The world is facing a water crisis. The World Bank and the United Nations have reported that some forty percent of the world’s population is now affected by water scarcity. Two billion people rely on unsafe drinking water, and some 700 million people are at risk of being displaced by water scarcity. Maria Armoudian talks to Robert Glennon, Thomas Perreault, Aimee Craft, and Madison Condon about this issue.
Robert Glennon is a Professor of Law & Public Policy at the University of Arizona. He is an expert on water policy and law and is the author of Unquenchable: America’s Water Crisis and What To Do About It.
Aimee Craft is an Assistant Professor of Law at the University of Ottawa. She is an expert in water sustainability and indigenous law and is the author of Breathing Life into the Stone Fort Treaty: An Anishinabe Understanding of Treaty One.
Madison Condon is a Legal Fellow at New York University’s Institute for Policy Integrity.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length
Maria Armoudian: I would like to start with the big picture issues, and in this case it’s what… we’re facing locally and globally with water issues? Is it primarily scarcity? Pollution? Security? Justice? What are these issues? Let’s start with Robert Glennon.
Robert Glennon: I’d like to talk about the quantity issues in the context of population growth. We nudged over seven billion a few years ago and demographers predict we are going to add two more billion by mid-century. That is going to be an amazing challenge. Secondly, water resources are compromised by climate change. It’s not uniform, but it’s a big problem. And then, thirdly, in many places the way we have used water is as though it were infinite and inexhaustible, but it’s quite finite and quite exhaustible. An example of that is groundwater. It took in some instances tens of thousands of years for mother nature to build up those reservoirs, yet we humans have depleted many of them in mere decades.
MA: Let’s elaborate just a little bit before we go on about how these issues are exacerbating our water problem. Obviously [with] population growth we are dealing with more people needing more water both for sanitary reasons and also for their drinking water, but can you just give us a little bit more context for people who don’t study water to understand how these three things are coming together to create a problem?
RG: It’s drinking water, but I think for the population growth one of the biggest challenges will be food production – trying to find enough food to feed another two billion people. And that dovetails with climate change, because as the world gets warmer some places are going to be wetter, others dryer, but warmer temperatures mean that it takes more water for farmers to grow the same amount of product. So that is challenging and right now in many parts of the world including China and India we are consuming groundwater in a way that is utterly unsustainable.
MA: Tom Perreault, what would you add to this?
Thomas Perreault: I think those are all correct observations and concerns. As a geographer I would add a spatial component, in that these issues I think are also very spatially uneven. So if we’re talking about distribution, questions of access, these are very spatially uneven, which means that they’re also very socially uneven. So some of the most acute effects of climate change, of water contamination, of localised scarcity, will not affect everybody in the same way, and we are already seeing this with extreme weather, whether you’re talking about drought or flood, in that it’s the most vulnerable populations who are suffering the most acute effects of those simply because of social and political reasons more than because of natural physical reasons. Certainly the natural and geophysical reasons are a huge part of it and that is a context, but also I think it’s very important that we can talk about social and political inequalities as part of this scenario.
MA: I suppose the geographer in you would also point to the current things that we’re looking at such as what is happening in Capetown where they are running out of water right now as one of the water disasters, and Puerto Rico I understand now after the storms [has] something like a million people without water.
TP: I think here we have to think about the spatial unevenness and the social unevenness of distribution in two ways. So there is a part of it which is natural and biophysical, there is no question that with climate change and growing aridity and growing dryness in certain areas that there is less water available, but also the political and social aspects of distribution of water governance arrangements which benefit some groups at the expense of others. Or in some cases just places where there are governance failures and that may have to do with water contamination, places where there is water, but the water is very contaminated causing environmental and health effects or areas where there is poor distribution mechanisms and vulnerable populations are really left without adequate water supplies.
MA: Would you give us a couple of examples? The one that springs to mind is Flint, Michigan, but I’m certain that you have more examples?
TP: I think we can look at those in lots of different places and we can look at them in lots of different spatial scales, social and spatial scales. So from the very local municipalities like Flint, where the effects of water contamination affect certain populations, primarily low income and in the case of Flint, primarily African American populations to a greater extent than other populations, and really their ability then to address those issues is compromised in many cases. And thinking about the ways that those are structurally reinforced in the current political and economic context, I think we can’t understand Flint without looking at a broader context of municipal governance in the U.S. in this day and age.
But other examples would include areas in La Paz, Bolivia. I do research into water governance there, and Bolivia had a water crisis in the capital city of La Paz last year and much of this had to do with poor maintenance of infrastructure, really inadequate governance structures, but also sort of inequalities, urban inequalities which are spatially manifest within the city of La Paz and its neighbouring city of El Alto which is a very poor city, very high altitude on the Altiplano. But this is also exacerbated by climate change, and so what you have in the Andean region is increased warming which means increased evaporation, glacial melting so that some of the water sources for La Paz and El Alto were drying up, but what was happening is that that became the tipping point where certain vulnerable populations were really left without water whereas other populations were able to compensate by having better wells, deeper wells, other alternative sources of water, being able to purchase water. So again it comes down to the most vulnerable sectors of the population who are going to pay the greatest cost.
MA: Aimee Craft?
Aimee Craft: I am speaking with you from the Algonquin territory in Canada where we have significant boil water advisories within First Nations communities. I come from a region in Manitoba and the city of Winnipeg where we are actually taking our drinking water from communities that are about an hour and a half drive away, and these are communities that are themselves facing a boil water advisory and in part because of the water and security that is created with the movement of water out of the lake that we draw our water from in the city. And many people know that First Nations in Canada are under boil water advisories so necessarily these geopolitical and social issues are really important. And some of the work that I’ve done is actually re-framing how we think about water and as a potential means for solving these issues and not re-framing it in some new and innovative way, but actually recapturing what indigenous law relating to water is telling us.
You know you’re not owning, controlling, accessing, using water, you’re actually in a relationship with water as a being. And that is a different way of looking at things than most western societies and economies have been thinking about the issue of water, water scarcity, water quality, and water use, and the idea of re-framing, and relationships also allows for the acknowledgment of agency of water in that relationship, so an interrelationship between beings that calls for responsibilities of agency and recognition of each other but also one of care towards each other. So there is a really interesting reciprocity in that agency, and there is a lot to be learnt from that in terms of solving some of the global water issues that we are thinking of today. Part of that is re-framing how we think about where our water comes from that we are in relationship to. So people will ask me “Where are you from?” and I define my jurisdiction by the watershed that I belong to. So thinking about it differently in those frames and understanding relationship actually allows us to create further relationships with other beings that are part of creation that are also dependent on water and amongst ourselves rather than framing everything in a way that is meant to focus on control and use and exclusivity and that engages some of the social issues that have been raised already.
MA: You would think that would be a more scientific approach, but it’s kind of ecosystem science, isn’t it?
AC: It is and it has been practiced for thousands of years within our territory, and this is a traditional knowledge in its most superior form. I think that the acknowledgment of that special relationship and what has been developed by indigenous nations around the world for those extended periods of time offers us some insight into how we can actually maintain a longer-term relationship with water than the one that we currently have that makes that relationship very precarious.
MA: Madison Condon, what would you add to all this?
Madison Condon: I would add that water problems, particularly in the U.S. and I bet abroad, also track general socio-economic trends. Professor Glennon said that when you talk about water quantity, a contributor to threats to water quantity comes from rising populations. But if you look at water quality in the U.S., it’s often shrinking populations. There are nearly sixty thousand community water systems in the U.S. and nearly two-thirds of them serve populations of fewer than five hundred people. And many of these systems are in towns that are suffering from shrinking populations, dwindling incomes, aging infrastructure and aging clientele. Those systems over time are less and less able to deal with the water treatment demand has put on the system. My research has recently focused on some communities in Texas, and in 2016 the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality issued water quality violations to under forty percent of Texas’s small town community system, and hundreds of those systems were violations that were serious enough to pose health risks. Even if the violation that rural community is facing is not a health notice it also means there is too much iron in the water and you wouldn’t want to wash your clothes in the water, or there is too much filter in the water so you wouldn’t want to drink or shower in it, so it might be safe to drink but there are other problems that these systems are just not up to handling as the infrastructure is dwindling.
MA: What is causing the contaminants in Texas? I know there is a lot of drilling, is it related to that, or is it something else?
MC: In the towns that I was focusing on it was a combination of factors. One, there was a lot of nitrate in the water, some of them were naturally occurring and then also over time they were working with a lot of agricultural communities and nitrates come from applying fertilizer over time and there is not sufficient drain water recharge to dilute the nitrate, so they start to collect in the groundwater. What a lot of those communities had to do [was] dilute their groundwater which was nitrate-heavy with another local source of fresh surface water, but that surface water is threatened by drought in general and is also subject to scarcity induced by climate change.
MA: So that would mean it is probably connected to farming if it’s nitrates, is that correct?
MC: Oh definitely, yes.
MA: So contaminants in that particular area are primarily as a result of runoff from cow poop?
MC: Cow poop, but also the synthetic fertilisers that we apply to farmland to grow our crops which are very nitrogen-heavy.
MA: So now that that report has come out, and that is clearly a regional report, but I imagine it can be compared in some way all over the world with what different communities are facing as a result of not enough look at what happens to the contaminants or the scarcity and then being compounded. Are there solutions that they are looking at in Texas?
MC: In Texas some of the communities we worked with… got outside funding, and a lot of the money you’re talking about is not huge. They need just a small grant either from the state government or from the U.S. Department of Agriculture or from the [United States Environmental Protection Agency] is enough to get them going to fix their community water system and be back in action. Unfortunately those budgets have continually been cut in recent years, and President Trump promises to cut a lot more of these budgets and turn back to privatisation as an option for saving a lot of the systems which then turns into much higher water bills for a lot of the community members.
MA: And I imagine water and security as well. Robert Glennon, what do you think about all of this? You’ve also been talking about groundwater and the depletion of that.
RG: I want to pick up on Madison’s last comments which I think are terrific, the data on how bad the situation is in rural America is quite shocking to people who are even in the world of water. When I think about the sweep of American history I think of it in a quite optimistic way in the sense that we had a system that provided virtually universal access to water and that has deteriorated in the rural areas that Madison is talking about. Maria, you referenced Flint, obviously an urban area next to Detroit, and one of the things about Flint is that it could have happened in hundreds of communities across the Midwest, including places like Grosse Point, which are very wealthy communities. The reality in the United States is that we have not maintained our water or wastewater infrastructure and the deterioration is causing some of the health problems such as what we saw in Flint. And in that sense, there has been a huge transition in how we expect to pay for maintaining drinking water and water services. In the nineteen-seventies the federal role was immense. The government had lots of money and it was giving it out to communities to establish water treatment plants, but over time that has decreased to the point where it is now almost non-existent. The most recent data I saw suggested that in the last year the federal government spent eleven dollars per capita on water and wastewater – it’s a fraction of what it once was. I thought that there was going to be a big infrastructure bill that would change the direction of this cruise line, [but] I don’t see it. I think that what the administration released is a proposal for, “Gosh, we hope you cities and states can do it on your own because we don’t have any money, but we wish you well in doing so”. That is just really an inadequate response to a huge problem. You also referenced that it would be happening globally, and it is. When you look at South Africa, Namibia, or Bolivia, what you see is the water is going, as Tom said, to the more affluent regions. It is sort of predictable when you have companies, multinationals out of Europe coming in and offering to build infrastructure, they’re going to build it in the sections of town where there are people who can pay them back for the money they’ve put in, otherwise it won’t be built at all. And so that raises enormous problems for us in terms of equity – enormous problems.
MA: Given that in international law water is supposed to be protected as a human right, I know we don’t have really good enforcement on this, but if we look at it from that perspective what are some possible ways this can be addressed? Robert Glennon, what would you say?
RG: I am not an international lawyer and the human right to water from the [United Nations] is aspirational, but it’s not enforceable. It’s great that it was passed, but it’s very difficult to get any teeth into it. Domestically we can do some things to turn the ship around. Ironically, I think one of the best policy solutions is [to] pay for water, because right now we don’t. So in my writings what I’ve done I said, “look, let’s recognise the human right to water”. I start from the baseline that at least in the United States there should be an enforceable right to water. We are the richest country in the history of the world, we have the resources, and it frankly doesn’t take that much money to pull this off, and it doesn’t take that much water if everyone in the entire country were to get fifteen gallons of water per person per day, that is only one percent of the water we use in the United States, then we can have as a community an adult conversation about how to price the other ninety-nine percent because right now we’re spoiled. We pay less for water than we do for cell phone services or cable television, and in reality we don’t pay anything for water, we pay for the cost of service.
MA: Tom Perreault, what do you think of that?
TP: Well, there is a lot there. I would like to start by addressing the issue of the human rights of water. I agree wholeheartedly that it’s an aspirational issue. It’s great to recognise that the problem is that it is something which is not enforceable. And again, Bolivia actually adopted the right to water based on international human rights principles into their recent constitution, which was rewritten in 2009. So Bolivia does recognise the right to water for its citizens. The problem is that there is a lack of real capacity to provide that. So the question becomes, how do we enforce or how do we enact a right to water if we agree that water should be a right? I certainly wouldn’t agree against the importance at least symbolically of the human rights water, but part of the question becomes how then do people actually get water that they need and not just drinking water, but also sanitation and the things that people need?
So this becomes a governance question, it becomes a question of distribution, and for that there are lots of different models. One way is to commoditise water, which has been suggested, and I think in some parts of the world that would work very well. I think in other parts of the world for a variety of reasons it works much less well and has been explicitly rejected, certainly in Bolivia it has been, and in many other places. Part of the issue with that is a symbolic issue, part of the issue is an ability to pay issue, part of the issue is who benefits financially from the commoditisation of water, turning water which in many areas has been governed as a commons and commoditising that which is essentially privatising that and allocating rights of water through the mechanism of the market. That becomes much more difficult when you get out of the U.S. context. That has been done, that does happen in certain areas or parts of the U.S. and it works quite well, but I think in other parts of the world it becomes much more problematic. So I would say in some ways the language of the human right to water is really valuable at least symbolically and from the perspective of our aspirations, I think the question really becomes one of governance and finding governance mechanisms which are equitable as well as efficient.
MA: Aimee Craft, I am going to bring you back in. I know there are proposals from many indigenous communities about giving water itself rights.
AC: And I think that is really important to frame in light of the discussion. I think we also need to question the use of water for other purposes. So not in isolation, but to remember commercial extraction of water and resource extractive activities that are so dependent on water that are threatening freshwater resources within many of the countries that have been named, including Canada. So how we are thinking about this human right to water in relation to other asserted rights of water I think is absolutely key. And I think of the context in Northern Manitoba, where we have significant hydroelectric development and water is really seen as a renewable resource or green energy, but the physical impacts on water and lands and the social impacts on people within those regions are still significant. So even in those spaces where drinking water hasn’t been threatened and the human right to water per se, as clean drinking water and water for sanitation isn’t directly threatened, we have other major issues that are connected to those within a concept of true generations that is relatively close.
So remembering that we shouldn’t think in isolation, and often when I’m speaking to this issue I say, this human right to water [is] important, but imagine ourselves in this tiny bubble with clean drinking water that has been treated when everything around us is suffering because it doesn’t have the ability to have access to clean water. So that means our food sources are compromised, it means that our relationships with other beings that are part of the creation around us are compromised, that we actually have no place to live, but will be sipping our clean drinking water inside of our national bubble of our aspirational human right to water. I think it’s really important to bring all those other pieces into [the] dialogue because the highest use of freshwater in Canada is actually for resource extractive activities in some regions. So thinking about it in terms of competing values and how we are actually using and allocating water, and who pays for water, if we are thinking about it in the context of cities and concerns of people and who has the privilege to pay for water and who is able to pay versus the larger issues of those remote regions where water is being accessed as a resource and how that impacts the larger freshwater picture across the world.
MA: So when you say extractive activities are one of the primary users of freshwater are you talking about the oil industry?
AC: Absolutely. Fracking in Canada is one of the things that we’re looking at as indigenous people, because the amount of water that is consumed to create petroleum is really significant and there is no ability to transform that water back into water that will be put back into the ground that is safe to drink. So there is the alteration of law for an undetermined period of time that is pretty significant. But I’m also talking about what has been considered as clean energy, such as hydroelectric energy, damming of rivers, and power sources, and in that way it is not necessarily as clean as it has been portrayed to be. So we really need to be conscious of those different uses of water.
MA: Let’s bring in Madison Condon.
MC: I would say in response to the concept of paying for water that that makes sense when you have farmers for example growing almonds for profit in the desert with a neighbouring city that is having scarcity issues and having trouble providing their citizens with a daily shower. It does make sense to charge for water when it’s being used maybe in an efficient way. My concern over that is when you look at some of these smaller communities that are having water quality concerns, I’ve seen instances in which the most empowered members of the town or the wealthiest members of town simply bought themselves a personal reverse osmosis system so that they individually had clean water from their own well and were able to treat it individually, and then check themselves out of the process of going to city hall to demand something better from the political system and left their fellow community members who [are] maybe less well-off to fend for themselves. In that context, I think that water is a public good and there is huge room for government involvement.
MA: That sounds like some of the issues that Tom Perreault was talking about.
TP: I think so. I think again this is an issue of the most culturally appropriate and geographically appropriate governance mechanisms or governance arrangements. And by governance arrangements, what I am talking about are the social relations through which water is governed and decisions about water allocation, water and sanitation management are made. And these happen at multiple scales. Some of this is global treaties, global compacts, they come from multilateral institutions that guide national policies, some of it is national governments. A lot of it with water though, as Amy has talked about it, really has to do with local municipalities. Water most often is produced and consumed locally, and so a lot of what makes water so interesting, but also such a complicated thing, is thinking about very localised patterns of use and governance and decision making and relations of power and privilege in combination with local hydrology and how these things overlap. So I think it absolutely has to do with these kinds of questions of governance and government arrangements in the relationship between the state and civil society organisations and, in some cases where appropriate, the market. But I would agree also with Amy that that is not necessarily appropriate in all instances.
MA: As I understand general water law, especially in the U.S., is that he who has access to it can take – it is that correct?
RG: Actually, it is not. Water in the United States is a public good already, but there are in most states rights to use the water, but they’re not ownership interests. It’s a use right.
MA: I guess what I meant [is] you can use as much as you want. If you happen to have access to a groundwater aquifer or something like that then you can keep using it to your heart’s content. Is that true?
RG: That is the way it has been, Maria. But that is not the way it is in most states that have reformed their law, including Arizona. They’ve put limits on how much you can pump, quantified limits. What that does is it starts to break the tragedy of the commons by putting a limit on it. When I think of our systems in the West, I think of a giant milkshake glass and I think of lots of straws in the glass, and somehow or another we have to figure out a way to have fewer straws in the glass or, at least, not more straws. So I think what we’re seeing is that we’re entering the era of water reallocation where you have to figure out ways to create financial incentives for those who are using most of the water, and that is the farmers. Farmers consume eighty percent of our water, so we have to figure out ways for them to use less. But what is that? Many of the farmers are using woefully inefficient flood irrigation systems, but to change from those systems to modern highly efficient systems is very expensive. So let’s have the cities pay for the farmers to have better infrastructure, that way we keep the farmers in business growing the food that we desperately need, but they do so with a little bit less water, and that water solves the urban problems.
MA: One more question for you, Robert Glennon. Back in the days when I worked in the California legislature, which was a long time ago, there was an issue that crept into the agenda, but never really made itself on the agenda, which was these companies that were going to be water banking – creating big banks where they would take all this water and stick it underground and sort of hoard it like Cadiz. Is that still a concern?
RG: The Cadiz didn’t do very well with that, nor did the Basque brothers in Texas. Like the other participants in this session, privatisation is problematic on some levels. On the other hand, privatisation is important for bringing the capital markets to bear on these problems and we have to get more capital into the market if we’re going to provide water to rural areas, otherwise there is no sense in even thinking about it. You’ve got to have that money.
MA: Unless you have a system that is truly a public system, that doesn’t have to rely on private money as much as if we had a government that thought public-mindedness. I know that we don’t have that right now.
RG: That is sort of the system we had, but we don’t have the political will to put the money into it at the local level nor at the federal level. Whenever I go around talking about raising the price of water elected officials look like I’ve just come in from another planet.
MA: I think that is because of the equity issues that Tom Perreault was talking about. Tom Perreault, what would you add?
TP: I think that Robert raises an important issue in that we’re really in many respects talking about different groups of water users and different classes of water users, and in many cases those are literal social classes right. So it’s absolutely true that in virtually every country in the world the majority of the water is consumed in agriculture, and if you’re talking about agriculture in the U.S., and particularly in the American West in places like California which is the most important agricultural state in the U.S., you’re talking about very large businesses that are highly modernised, highly mechanised in many respects, and major consumers of water. And let me just add again to what Madison was talking about regarding extracted industries – this is absolutely true as well that oil, gas, mining are major, major consumers, albeit more localised, but in particular local areas those are huge consumers of water and also have major impacts on water quality. So the downstream water from a mine site or fracking pad oftentimes can be very polluted, not always, but in many cases it is. So there are major impacts there. These are different groups of users than, say, very small-scale subsistence farmers or consumers, urban consumers, and particularly the vulnerable populations that we were talking about earlier in Flint or in many other parts of the world.
So I think it is important to differentiate between different sectors of use and different ways that people use water, engage with water, their relationship with water in the way that Madison was talking about. So I think… this sort of social and spatial variability of the ways in which people use water becomes really important in terms of how we craft governance mechanisms. So I think one of the problems almost inherent in these situations is when you have different forms of water use, different forms of water knowledge that come into contact and then in many cases it’s the dominant forms of water knowledge and water use and water governance, which basically overwhelm many localised forms of water use. So indigenous populations, peasant populations, small-scale farmer populations, but also urban sort of disadvantage or vulnerable populations who are subject to water contamination. All of these things I think are related, but it’s part of this kind of broader multiple scales of inequality and difference within water systems.
MA: I wonder if we could turn to some governance structures that really do work as exemplars. Do we know of some systems that are really shining stars? Aimee Craft, what do you think?
AC: Well I would… like to throw a different concept into the conversation and it’s one of trying to define what is in the public interest. And all of these competing values is really difficult when we are thinking about water and use of water and allocation. I think one shining example is re-attributing legal personhood to water. So instead of looking at the interests of humans and this broader definition of public interest that is so fraught with these competing interests, we actually take a step back and think about defining governance from the perspective of water bodies themselves. And that is not so far off the imaginary in law, because we give corporations legal personhood and agency. So why not think about water in that way so that the decision making and the management of water would actually be to the benefit of particular water bodies or watersheds and then those other interests that are engaged would almost be asking you know for permission from those water bodies in its agency whose needs are connected to that particular water body. I think that is a really interesting model that has been explored on an international scale through legislation and through constitutions and court rulings, and could take us a little bit further in terms of North America thinking about all of these competing industries and interests, as well as the urban environments in which we live, taxing water in so many ways and thinking about it instead and defining this idea of a public resource from the perspective of a water body itself as something that can contribute to the well-being of other beings that are part of this broader ecosystem.
MA: Amy, I think it’s Ecuador that has actually put some of this into law, and I know it is codified in New Zealand, so I knew that it was in the books in some way.
AC: Well the Aotearoa example is actually the recognition of a river that is connected to a mountain and it is really taking up the Māori perspective on how to manage that relationship with the particular places of river and mountain. And I certainly don’t speak for Māori, but from an observer’s perspective we can see, brought into legislation, these values and principles that are then articulated in the form of a trust port that is to look after the interests of the Wanganui River. So understanding it from that perspective I think it is refreshing, it’s different, it has some challenges built into it, but that is what law-making and governance is. I don’t think any human on this call would disagree that that is the messiness of law and policy-making and approaching it from a different perspective with a set of values that has long-term knowledge attached to it and the ability to define longer-term interests for collective populations is one of the highlights of that approach that has been taken in quite a few jurisdictions around the world already, and that I think could be a good model to think of in many others.
MA: Madison Condon, what do you think of this idea?
MC: I was thinking of what comes to mind in terms of good governance examples, there are examples within the U.S. where if there is one industry that is a particularly bad actor, or might be a bad actor, there is been successful instances in which a community has joined together with the industry and created a good neighbour agreement. They have threatened to not approve a permit process or obstructed a permitting process in order to get concessions from the mine or other industry that goes above and beyond what either federal EPA or the local state environmental agency would require. And those have worked very well. There is a water mine in Montana [that] has a good neighbour agreement and there is the Buckbery mine in the Pacific North West, and these agreements are very much enabled by changes in technology that we’ve seen recently which has allowed citizen scientists to go collect their own samples from a mine site or from some other run off-site and analyse them to see if the mine is in fact meeting the terms of its permit, and if not to call attention to that more broadly. I think that these examples can be extrapolated more broadly to say that as monitoring is getting more available to your average person to see what is coming out of their taps, that might be a source for political change as people are more empowered to figure out exactly what they are drinking.
MA: How hard would it be to move to something that would be ensuring access to clean water when you have somebody running the country’s environmental protection agency like Scott Pruitt and somebody like Donald Trump who seem determined to dismantle things like the Clean Water Rule. Tom Perreault?
TP: That is a really good question and I wish I had a good answer for that. I think there are a few things in terms of basic environmental governance principles, one is transparency, one is participation, one is equity. I think one of the issues with the current political climate that we have in the U.S. and certainly with the way that the EPA, and environmental policy in general, is being framed in the United States is that it really is the politicians appear to be most accountable to capital, to the extractive industries, to the oil and gas industry, and so the interest there is not one of accountability to the people – it’s one of accountability to capital and I think that is actually pretty blatant. I don’t think that that should really be a controversial statement in this context, and I think that is where it is. So I think partly what has to happen is a re-democratisation of environmental governance broadly and water governance is part of that, that people need to be able to participate in decision-making processes and really feel that their voices count, that water isn’t going to flow only to money, that the people’s rights and needs are going to be taken care of and that environmental concerns are going to be central as well. I think that has got to be huge, we’ve got to think really hard about what water governance really means, what democratic water governance means within our society.
MA: It seems like it would be like if the stakes were really laid out it would be a non-partisan issue?
TP: You would think so. But I think Robert brought up a really good point earlier around infrastructure. Infrastructure is basic, and whether we’re talking about water infrastructure… transportation infrastructure, or energy infrastructure, U.S. infrastructure spending and maintenance are woefully inadequate. I am sitting in Syracuse, New York, and our highways are crumbling. I mean there are massive potholes and bursting water pipes during the winter are just a part of everyday life all the time. So I think that this is part of a broader sort of neoliberal trend in which there has been an active disinvestment from the public sector into basic infrastructure and it’s pretty remarkable if you travel in many other parts of the world where basic infrastructure is just in much better condition than it is in much of the United States. So I think the role of the state is hugely important here.
MA: I am a political scientist and so I think about these things as a kind of hidden issues, they’re not the ones that are right in front of your face and so they don’t end up driving very frequently voting behaviour.
TP: They also don’t tend to drive a lot of political decisions on the part of elected officials because they are long-term investments in very unsexy things, right? So nobody wants to be known as the “pothole president”, but these are really important issues. But what gets elected officials re-elected are building things like convention centres or aircraft carriers… But I agree they’re sort of hidden and they’re things that people don’t particularly want to think about until they become a crisis, then it becomes a political issue, but by that time it’s almost too late because you’re in a reactionary mode instead of a planning mode.
MA: Madison Condon, what do you think of all of that?
MC: I agree that the challenge that we are facing with water, the solutions are not water-specific and that makes them very daunting. Issues of water are mired in issues that we have generally with inequality and generally with how we preference industry over the general populace, so it makes it very challenging.
MA: Final words, Aimee Craft?
AC: I think that there is a lot of potential to think about things differently, and in Canada we do have a government that is committed to ending long-term drinking water advisories in First Nation communities by 2020. We know in Canada that the most vulnerable population in terms of clean drinking water are First Nation and indigenous peoples living in remote areas and on reserves. So I think where we head… really has to take into account ideas of agency and decision making, that really abstract these competing values that are in this broader sense of public interest including commercial interests, and again about what do we want for the longer term? So how do we make decisions that are sustainable that meet needs of today but are also thinking about how we interact with those other things that are in our natural environment and not setting ourselves up to live in that little bubble that I was referring to, where we have a clean glass of drinking water, but everything around us is crumbling, which is an image that has already been invoked in this conversation. So long-term responsible decision-making that flips and, in a sense, makes the human interest more humble in relation to this broader sense of a long-term sustainable interest.
MA: Final thoughts, Tom Perreault?
TP: I would agree with that and I really appreciate those comments… I would say we need to think about water in ways that move beyond the technical and [policy-centric] and really think about it in political terms and realise that decisions about water are profoundly political decisions that have to do with questions of social and environmental justice. If we can think about that as a society then I think we can move beyond sort of simple technical fixes and really think about the role of water in our lives and in our environment.
MA: Final thoughts, Madison Condon?
MC: I think that what my colleague here have said I agree wholeheartedly with, it is very complicated. I very much hope that individuals as they see their lives affected by, say, declining and restructure grants from federal agencies that they are able to trace the cause of that effect on their lives to its political source and that would hopefully make them become more engaged in the issue. I guess time will tell.
MA: And also how we are able to interface with the public I think matters a lot, like how do we bring these issues in a way that people think about them, so it’s on their agenda but understand them with a little bit more depth? If people did understand the issues and then knew how to participate in that meaningful way I would think that that would start to invigorate the democratisation that Tom is talking about.
MC: Yes. I agree.
This interview originally aired on the Scholars’ Circle. To access our archive of episodes and download this interview, click here.
Disclaimer: The views expressed in this discussion reflect the opinions of the guests and not necessarily the views of The Big Q.