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Geoff Goodwin

May 17th, 2021

Water crisis as big business

1 comment | 4 shares

Estimated reading time: 6 minutes

Geoff Goodwin

May 17th, 2021

Water crisis as big business

1 comment | 4 shares

Estimated reading time: 6 minutes

The Great Reset: Paradigm Shift or Paradigm Maintenance? In response to the economic, social and political disruptions of COVID-19, The World Economic Forum launched its Great Reset Initiative in a virtual conference in January 2021.  Leaders from the political, business, civil society and scholarly communities joined forces to reframe the global agenda and to fashion a new approach to development that is more inclusive, sustainable, and diverse. Reflections on the proposals put forward in the Great Reset Initiative examine whether the new Davos Agenda represents a reset or a repackaging of the faltering market-led development paradigm, while seeking useful lessons for moving forward. 

In this article, Guest Teacher in International Development Geoff Goodwin looks at how the World Economic Forums’s narrative on the water crisis falls short of the reality, and questions whether big business is really the answer to the global challenge. 

One of the central themes of ‘The Great Reset’ initiative is ‘fairer economies’. The discursive framing of this theme is revealing. On the one hand, it suggests that economic and political elites are concerned about the political and moral backlash against rising inequality. In setting the agenda for this theme, the organisers of the Davos conference note that inequality has ‘soared’, social mobility has ‘reversed’, and social cohesion has been ‘undermined’. These sentiments were reflected in panel discussions at Davos, which revealed mounting anxiety about the political consequences of inequality.  On the other hand, by striving for ‘fairer’ rather than ‘fair’ economies it suggests that economic and political elites are setting the equality bar at a low level and not seeking substantive changes. Taking a brief look at the role water plays in the World Economic Forum (WEF) vision of fairer economies provides further evidence of this.

Water is rightly identified as fundamental to any transition to a more equitable future. Contributors to the Davos Agenda note, for example, that water underpins all of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), including those related to hunger, gender, and health. The scale of the water challenge is also highlighted, with the agenda claiming that half the world’s population is forecasted to lack reliable access to clean drinking water by 2025. When this disturbing outlook is placed alongside the SDG commitment to provide universal access to clean drinking water and sanitation by 2030 the magnitude of the water challenge becomes even clearer. Crucially, the Davos Agenda recognise that this challenge is not limited to the Global South: London and Miami are among the cities in the Global North that are expected to face increasing water scarcity in the coming decade.

What are the causes of this deepening global water crisis?

WEF analysis published at the Davos conference identifies some important factors. Tensions between energy and water use are highlighted. For example, the considerable demands that fossil fuels place on water supplies are noted, with fracking singled out for particular attention. The amount of energy used to treat and desalinate water is also recognised. Food production and consumption are seen as other important factors. It is noted that agriculture accounts for the bulk of global freshwater withdrawals and overcoming the water crisis will require addressing water use in this sector. The basic challenge, according to the WEF, is to produce more ‘crop per drop’ through the efficient use of water and the introduction of new technologies.

It is here that the limits of the WEF’s narrative become clear. The structure of the global food regime is ignored and fundamental drivers of the water crisis are consequently excluded from its analysis. For instance, the implications of monocropping and agroexport for water use are overlooked. The agriculture sector is also homogenised, which obscures enormous differences in water use and access between the various actors involved in food production. By focusing on efficiency and technology, the WEF conceals structural and distributional factors and reduces the water challenge to a largely technical issue.

This is consistent with the broader Davos narrative about the global water crisis, which presents inefficient water management and changing climatic conditions as the main drivers. From this perspective, markets have a key role to play in the allocation of water, while the private sector is expected to drive technological change and plug the multi-trillion-dollar gap in water infrastructure investment. Water is therefore seen as a prime site for accumulation and commodification. In other words, the water crisis is big business.

All of this points towards ‘The Great Reset’ initiative seeking to extend rather than transcend neoliberal approaches to water services and management. Yet, there is, of course, only so much that the economic and political elites who gather at Davos can control. Interesting processes are occurring across the Global North and Global South that are pushing in alternative directions. The remunicipalisation of water services has spread as private firms have failed to deliver on their promises to increase investment and improve services. Coproduced water services have also proliferated, creating novel alternatives to neoliberal approaches in some cases.  Meanwhile, social movements have challenged efforts to treat water as a commodity and articulated alternative visions of water services and management. While these processes and movements represent cracks in the neoliberal paradigm, systemic changes are required to rupture structural inequalities and create equitable and sustainable water systems. Whether this can be achieved in the context of a capitalist world economy that requires endless expansion is debatable. ‘The Great Reset’ initiative does not, of course, consider this deeper underlying question.

This article is part of the The Great Reset: Paradigm Shift or Paradigm Maintenance? series.

 


The views expressed in this post are those of the author and in no way reflect those of the International Development LSE blog or the London School of Economics and Political Science.

About the author

Geoff Goodwin

Geoff Goodwin is a Lecturer in Global Political Economy at the University of Leeds, UK. His research focuses on land, water, infrastructure, and activism in Ecuador and Colombia. His latest publication is ‘Double Movements and Disembedded Economies: A Response to Richard Sandbrook’, Development and Change 53 (3): 676-702

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