Water crisis and the struggle for justice

Water is the foundation of life everywhere on Earth. While for many it comes in abundance, for many it cannot even supply their basic needs. The struggle for water is first and foremost a struggle for environmental democracy and justice.

The issues related to water are manyfold. Struggles against the privatisation of water, especially regarding urban water supplies, are fought all over the global South. In China, many river basins are partially so badly polluted that merely touching the water can be harmful to the skin. In many countries such as India, groundwater is depleting for example due to intensive cotton farming. Dam projects on Mekong River are threatening the livelihoods of millions of fishermen and the food security of tens of millions of people. As a result of land rush, agribusiness-related land grabbing, and the increasing number of pulpwood plantations, people are losing not only their lands but often their waters as well. Thus, this is not a question of land grabbing alone, but of water grabbing as well.


Due to the hydrologic cycle, water is practically infinite; however, the water in drainage basins renews only to the extent to which the natural flow of water adds to it, and this makes water a limited resource. A significant part of water use is exclusive in a way or another. When water is used for irrigation or collected in dams, it cannot be used for anything else at the same time. Water evaporates and gets polluted in agricultural and industrial production. It gets transported with export products as 'virtual water' to be consumed by people with purchasing power, often in the water-abundant global North. The concept of virtual water refers to the volume of freshwater appropriated to produce a certain product, taking into account the volumes of water consumed and polluted in the different steps of the supply chain. The distribution of virtual water becomes ever more inequitable as agribusiness, industrial tree plantations and factories are moved to the global South of cheaper production costs and scarcer water supplies. Furthermore, the growing pressure to boost the production of renewable energy escalates the water crisis, as for example agrofuels and hydroelectric power demand more and more water.

The concept of water footprint refers to the overall volume of water consumed by a single unit - be it a single person, factory or an entire country - through products and their production processes. The water footprint is subject to local conditions. More than 40% of Finland's water footprint lies abroad.

Water as a human right, and issues in water management

The ways in which water-related issues are conceptualised and the solutions proposed to these issues vary greatly. The private sector, OECD and international financial institutions have been persistent in advocating the commodification of water and the development of water pricing and increasingly efficient water markets. The World Water Forums constitute a crucial arena in which the global water crises are attempted to solve. On these forums, the water issue has been characterised mainly as a question of technological control, efficiency and markets. Reflecting the power relations operating within the field of water policy, the list of World Water Forum participants includes governmental representatives of various countries, UN organisations and big international NGOs. Transnational water management and construction companies with their consultants and engineers play a central role as well. In the 2012 World Water Forum framework, no reference was made to water as a human right, even though in 2010 the United Nations General Assembly had, after a long debate, approved a resolution acknowledging the access to safe and clean water and sanitation as a fundamental human right.

Therefore, many environmental organisations and social movements especially in the South see the World Water Forum more a part of the problem than a solution. As a result, an alternative forum has been created in opposition to the original one. Composed of NGOs, trade unions, activists, researchers and local communities, the Alternative World Water Forum addresses the water problem as a question of political justice. Water is considered a human right, and attempts towards its privatisation are seen as a problem. In the alternatives presented by social movements, decentralised small-scale solutions of low cost are prominent. Such solutions are not profitable to big water and construction companies. The principal idea behind the Alternative World Water Forum is that it is better to guarantee 'Some for All, Not All for Some'.


The bigger the project, the bigger the risk of failure. The advantage of small, decentralised projects is their easier manageability and the possibility of taking local conditions and needs better into consideration. Also, with small-scale operations, potential failures will not lead to irreversible harm to the economy, environment or locals. Large-scale water projects such as hydroelectric dams and major irrigation systems, then again, concentrate the benefits and the overall control of water in the hands of the few. Major dams, for example, often threaten other uses of water such as fishing. The main difference between using waterways for hydroelectric power and using them for fishing is that in fishing the river or other body of water is utilised in diverse and decentralised ways. With hydroelectric dams, on the other hand, the use of the river is concentrated in a whole different manner, and also the benefits reaped are distributed through highly centralised means. People who have lost their fishing grounds or who have been displaced from the way of dams only rarely benefit from dam-generated electricity or from electricity sales revenues.

The root causes of the water crisis lie deep within the structures of the modern industrial society. In order to come up with solutions, profound changes are required in these structures and in the understandings of nature dominant in water resource management. Water conflicts often spring from clashes between differing worldviews and political struggles. Many local communities that rely on water for their livelihoods and sustenance - fishermen, farmers, foragers - have little influence over the use of their environment. Solving water-related conflicts often requires improving particularly the situation of the poorest and reinforcing civil society.

Olli-Pekka Haavisto, Marko Keskinen and Mira Käkönen


Example: major dams

USA and the Soviet Union have been early pioneers in the history of major dam construction: several ambitious dam projects were launched in both countries in the 1930s. Both USA and the Soviet Union have also been at the forefront of taking dam projects to developing countries. After World War II, dams were pivotal in Cold War politics. Their construction, peaking in the 1970s, was to a great extent funded with development aid or loans from development banks. Dam projects are very costly, and the money involved attracts Northern construction companies as well as Southern governments and water authorities.

Dam-related problems started to gain wider attention in the 1980s and 1990s through campaigns coordinated by social movements and environmental NGOs. The waves of criticism resulted in the setting up of the World Commission on Dams in 1998. The WCD final report, published in 2000, surprised both the proponents and opponents of dams. According to the report, 'dams have made an important and significant contribution to human development, and the benefits derived from them have been considerable'. However, 'in too many cases an unacceptable, and often unnecessary and high price has been paid to secure those benefits, especially in social and environmental terms, by people displaced, by communities downstream, by taxpayers and by the natural environment' (WCD 2000, 310). In the report, the number of people having been displaced was estimated to be from 40 to 80 million, which was more than the figure set by many environmental NGOs so far. The report also recognised the corruption and the highly unequal distribution of benefits often related to dams. As a result of the criticism, many development finance institutions withdrew from several projects and the building of dams collapsed in the turn of the century.

Recently, a new wave of dam building has emerged in particular in Brazil, Congo and the Mekong Region. Completely new players are now behind the projects. In Mekong, the projects are funded by Chinese and Thai banks, whereas in Brazil the financer is the Brazilian Development Bank. Today, the building of dams is justified with climate change, even though particularly in the tropics the methane emissions of reservoirs can measure up to the carbon dioxide emissions of coal-fired power plants.

Mira Käkönen