Water should not be a commodity

Photo by Andres Siimon on Unsplash

Jackson, Mississippi is currently facing the tail end of a water crisis due to massive environmental deregulation in the Reagen era. State Governor Tate Reeves’ suggestion that the privatization of water is an option for handling degraded water supply infrastructure is a worrying sign.

When torrential rains made their way into Jackson’s central water treatment plant, the aged equipment and tanks struggled to handle the significant change in water quality resulting in a drop in pressure throughout pipelines. When pipelines lose their pressure this creates space in cracked or worn down pipes which allows groundwater to enter into the pipe system, causing bacteria and harmful substances such as lead to enter the water supply. 

As a result, Jackson went on boil notice in late July which has recently been lifted with a provision from a state health official that young children and pregnant women should still boil tap water before consumption. 

The crisis in the predominantly Black capital city is the legacy of white flight and Ronald Reagan’s amendments to the Clean Water Act which ended with a giant rollback of funding to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) which pumped federal grants into municipalities to help with water treatment. The rollback left states to fend for themselves against water supply issues including primarily poor populations within cities that have a high number of BIPOC residents. EPA grants suddenly turned to meager federal loans that state organizations had to navigate.  

Republican Governor of Mississippi, Tate Reeves, in the midst of the crisis mentioned that he’s “open to all options” and that “privatization is on the table.” Of course, a public system doesn’t seem to be an option. In fact, the push to make water a commodity instead of a public right is not exclusive to the U.S. The private sector branch of the World Bank, the International Finance Corporation is the single largest funder of water projects in the world. Over 250 contracts have been awarded to private entities to help with water supply and sewage system utilities in Third World countries since the ‘90s. 

As of right now, only governments in the UK and Chile have fully handed over their water supplies and sewage disposal systems to private entities. 

Chile, which has been influenced by the broader left-wing Pink Tide movement in Latin America with their recent election of a socialist president, was a laboratory for U.S.-cooked neo-liberalism in the late 20th century. 

Laissez-faire ideas stemming from neoclassical economics, led by the likes of Chicago School of Economics (CSE) scholar Milton Friedman, were tested in Chile under the brutal Pinochet dictatorship which was backed by the U.S. The “Chicago Boys” were a group of Chilean economists trained at the CSE under individuals like Friedman, who would then go on to be economic advisors in the Chilean government, implementing neoliberal policies on a wide-scale. 

Ronald Reagan would take inspiration from the Chilean economic experiment in his set of deregulatory policies leading to issues like what’s happening in Jackson. It’s sickeningly poetic how Gov. Tate Reeves is now offering the private option given this inter-connected history which amounts to a self-fulfilling prophecy about the market’s “efficacy” in brokering public health crises. 

At the end of the day, water should not be treated like a commodity. When a person has a two-to-three day window before death without it, water should not be commoditized. It should have a progressively funded government monopsony alongside things like education and healthcare—and that’s not asking for much. 

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