Struggles for Water Justice and Democracy in Asia

By Mary Ann Manahan, Fous on Global South
March, 2011


A Diverse Region
Asia is a diverse region. In terms of history, culture, political economy, natural resources and endowments, growth patterns and current development, different sub-regions of Asia show wide disparities. However, there are common experiences that different sub-regions share in terms of economic restructuring. For one, many Asian countries were subjected to structural adjustment programs in the late ‘70s and early ’80 by international financial institutions (IFIs) such as the World Bank and International Monetary Fund and to neoliberal policies and privatization experiments in the ‘90s. Despite the growth and the region’s ability to escape the onslaught of the recent financial crisis in the US, widespread poverty continues to be a day-to-day reality and corruption in government is very much embedded in the culture of governance, even as the tradition of popular movements and citizens’ rising up to demand for their rights remains strong as well.

A Paradox of Abundance and Scarcity
In terms of water resources, the region can be described as a paradox. One of abundance—we are home to tremendous water resources: great rivers systems and lakes in Tibet, India, Southeast Asia, and China. But at the same time, of scarcity— we have the highest number of people unserved by either water supply or sanitation. 715 million people in Asia have no access to safe drinking water, while 1.9 billion or close to 50% of its population has no access to sanitation. However, according to UN Water, there is enough water for everyone. The problem is largely one of ‘governance’, i.e. equitably sharing the world’s freshwater while ensuring the sustainability of natural ecosystems. This balance has yet to be achieved.

Movements for Water Justice
This diversity and paradox make Asia interesting in terms of how alternative ideas are given spaces.

Asia has also a very dynamic and diverse “water justice movements” that work on different water issues and are creating spaces of resistance, establishing alternatives in different areas, and making small and big revolutions in the process. These struggles are about the struggle for survival and for sustaining life— for the recovery of water as a commons, for water justice and for democracy, of access to resources and social-economic-political space. Water is a fundamental element in the survival of all life, which is why it has been called the ‘lifeblood’ of this planet. As the experience in many countries in Asia have shown, including China, enclosing water through privatization of water services and resources lead to widespread unequal access to safe water and sanitation, thereby increasing inequitable charging of water rates and disconnection of local communities traditionally nurturing this resource from the use and enjoyment of this precious resource. There are many water justice movements and struggles but let me share with you two examples in this ocean of movements.

First, there are various campaigns to protect livelihoods, watersheds, rivers, lakes, and peoples’ control over their water resources.  Privatization has become pervasive and includes privatizing fish lots and communal fishing grounds, as in the case of Tonle Sap Lake Basin, which threatens Cambodia’s food security, economy and cultural identity. This is further complicated by the IFIs and government’s support for mega infrastructure projects like dams. In India, the controversial Sardar Sarovar dam has displaced and further impoverished millions of indigenous peoples, fishing and farming communities.

Then there is China’s penchant for dam-construction, which has become a cross-border or trans-boundary issue. In the Philippines, large scale irrigation projects in the forms of dams funded by the World Bank abound; these projects in fact have been around since the ‘70s. For the Bank, dam projects have been a mechanism to address energy and flood control needs, promote agricultural development and, in the process, small farmers’ welfare. But reality contradicts rhetoric: the projects have displaced many small farmers, landless, rural poor, both men and women, who were supposedly the “targeted beneficiaries”. This was evident in the cases
of Pantabangan Dam in Pampanga, which displaced thousands of farming families, and the Chico River Basin Development Project in Mountain Province, which was strongly opposed and successfully stopped by indigenous communities despite martial law.

All these privatization projects and new enclosure of water have resulted in growing resistance and in the advocacy for innovative approaches to water stewardship. Dam-affected communities, together with environmentalists, NGOs, academe and other advocates in the Mekong region have time and again rightfully resisted and defended their lives and homes against the onslaughts of mega-infrastructure projects. Closer to home, a popular resistance in the ‘80s, led by the peoples of Kalinga and Bontoc in the Mountain Province of the north, against the Chico river dam project drew widespread support from inside and outside the country. Because of the sheer determination and courage of the dam-affected people led by indigenous community leader Macli-ing Dulag, the World Bank withdrew its funding and later, prompted the institution to formulate its operational guidelines for projects affecting indigenous peoples.

There is also a vibrant and dynamic anti-IFI movement in South Asia and Southeast Asia that have been exposing the real impacts of privatization programs in their communities and have called for these institutions to get out of Asia.

Another area where resistance is also strong is the campaign against water bottling companies, such as Coca-Cola, which have been extracting groundwater and diverting it to their plants at the expense of communities; in Plachimada, India, the people managed to get Coca-Cola out of their community. Many communities in Asia are also fighting against extractive industries and agribusiness which have been polluting ground and surface water. The anti-mining campaigns in the Philippines led by different coalitions, one of which is the Alyansa Tigil Mina (stop mining), have employed multi-pronged strategies and tactics to defend the communities from being displaced and to protect their watersheds. A good example of innovative strategy is the partnership between community-based water users, village governments, municipal governments, water service providers and non-governmental organizations. The partnership, anchored on the recognition of the benefits of watershed protection, has served as means of opposing mining applications within the Sibalom Natural Park in Antique province in the Visayas region.

There is an effort also to link up these different struggles and these are being led by indigenous peoples, rural women, small farmers and anti-mining groups in Southeast, East and South Asia. Rivers, which have been polluted by both domestic and industrial use, are also being rejuvenated to reclaim peoples’ lives and livelihood as in the case of Rajasthan, a very water stress state in India.

Public Water for All
The second example I would like to highlight is the movement for developing alternatives. Examples of alternatives in Asia persist even as private capital and corporations still dominate much of the peoples’ lives and societies, especially in the area of access to, control and sustainability of drinking water supply or water service provision in both rural and urban areas. These alternative models of water service provision are very wide ranging, as they depend on the condition and specificities of a particular area or country. There is no ‘one-size-fits-all’ alternative that has emerged. But common among these alternatives is responding to the need for people-centered, ecologically sustainable, and progressive public water management and
on-the-ground solutions, particularly to the problem of water access and universal coverage, especially for the poor and marginalized.

There are several examples of these models, not exhaustive but let me share with you four of them. One is there are strong and efficient/effective public and community water delivery systems in the Philippines, Malaysia, Hong Kong, South Korea, Cambodia and Japan. Majority of municipal water services are still public—either provided by the state or local governments, and/or community-based organizations. Public utilities in Japan, for example, have achieved universal coverage for its population, translating into delivery of high quality drinking water, very low leakage levels and good labor conditions for the unions. Another public utility, the Phnom Penh Water Supply Authority in Cambodia, undertook a massive rehabilitation of a decrepit water distribution system after the Khmer Rouge reign and embarked on strengthening management capacity to minimize unregistered or unmetered service connection in slum areas and/or among informal settlers.

In India, the Self-Employed Women’s Association (SEWA), a trade union and community-based movement of poor and self-employed women workers in the State of Gujarat, was able to establish, and now continues to operate and maintain a system that provides safe potable water to its members, minimizing time spent for fetching water and giving the women more time for livelihood activities. Similarly, in the Philippines, urban-based organizations of water users, exemplified by the Bagong Silang Community Water Service Cooperative of Caloocan City, one of the waterless communities in Metro Manila, have used their consumer-owned utility to secure dependable water supply from third party bulk providers at reduced transaction costs and negotiated with financial institutions to secure funds for the improvement of their water supply and distribution system. The cooperative’s inherent characteristics of democratic control, peer-level monitoring and enforcement of rules are helping drastically in reducing management cost and providing some relief on the pressure to commercialize the service. Such community-based and consumer-owned water systems are bridging the gap in water service delivery in many parts of Asia.

Two, there are also state, community and social movement democratization experiments in India where large parts of the population remain without access to water and sanitation, but also where concrete and workable alternatives to privatization exist. For example, in the state of Tamil Nadu, engineers of the Water and Drainage Board have changed their view of water. This change in attitude and ways or working has created enormous impacts in terms of bringing water to the poorest of the poor communities in rural areas, thereby empowering them. Women in the communities and those marginalized are now taking a pro-active role in taking care of their water sources, ensuring safe and quality drinking water for all members of the community. They even have their own oversight/monitoring system. These are strong positive tools for improving public water service delivery.

Finally, there are public-public and public-community partnerships, or not-for-profit partnerships between public water operators, communities, trade unions and other social-economic groups. In the Philippines, there is the labor-management cooperation within water districts over performance benchmarking, which is a practical management and decision making tool. By undergoing capacity building trainings, both labor and management not only enhance their technical skills but will provide opportunities for both parties to cooperate in the delivery of quality public service. An example is the public-community partnership between the Residents Association of Tinagong Paraiso in Bacolod, central Philippines, and a local NGO, which negotiated with the Bacolod City Water District the provision of community tap stands for slum communities. Managed and maintained by the resident association, these community water points greatly improved access to clean water among the informal settlers and urban poor.

In Thailand, the competing demand for water by households, agriculture, tourism and industry led to the different interest groups in the Ping River—local NGOs, residents of communities located upstream and downstream of the river, Hang Dong farmers and Hmong Hill Tribe—to negotiate and balance such competing demand. They eventually came up with an acceptable system of water allocation.

These alternatives highlight two things. One, social and peoples’ real participation as well as transparency and accountability in the decision making process are very important in ensuring improved access to and control over water. As Vibhu Nayyar, founding mentor of the Center of Excellence for Change,puts it, “through a partnership between people who have suffered from lack of access to water and water agencies who believe in democratic functioning, can we ensure safe, equitable, and adequate water resources and ensuring sustainable water systems.”

Two, while there are no perfect alternatives, building and articulating alternatives remain a collective process, which should be inclusive, gender just and participatory, and not only relegated to the government or state. There are numerous such processes which are happening in various countries; for instance in the Philippines, there is the Development Roundtable Series (DRTS) created by Focus on the Global South-Philippines. This is a process-platform for different groups to come together to discuss development policy issues in the hope of reaching collective diagnoses of problems in urban and rural water service provision, in resource management, conflict and regulation, and in identifying the requirements for addressing them and the political opportunities that can be used by groups affected by such problems. Such a process-platform combines on-the-ground problem solving, building alternatives and identifying policy reforms, which water advocates can push for collectively.

The Climate Change Challenge
Let me end this sharing by highlighting a two very important challenge that the world face today.
First, the multiple crises in food, climate change and water are affecting people’s daily lives in more threatening ways. The water crisis is intensified by climate change and environmental degradation, such as the shrinking of forests and swamps that are resulting in chronic flooding and droughts. Global warming is accelerating the melting of Himalayan snowcaps that feed Asia’s great rivers. A good example is the melting of Tibet’s glaciers/plateau are the lifeline or source of water for China, India (two of the most populous countries), Bangladesh, Nepal, Cambodia, Pakistan, Laos, Thailand and Vietnam. In total, they make up 47% of the world’s population.  China’s control of Tibet’s water resources would have a lot of impact on whether there would be interstate conflicts or not. Right now, this is already happening with China’s attempt to dam its rivers to solve its own water crises or water insecurity brought about by the spread of intensive farming/export-oriented agriculture, water-intensive industries such as mining, growing middle class that wants high water-consuming comforts such as washing machines, etc., rapidly increasing household consumptions, and growing cities. This move is causing transboundary problems—from Southeast Asia (Mekong) to South Asia. China is attempting to redirect the southward flow of river waters from the Tibetan Plateau, starting from the Indus, Mekong, Yangtze, Yellow, Salween, Brahmaputra, Karnali and Sutlej Rivers. The whole idea of linking rivers through dams and diverting river flows are underway and being supported by IFIs such as the ADB. This would be catastrophic because Tibet’s plateaus are tied to ecological conservation and any attempt to change this would not only have impacts to downstream communities but also ecological devastation, which we might not have experienced before. Water justice movements in Asia should monitor and resist against this. There needs an Asian-level or regional response and framework, especially among basin states, to work towards common ownership/stewardship of the resources

Another example, in the Philippines, such climate change challenges are magnified by the impacts of super typhoons Ondoy and Pepeng that hit the country’s capital and neighboring provinces; the result were flashfloods and destruction of agricultural crops, hundreds of lives and many communities. The country lies along the western rim of the Pacific Ring of Fire, which is a belt of active volcanoes, major earthquake faults, and tropical cyclones, making the Philippines more vulnerable to extreme weather disturbances brought about by climate changes. Recent climate change simulations by the government agency Philippine Atmospheric, Geophysical, and Astronomical Services Administration (PAGASA) and the Manila Observatory using global circulation models projected more intense rainfall events in the northern areas of the country, while the southern areas will face greater risk of drought from El Niño. The early onset of El Niño, for instance, is affecting not only the drinking water supply but also irrigation for agriculture. This will greatly affect on the country’s capacity to feed its population and can be disastrous if not addressed properly.

The impacts of climate change will also be exacerbated by other socio-economic stresses (e.g., population growth, urban expansion, economic growth, globalization, etc.) that will in turn have substantial effect on water resources such as scarcity (drought) and overabundance (flooding). While the country’s vulnerability will increase in the future, the coping capacity of most of the population is limited due to poverty, lack of access to social capital, institutional fragmentation and increasing gap between people’s needs and government responses.

Apart from this, climate change is also exacerbating existing geopolitical conflicts and problems, as water is used as tool for occupation. This is happening in Palestine where Israel limits the Palestinians’ use of well water to drive them off their lands. The struggle for water becomes intertwined with their struggle for self-determination and liberation.

Government responses to climate change and political conflict would spell the difference for peoples’ ability to access water. As the earth’s lifeblood, water becomes a new frontier for cooperation, the success of which both requires and fosters peoples’ solidarity. The challenges are daunting but provide a great opportunity to imagine, dream and construct a better tomorrow, especially for the future generation.

Navigating Critical Waters
Finally, as we navigate these critical waters and chart new path for our future, privatization or private sector participation is still being positioned as the solution for the water and climate crisis—we will see this again in the 2012 World Water Forum in Merseilles, France and we have to be wary of how they use our language— without reckoning or admitting that PSP as a model has failed. Now the World Water Council uses water as a human rights discourse in their language, but rights which will be arbitrated in the market. There are many manifestations:

o    threats to strong public utilities and community-based water systems  in Penang, Malaysia, even Japan and South Korea, and Hong Kong;
o    forced amalgamation or merging of different community-based water systems to allow the Private Sector to come in easier and take over them. In one of the Philippine consultations of the WB diagnostic study by Castalia, a French consultancy firm, they dubbed mandatory privatization and amalgamation as the radical scenario (basically a private concessionaire model), and strengthening or improving public water management to become people-centered as conservative.;
o    The rise of Asian Water TNCs- either private or state-owned—from China, Malaysia and the Philippines, which are trying to compete with their western counterparts and present themselves as alternatives. For example, Manila Water- a local Filipino company has just won a 15-million water supply development and management contract in Ho Chi Minh City.; and
o    The rush for investments in the agriculture sector or global land grabbing, which in a way will also grab the ground and surface water in these lands.

The World Water Forum as an arena of social mobilization would be very important, particularly in advancing the people-centered, progressive and ecologically-sound public water management that have emerged in the region.
Amid this multiple crises, it is imperative to link up and work together; in many parts of Asia, many of the water struggles are being waged in solitary. There needs to be some mechanisms to learn from each other, help one another and advance these alternatives together or to create that spaces when they are not present. This has been the aim of networks like the Reclaiming Public Water, to provide a space for different groups to come together to discuss water issues and their struggles, and find commonalities and grounds to work together. Similarly, we need to continue documenting the different alternatives on water at different levels (particularly those models of bringing water to hard-to-reach areas) and to share them with other groups.

The struggles of Asian water justice movements reflect the need and desire to recreate societies, to collectively come up with a new paradigm and ‘vision’ of how water should be valued and managed, and to fire up a politicized citizenry as well ordinary people to defend public interest through collective action. This new paradigm should reclaim, defend and re-establish water as commons, making this resource not only an issue of social justice but also of access to democratization.