The Last Drop

Issue section: 

I should start by declaring an interest — as a socialist in Ireland where the largest mass movement since the War of Independence has been over the issue of water charges, almost any book dealing with “the politics of water” is bound to demand attention, especially as Mike Gonzalez himself made a contribution to launching the Right 2 Water campaign back in early 2014.

But leave that special interest aside. The fact is that this is a fascinating and very useful analysis which is of international relevance.

What this excellently written and well researched book demonstrates is how the transformation of the provision of water from a public service designed to meet the most basic of human needs into an “economic good” to be produced and sold for profit — in short its privatisation — has generated not one but a multitude of intersecting crises on the global scale.

This process, the authors argue, was an integral part of the whole neoliberal agenda and a particular role in its inauguration was played by Margaret Thatcher in the early 1980s — the first example of the privatisation of water supply (closely followed by Chile).

Another landmark, they say, was the 1992 Dublin International Conference on Water and the Environment which, though it went largely unnoticed at the time, was an “ideological milestone” by redefining water as an “economic good”.

As a result we have: the great bottled water scam; the catastrophic dam-building crisis; the horrible pollution of water supplies crisis; the disappearing rivers, lakes and seas crisis; all made steadily worse by the greatest crisis of all — the crisis of human generated climate change, which itself brings the deadly combination of drought and storms, desertification and flooding — too little water and too much.

And it is all taking place within the framework of an obscenely unequal, class divided, profit driven system which enables the rich to consume, and waste, vast quantities of water on such essentials as watering golf courses and lawns in California and running fountains in Dubai while denying to hundreds of millions of the poorest that most fundamental prerequisite of life and health — a stable supply of clean water.

One of the best features of The Last Drop is the way its overall analysis is repeatedly illustrated with fascinating and often frightening facts. The fact that “not only was this [bottled] water no safer than tap water … in possibly up to a quarter of cases, it was tap water… [and in] the case of Coca-cola’s brand ‘Dasani’ …had been taken directly from the public water supply!”

Or that, of the Aral Sea, “once the fourth largest inland sea on the planet…all that remains is a grotesque landscape of boats stranded in a desert as camels make their way past them”.

Or the case of China’s Yellow River, one of the world’s great waterways, which sustains half a billion people with its water but which “by the 1970s…was running dry, failing to reach its estuary for part of every year. Along its courses lakes are disappearing, irrigation channels drying up, and whole areas turning to desert.”

But the book’s greatest strength is the way in which all its many case studies are welded together in a coherent and totalising argument as to how capitalism is degrading and menacing the very foundation of life itself.

However, it is not only a diagnosis and an indictment but also a call to arms for resistance citing examples of people’s mobilisations from below from Cochabamba to South Africa to Ireland (with a contribution from People Before Profit TD Richard Boyd Barrett) and outlining a programme of principles for water as a basic human right.

One thing seems certain: that in the years to come battles over the right to water will intensify as part of the intensifying global crisis and that as they do this book will become ever more relevant as a theoretical and practical aid to the struggle.