Tom Pashby considers who should control our precious water resources

28th September 2023


Water is an increasingly stressed resource. Despite covering more than 70% of the planet, only a tiny fraction is available as fresh, clean drinking water.

Unlike energy, water is critical to life everywhere. Energy in the form of electricity has only been in relative abundance for a proportion of the world within the past century, while water has always been required by everyone every single day.

These might be obvious points to make, but they are important when considering the impact of stress on water, given that discussion around resource stress often focuses on access to fossil fuels.

Pressure on water supplies comes from a variety of areas. Most of the global economy is managed in a way that promotes economic growth above all else, rather than prioritising human prosperity or circular economics. Powering economic growth by making more ‘stuff’, including in the services industry, means using more water.

On top of that, the climate emergency is making access to water even harder. Desertification, extreme weather and less predictable weather patterns make it difficult to provide enough clean drinking and bathing water, adding yet more pressure on the system.

Lack of access to water can act as a driver for deadly conflict, expanding another threat area in the climate wars already created by dwindling access to fossil fuels, population displacement and urbanisation.

A critical issue when analysing access to water is ownership, which dictates investment in water infrastructure and decides who gets to consume it.

The UK is notorious for having privatised its water supply, and water companies have made themselves unpopular by the lack of investment in infrastructure, with high volumes of leakages and waste being discharged illegally, polluting waterways and seas.

Ownership of water is a global issue. One high-profile example is that of Michael Burry, who achieved fame via The Big Short, a film that highlighted the true story of how a small number of investors in New York City noticed the early signs of the global financial crisis that hit in 2007-2008.

Burry convinced bankers to allow him to invest in betting that markets were going to collapse, and he subsequently made vast amounts of money from that prediction.

At the end of the film, the audience realises that Burry had invested in water, indicating that it had already become the next big scarce resource and that his investment would be likely to result in significant profits.

There’s a vibrant area of discourse around the relative objective benefits and costs to water users (i.e. everyone) of private, public–private partnerships and exclusively state-owned water.

What is less well discussed in the mainstream is the ethics of different models of ownership, given how critical clean drinking water is in all our lives, and our very different experiences of access from urban to rural communities in the UK, to Western versus the Global South.

There are those who will always argue that the profit motive is an effective and efficient force for good in driving costs down and improving products and services for suppliers. But within some areas of society, it is taken as a given that institutions such as the NHS, the military and the emergency services should largely be protected from the profit agenda.

As economic growth and the climate emergency ratchet up the stress on available clean drinking water, it would be wise to consider who we want to be in control of this vital resource.

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