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Water—On Women’s Burdens, Humans’ Rights, and Companies’ Profits

Zuhal Yeşilyurt Gündüz is associate professor at the Department of Political Science and International Relations at Baskent University (Ankara/Turkey).

“We used to say that water was sacred, but now you have to be rich to use it….I feel stupid for paying for drinking water.”

—Sevgi Demir, Housewife in Istanbul/Turkey1

How is it possible that a person living in a water-rich region uses more water by flushing the toilet than a person in a water-scarce region has available for drinking, food-preparation, hygiene, and cleaning—for a whole day?

How is it possible that a woman living in a water-rich region only needs to open the tap to get enough water for herself and her family, while a woman in a water-scarce region has to…walk for miles and miles to get far less water of much worse quality?

Why is that so? Is it bad fortune? Unfair? Destiny? Undeserved? Is it unjust? It is all these, but also much more. Water is the essence of life. It is the precondition of life. Author Antoine de Saint-Exupéry wrote an homage about water, calling it “indescribable….We do not just need you to live: you are life itself! You are the Earth’s most precious possession.…You are a delicate divinity.” Just like the air we breathe, we need water to survive. Clean water, for sure: unsafe, unclean water kills.

This article has two parts. The first deals with dominant positions concerning water: the neoliberal agenda, consequences of water privatization, and the UN stance. The second part looks at what is missing in this picture and ignored by the dominant perspectives—namely, global inequalities and gender discrimination.

Water—Dominant Perspectives

In today’s globalized world, nothing is safe from being commercially exploited by global capital—not even resources that are vital for the survival of humanity, as well as sustaining life and the ecosystem. The world’s fresh water supply is a mere 2.5 percent of the earth’s total water volume. These finite fresh water resources are today being polluted, diverted, and depleted at accelerating rates, creating a growing number of water-stressed regions. Under neoliberal circumstances, where the economy controls and rules over the ecology, some corporate owners gain giant profits, whereas everybody else endures difficulties—life-threatening difficulties, that is.

In this situation of mounting demands, water loses all its figurative and sacred meanings and is converted into a commodity, a product, a good. Neoliberalism turns nature from common resource to profit-gaining commodity. In this perspective, nature is perceived as external to humans and full of usable material goods for consumption and gain.2 Certainly, there is a link between environmental degradation and social injustice: how people treat nature and how they treat each other is inseparably connected (ecofeminism).

Globalization’s panacea is privatization. This cure-all of (nearly) all global problems is vehemently prescribed by international organizations such as the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank, and the European Union. The World Bank drives the opening of trade in water rights by pressurizing countries to privatize and relocate rights for water sources to giant corporations. It is crucial to remember that the word “privatization” comes from the Latin word “privare,” which means “to deprive”!3

Two examples of the now common commercial advertisements of this deprivation may suffice. German Commerzbank dubs water the oil of the twenty-first century.It points to the fact that 90 percent of the world’s water supplies is in public hands as the main obstacle in the provision of water services. Commerzbank applauds that more and more towns and cities privatize their water supply and distribution systems, and estimates the awaited profits at a sky-scraping €300 billion, saying:Water is a market with potential for future expansion. A wide range of companies will profit from the foreseeable boom in the water sector.”

The Deutsche Bank, too, greedily promotes this “megatrend”: “Water, the blue gold, is becoming scarce. Even today, water is a rare commodity and, in view of the population growth in developing and transitional countries, the situation looks geared to become even more critical. A short supply of a commodity is per se the prerequisite for excellent returns.”4

To celebrate water scarcity, especially in combination with population growth, is macabre, to say the least.

Global concentration among private water suppliers is enormous, generating concentrated profits. The French companies Suez and Veolia (formerly Vivendi) “until very recently, controlled two-thirds of the global private water services sector.” Suez has 160,000 employees worldwide, 72,000 in its water division, while Veolia has 272,000 employees, 70,000 in its water division. In third place is the British company Thames Water (created when Margaret Thatcher privatized UK water services) with 12,000 employees. The total revenue of Suez in 2007 (including all of its divisions) was over $130 billion, dwarfing the GDPs of many of the countries in which it operates.5

Consequences of Water Privatization

Privatization and deregulation of water are prescribed by international organizations as a solution to all problems concerning water: water scarcity, water waste, over-consumption, and pollution will end, and the developing infrastructure will make water accessible to all.

However, the reality looks different. The consequences of water privatization are devastating: water cannot be replenished according to “demand and supply.” Studies reveal that privatization neither increases access to clean water for poor people nor leads to better quality and lower prices for water. On the contrary, the commercialization of water resources has resulted in sobering problems.

After a bottled water company opened a plant in Java/Indonesia in 2002, it consumed such a high amount of spring water, only twenty meters away from the region’s main water source, that farmers had less and less irrigation water, and their wells started to run dry. Several farmers lost their livelihood and had to stop farming.6 Coca-Cola, after exploiting the groundwater reserves, turned parts of Kerala/India into a desert. Entire rivers have been sold in India.

General trends concerning privatization and deregulation of water reveal that water is being offered mostly to those who can afford to pay. Water’s preferred use in a privatized market system is for income-generating activities: already 70 percent of water is used for agriculture; around 20 percent for industry, and 10 percent goes to household use. In decision making, women’s voices are not listened to, increasing their vulnerability.

Whereas public water suppliers are not driven by the search for profits or even full returns of provision costs and are more likely to see water as a necessary public service, private companies must regain their costs of provision and maximize their profits to stay alive within harsh competition. For people, water is a public need that needs to be guaranteed, whereas for private retailers, it is a commodity like any other.

Public water suppliers commonly seek to protect those who cannot afford water with price reductions, subsidies, or provisions of free water, whereas commercial sellers do not share such responsibility or commitment toward those in need. Public water providers are in a position to keep water prices stable for years and years, whereas private venders will easily and quickly increase prices, to make sure their profit margins widen.

Public water suppliers promote water conservation and less consumption, whereas commercial companies are keen on more overconsumption by those who can afford to pay, since this generates further scarcities and enhances their growth and profits. However, the overconsumption of water brings a quick depletion of water tables and environmental non-sustainability. Public providers supply water while taking into consideration quality, environmental protection, reliable supply, best standards, and public welfare interests, whereas private companies are interested—by their very nature—in a single feature: the maximization of profit and gain—the sooner the better, the more the better.

After privatization, customers all over the world face price increases between 15 and 50 percent. As water is indispensable, they are forced to accept these raises. Consider, for example, the privatization by EnBW of water in Stuttgart, Germany. Although water prices had remained stable for years, the first thing EnBW did as the new “owner” of water, was to increase prices, first by over 6 percent, then a further 7.5 percent. EnBW achieved record results for that financial year—a gain of 42 percent.7

A lucrative byproduct of water privatization is the ever-increasing sale of bottled water. Although this commodity is not much different than processed tap water, more and more people—in fear of their and their families’ (especially children’s) health, and as a result of successful advertisement campaigns—purchase bottled water for disproportionately high prices. There are even suspicions that main infrastructural networks might be allowed to deteriorate, even disintegrate, making tap water undrinkable and boosting corporations’ profits. Bottled water is available in varying amounts, but always in plastic. Millions and millions of plastic bottles result in thousands of tons of waste, triggering an extreme kind of environmental pollution. Taking into account the transportation of bottled water, sometimes from quite far-away places, it is possible to say that bottled water causes an immense amount of environmental degradation. Another problem is the fact that water companies are eager to deplete a water source up to the last drop, without contemplating the environment, the fresh water regeneration phase, consequences for the resident population, or the desertification of entire regions.

The UN Stance on Water

The question of whether water—so indispensable to life and survival—is a “human right,” a “universal need,” or an “economic good” has been debated for quite a long time. One convincing argument asserts that the original drafters did not incorporate water in their Universal Declaration of Human Rights because they assumed that water, like air, is so evidently essential for life and therefore the satisfaction of other human rights that it simply did not require special reference. The UN Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women, the Convention on Persons with Disabilities, and the Convention on the Rights of the Child all recognize the “human right” to water.8

However, the Dublin Statement on Water and Sustainable Development, adopted in January 1992 at the International Conference on Water and the Environment, called water an “economic good” that has an economic worth. In perfect corporate manner, it stated: “Past failure to recognize the economic value of water has led to wasteful and environmentally damaging uses of the resource. Managing water as an economic good is an important way of achieving efficient and equitable use, and of encouraging conservation and protection of water resources.”9

The 2000 UN World Water Forum, declared water a basic “need.” Yet, it in a capitalist economy a need is not the same as a right. If water is a right, governments are obliged to supply water to their citizens. But if water is a need, private companies can keep on commodifying it globally.

It therefore was an important step when the UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights acknowledged, in its November 2002 “General Comment No. 15 on the Right to Water,” that “the human right to water is indispensable for leading a life in human dignity. It is a prerequisite for the realization of all human rights.” States should guarantee “the allocation of water resources, and investments in water [and] facilitate access to water for all members of society.” Here, access to water was considered to be a human right, and water a social and cultural good, not just an economic commodity, as everybody had the right to “sufficient, affordable, physically accessible, safe and acceptable water for personal and domestic uses.”10

The UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Water followed this up by stating that water management should be subject to public control and that “States are generally obliged to take action to facilitate access to water and sanitation.” The UN Development Fund for Women added: “While this does not imply that the State must directly provide safe, accessible drinking water to each household or person, it does mean that the State bears ultimate responsibility for ensuring that each person has access to the amount of water required to sustain their life and fulfill basic needs.”11

The most important step on the road to the establishment of a universal right to water was the General Assembly’s July 28, 2010, resolution (by a vote of 122 in favor, none against, with forty-one abstentions) declaring access to safe water and sanitation a “human right essential to the full enjoyment of life and all other human rights.” The Assembly also appealed to UN Member States and international organizations to “offer funding, technology and other resources to help poorer countries scale up their efforts to provide clean, accessible and affordable drinking water and sanitation for everyone.”12

Certainly, this resolution is a milestone and of great meaning for all those who have fought for the recognition of water as a human right. Many have fought to implement the UN Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). These eight development goals—among them halving the number of people unable to attain or afford clean drinking water and basic sanitation services by the year 2015—were derived from the Fifty-Fifth General Assembly in September 2000.

In its fact sheet for the International Year of Freshwater 2003—Meeting the Global Targets, the United Nations estimated that the improvement of water supply and sanitation will cost around $20 billion a year, whereas current spending amounts to about $10 billion a year.13 According to this calculation, an annual sum of up to $180 billion is necessary for upgrading water and sanitation facilities in order to meet the MDGs. Because there is currently an investment level of only $80 billion, private enterprise water companies are being invited to finance the $100 billion gap. No matter how well-intentioned the Millennium Development Goals 2015 may have been, private water corporations of the developed industrialized states, under the guise of “philanthropic aims,” “charity,” “development aid,” and “MDGs,” are becoming the main beneficiaries of the process, gaining access to services once publicly provided which are now being turned into for-profit markets.

Furthering this nefarious position, the European Union, in its position paper “Towards the UN MDG Review Summit 2010—Recommendations to the EU,” posits that, in order to achieve the MDGs, it has to engage in “meaningful and strong partnership with…civil society organisations in the North and the South [and] the private sector.”14 By urging “strong partnership with the private sector,” mainly aimed at getting companies like Suez, Veolia, and Thames Water in the door, the European Union reveals once more how involved it is in promoting neoliberal ends of privatization around the world.

The EU stance is now the dominant perspective, carrying more clout than the declaration of the UN General Assembly. The “human right to water,” which is obliterated the moment it becomes a means to profits, necessitates meeting standards of quality, accessibility, and availability. Yet the dominant perspective, as represented by the European Union and the water multinationalism is designed to ignore these issues. It reduces what should be a universal right to a privilege to be purchased at a price by those who can afford to do so: a system of private market provision that builds on scarcities and inequalities. What the dominant perspective depends on, but seldom acknowledges, is the existence of social and economic inequalities at every level of human society that already divides the world into water classes and water genders. It is this inequality that water privatization will deepen and make more acute—since this is the route to higher profits.15

What Is Missing in the Dominant Perspective?

Water predicaments are closely connected to wide-ranging matters of political economy such as poverty, wealth distribution, welfare, and growth. After nearly sixty years of “development aid” and “development policies,” after so much progress and so many improvements in technology and science, material disparities within and among states keep escalating. One third of humankind lives in absolute poverty. These people live without safe and sufficient water, the very foundation of life.

To meet a bare minimum for drinking and sanitation, at least twenty to forty liters of clean, fresh water are necessary per person per day. Yet per capita consumption in Germany is 130 liters per day, while in the United States it is over 200 liters! According to UN data, unclean water and poor sanitation are the leading sources of poor health worldwide. Eight hundred eighty-four million people lack access to safe drinking water (or one in eight people), and more than 2.6 billion people (or 40 percent of the global population) do not have access to basic sanitation services. Every year, 3.5 million people die from water-related diseases. Diarrhea caused by lack of safe drinking water, sanitation and hygiene, and poor health and nutritional status, is the second most important cause of death among children under five. Around 1.5 million children die of diarrhea each year. Every twenty seconds, a child dies from a water-borne disease such as diarrhea, cholera, dysentery, typhoid, guinea worm, and hepatitis. Around 40 percent of the global population lives in regions with moderate-to-high water stress. It is projected that by 2025 almost two-thirds of the world’s population—or 5.5 billion people—will live in places that cope with water stress.

Global water use grew six-fold in the last century: over twice the rate of population growth. In many places, groundwater is consumed more rapidly than it is replenished; thus, groundwater tables shrink. By 2020, 135 million people could die of water-borne diseases. This is a higher number than those projected to die due to the HIV/AIDS pandemic. Water is also a significant part of this pandemic, since many of the deaths of those whose immune systems have been weakened by HIV/AIDS are related to infections attributable to dirty water.16

Women and Water

Although inadequate access to water and sanitation affects both women’s and men’s health and physical and mental integrity, women are far more distressed than men by water scarcity, water-borne diseases, and lack of sanitation services. Because, in most societies around the globe, women and girls are in charge of cooking, washing, and cleaning, as well as family members’ and home hygiene, they are considered to be responsible for collection and transportation of water for domestic use. For this, millions of women do not just open the tap—and voilà—here comes clean, safe, fresh water! Instead they have to spend a lot of time and energy gathering water. This robs them of the chance to get a proper education, performing income-bringing work, or having time for rest and recreation.

Women and girls walk long distances—ten to fifteen kilometers a day—mostly barefoot, no matter whether they are pregnant or ill, young or old, no matter whether the weather is hot or cold, or how dangerous the walk might be. They are exposed to dangers such as physical assault, water-related diseases, attacks from animals, and physical problems due to heavy water weight. They hope to find some kind of clean water. If not, they, their families, and especially their children fall ill and even die of water-borne diseases.

Collectively, women in South Africa walk the equivalent of the distance to the moon and back sixteen times a day to fetch water for their families.17 All this work, of course, is unpaid, causing national loss of income in enormous amounts.

The 2004 Consumers International report emphasizes this:

Poor rural women in developing countries may spend eight hours a day collecting water, carrying up to 20 kilos of water on their heads each journey. One in 10 school-age girls in Africa do not attend school during menstruation or drop out at puberty because of the absence of clean and private sanitation facilities in schools. Every day 6,000 girls and boys die from diseases linked to unsafe water and women are the main caretakers for sick children and adults. A woman in a slum in Kenya pays at least five times more for one liter of water than a woman in the United States. Women activists opposing dam projects in India brave the rising waters in protest.18

Due to gender insensitivity and restrictions of women’s participation, women are barred from significant decision making. Besides their material vulnerability, their exclusion from decision making and management of resources makes women disproportionately distressed by the lack of adequate, clean, and safe water. As the right to water is not maintained, most of women’s other rights are threatened, too.19


However, as bad as the current situation is with respect to water provision, all is not lost. Occasionally, human rights triumph over corporations’ rights. In some countries such as the Netherlands, Norway, and Uruguay, water privatization has been prohibited. In cities such as Potsdam, Germany; Grenoble, France; and Cochabamba, Bolivia (famous for its “water wars”), water supplies have been returned to public control after unsuccessful privatization attempts.20

But these seem to be the exception to the rule, as the advance toward privatization goes unbounded. As long as neoliberalism continues, as long as more and more formerly public-owned water facilities are given to private corporations, neither global inequalities nor gender discrimination will come to an end. People living in developing countries will keep on suffering water scarcity, water-borne diseases, and even death due to contaminated water. Women and girls living in developing countries will keep on marching to get water, transporting the heavy buckets back home, hoping the water is not contaminated, and trying to make life as hygienic as possible under these conditions. And people will keep over-consuming and wasting water; they will keep buying bottled water and polluting the earth with tons of plastic.

Decades ago, no one would have imagined that humankind one day would have to pay for water—the “delicate divinity.” I wonder how long it will take big corporations to seize the opportunity and sell us—with ever-greater profits, of course—the air we breathe?

Such a world would, of course, be a dystopia, to which we seem to be headed at present, while we must aim at the opposite. As Maude Barlow says: “This, then, is the task: nothing less than reclaiming water as a commons for the Earth and all people that must be wisely and sustainably shared and managed if we are to survive. This will not happen unless we are prepared to reject the basic tenets of market-based globalization.”21Sevgi Demir was right: water is sacred, a common right, and should not be privatized.


  2. Claudia von Werlhof, “The Globalization of Neoliberalism, its Consequences, and Some of its Basic Alternatives,” Capitalism Nature Socialism 19 No. 3 (September 2008): 106.
  3. Ibid, 101.
  4. Jens Loewe, Water Ablaze. The Contamination and Commercial Exploitation of a Rare and Vital Resource (Stuttgart: Verlag NWWP, 2010), 27-28.
  5. Maude Barlow, Blue Covenant (New York: The New Press, 2007), 62-63; “Suez,” (accessed December 9, 2010).
  6. UNIFEM At A Glance, April 2004, http:/
  7. Loewe, Water Ablaze, 99.
  8. Rebecca Brown. “Unequal Burden: Water Privatization and Women’s Human Rights in Tanzania,” Gender & Development 18 No. 1 (March 2010): 59.
  9. The Dublin Statement on Water and Sustainable Development,
  10. UNIFEM At A Glance, April 2004, UN Women.
  11. Ibid.
  12. UN News Centre, “General Assembly Declares Access to Clean Water and Sanitation is a Human Right,” July 28, 2010,; Department of Public Information, News and Media Division, New York, Sixty-Fourth Assembly,
  13. United Nations Department of Public Information—DPI/2293B—December 2002,
  14. European Confederation of Non-governmental Organisations Working in International Development, Emergency Relief and Development Education, “Towards the UN MDG Review Summit 2010. Recommendations to the EU,” London, March 2010,, 3.
  15. Brown, “Unequal Burden,” 60.
  16. Fact Sheet: Water: A Matter of Life and Death, United Nations Water Year 2003; United Nations Department of Public Information—DPI/2293B—December 2002; 2006 United Nations Human Development Report.
  17. Maude Barlow and Tony Clark, “Water Apartheid”, The Nation, August 15, 2002.
  18. CFP, Women and the Politics of Water,
  19. Karen Bouwer, “Women and Water,” Peace Review: A Journal of Social Justice 18 no. 4 (October 2006): 465-66.
  20. Loewe, Water Ablaze, 16.
  21. Barlow, Blue Covenant, 175.