society is a book that comes from the grass roots, and it has much to offer communities and NGOs engaged in resource planning as well as anti-authoritarians involved in ecological struggles. While Ward’s and Shiva’s works are anti-capitalist and communitarian in their approach, Sharma’s book presents an explicitly anti-statist perspective on the origins and solutions to the water crisis—a perspective the other authors seem too tepid to advance. As Ripples states, “The people lost their resources while the governments gained bureaucratic control. The process of recording, settlements, adjudicating, administration and politics played havoc with the commons and community. This was largely due to the fact that the operational values of the post-Independence state were a combination of both privatization and statization within a bureaucratic vision of a paternalistic welfare state, disinvesting the people of their own eminence, worth and identity, along with the resources which had been the domain, wealth and capital of indigenous communities. This system aided and abetted private manipulation, encroachment, allotment and plunder of natural resources—the common pastures, forest lands, water bodies, tanks, ponds and flouted the traditional modes and rights of people.”(11)

Ripples of the Society analyzes water crises, specifically in India, and presents them as the inevitable result of the destruction of traditional water cultures. It describes the process of participatory watershed development wherein traditional knowledge is mobilized and needs are addressed through a directly democratic process. It supplies ten case studies of projects throughout India with deep historical, geographic, and cultural detail. The case studies are drawn from diverse regions with extremely different water cultures and ecological imbalances. In the studies, specifics of ecological devastation, direct democracy, empowerment, and spiritual renewal are laid out in a way far more nourishing than in Ward’s or Shiva’s books. Sharma’s work also offers a broad account of the Gandhian critique of industrialism and a spirituality integral to sustainability—both fertile issues for debate in the global ecology movement. As well, it provides Indian examples of concepts familiar to advocates of direct democracy: guni (traditional expertise) and the Gran Sabha (village council).

The Gandhian critique springs from the social damage of imperialism and the carry over by modern, independent states of imperial values that condemned “most of the indigenous communities of master craftspersons as illiterate, unskilled members of wage laborers, with no identity, respect or place in modern society. The wave of technology has reduced many of these guni powers into ‘untechnical’ manpower and [placed] the nayaks [master craftspersons] at the head of expert teams emasculated to the end of the social and professional ladder.”(12) The Gandhian critique recognizes the vitality of the village along with traditional knowledge, techniques, and life-ways as key to political self-determination and social development. This valorization is what has held many Indian revolutionary tendencies askance from Western or Asian tendencies that maintain an uncritical relationship to the marxist valorization of the proletariat and industrial development.(13)

Sharma is not reluctant to step into spirituality, myth, symbolism, and theology. Again, the context provided is quite valuable, and Shiva’s work pales by comparison. Ripples’s forays into the spiritual realm are quite potent material for consideration for leftists informed by a Frankfurt school rationalism and lost “seekers” caught up in New Age mysticism. “The traditions and cultural manifestations of the people had been too ‘folk,’ part of superstitious religious beliefs, for the neo-literate modern society to appreciate or comprehend . . . but it survives [for] the meaning and purpose of the notions of the sanctity of trees, animals, water bodies, earth, sky, provide crucial links in the reinforcement of the will of the community in its relationship with the commons.”(14) It is foolish to think that the ancient institutions of the commons can survive without their cultural support. Of course, the equation can be flipped: it is foolish and contemptible to focus on the sanctity of all life when one participates in a system that alienates people from nature and each other.

In all, the book is realistic and proactive, describing and advocating directly democratic solutions to ecological problems. Many issues of interest for anarchists in Ripples were already mentioned above, such as informing the global justice movement, the idea of a culture of the commons, state repression, and resource struggles. There are a few areas of additional interest to anarchists presented by these three books, though.

For theory, Shiva’s and Ward’s treatments of Karl August Wittfogel and his theses on hydraulic society are intriguing.(15) Wittfogel’s 1957 volume Oriental Despotism argues that ancient empires such as China and Egypt “were built upon central control, though a vast bureaucracy, of the waters of great rivers.”(16) Ward traces the interesting manipulations of Wittfogel’s theses that gave him a canonical place in the ideology of mega-dams. Yet Shiva and Ward both firmly refute his basic assumptions about irrigation, centralization, and empire with contemporary and historical examples, including marsh Arabs of southern Iraq and the decentralized management of ancient Chinese irrigation systems. This is a blow to the discourse in which Wittfogel is a mainstay, such as the ideology of mega-dams.(17)

There is also a striking critical embrace of the traditional. Each of these books in a way reflects what Paolo Friere called progressive postmodernism, a spirited renunciation of much of the ideological foundations of modernism and an active translation of traditional knowledge into contemporary society. This progressive postmodernism is summed up in simple terms in Ripples: “It is time that we . . . change [the] yardstick of measurement. It is imperative to abandon the schools of thought which make the past appear backward, underdeveloped, obsolete, or just the opposite: viewing it through rose-tinted glasses of glorification, placing it on a pedestal. . . . What is required is a cathartic effect on the present system, a catharsis in approach, to unlock the hidden interiors.”(18) An essential contribution to radical movements here is the resurrection and reformulation of the ideas of conviviality and the postindustrial epoch, promoted by Ivan Illich and the appropriate technology movement in the 1970s. Given the scope of the crisis, this reformulation necessitates a wider terrain than it did in the 1970s, demanding a political focus on the level of towns, counties, and cities rather than remote villages, homesteads, and semi-autonomous communes as a counter-space to capitalist development.

For praxis, the water crisis presents an opportunity for activists working in the North to nourish a directly democratic political sphere, and these books supply a theoretical framework for proceeding there. It is conceivable that activists in progressive towns or counties could create democratic and participatory water boards to administer local resources. But democratic water councils in a world where the consumer society and North-South axis are left intact is never implied in any of these books. The crisis must be resolved, and will be addressed by capitalist or democratic means, both of which will demand major social restructuring. One involves further alienation and the fortification of the rich, as the poor are further dispossessed and repressed, as glaciers melt and deserts grow. Another entails a major upheaval in ideas about property and politics, facts of territory, agriculture, eating habits, settlement patterns, and urban form.

The crisis will be dealt with one way or another: we all need to drink.


  1. Vandana Shiva, Water Wars: Privatization, Pollution, and Profit (Boston: South End Press, 2002), 1.
  1. Ibid., 15.
  1. Colin Ward, Reflected in Water: A Crisis in Social Responsibility (London: Cassell, 1997), 130. Ward is a longtime contributor to Freedom magazine, London’s anarchist bimonthly, and the author of Anarchy in Action, Housing: An Anarchist Approach, and many other works.
  1. Ward, Reflected in Water, ix.
  1. Ibid., 113.
  1. Ibid., 112–13.
  1. Ibid., 4.
  1. Cited in Shiva, Water Wars, 125.
  1. Shiva, Water Wars, 113.
  1. Ibid., 22.
  1. Prem N. Sharma, ed., Ripples of the Society: People’s Movements in Watershed Development in India (New Delhi: Gandhi Peace Foundation, 1998), 12.
  1. Ibid., 10.
  1. Conversely, this valorization of the village is what also puts the Indian Left in such an awkward position regarding the city itself, explaining the paradoxical example of the Communist Party in West Bengal, and making the current work of groups such as Sarai in New Delhi ( so important.
  1. Sharma, Ripples of the Society, 13.
  1. Refutations of Wittfogel’s Oriental Despotism can be found in the section “Decentralized Water Democracies” in Shiva, Water Wars, 122–24; and in the chapter “Hydraulic Society and Regional Hopes” in Ward, Reflected in Water, 31–46.
  1. Cited in Ward, Reflected in Water, 32.
  1. Interestingly, Wittfogel also appears in Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari’s celebrated “Treatise on Nomadology: The War Machine.” In the passage explaining the relationship of what they call “nomad science” or “Archimedian science” to “State science,” Deleuze and Guattari embrace Wittfogel in passing hyperbole: “There is no going back on Wittfogel’s theses of large-scale waterworks for an empire” (A Thousand Plateaus [Minneapolis: University of Minnesota, 1987], 362-63).
  1. Sharma, Ripples of the Society, 29.
  1. Sharma, Ripples of the Society, 29.