21 October 2014

The Price of Thirst -- the review

I asked for a review copy of Karen Piper's book because I wanted to take some time with an "anti-capitalist" perspective on water issues (the lead blurb comes from Maude Barlow) whose subtitle is "Global Water Inequality and the Coming Chaos."

This review is based on my reading of one-third of the book (Introduction, California and Conclusion). I didn't read the rest because my objections to Piper's unsubstantiated, biased and inflammatory analysis opinions were coming much faster than insights or useful ideas.

Allow me to explain.

Piper is a postcolonial geographer, which puts her (stereotypically) at the opposite extreme in perspective from economists. I have no gripe with that orientation, as we probably agree 80 percent of the time on the tragic outcomes of abuse of power. Where we differ is in the diagnosis of driving forces, the relative scale of harm from market versus government failures, and the useful responses to these problems.

We also differ in our analytical methods, at least as far as this book is concerned. Piper undermines herself numerous times with cheap shots, unsubstantiated innuendo and non sequiturs.* I really wish that she'd had a stronger editor. This book is too biased to appeal to anyone with a shred of interest in capitalism and markets; it will only serve as a 290pp bludgeon for anti-colonial protestors who have not bothered to check their privileged discourses at the entrance of clear -- or realistic -- thinking.

Rather than respond in a chronological fashion, I will try to distill my remarks into themes:

Corporate vampires
Piper frequently invokes an "us-vs-vampires" image of corporations, as if We, the People, are totally helpless in the face of corporate greed. On page 3, she says:
And now they [Suez, Veolia et al] are mining our water, quietly gaining control over the world's water supplies, with the help of national governments and institutions like the World Bank and IMF... in the future you may be just as likely to be buying your water from China [due to Chinese companies entering the water business] as France.
This rhetorical slant is wrong in both fact and substance. The fact is that corporations are merely one party to ALL water-related activities. Where there is a buyer, there is a seller; where there is a vendor, there is a regulator; where there is a bribe on offer, there is a politician asking for it. This last duo underlines her mis-emphasis on substance, i.e., corporations do not have the power to rule us without the permission from corrupt politicians who have a greater power to allow their rule (more below). Perhaps the root of Piper's misunderstanding lies in her definition of "privatization," i.e.,
Privatization means charging higher water rates or redistributing water to make a personal profit. Theoretically, speaking, privatization means applying a new market paradigm to our water systems, one that sets up the "free market" as the regulator for water distribution. [p 10]
I'd like to find a "free market" in water distribution like the one she describes. As far as my knowledge of the world goes, I've never seen a "free market regulator" -- or anything like such an oxymoron -- in operation.

Multi-lateral (colonial) organizations
Piper's contempt for multilateral organizations like the World Bank and IMF is matched only by her admiration of the United Nations and NGOs, groups that are governed by money and populism, respectively. Although I am sympathetic to the plight of the powerless, I also see the importance of balancing between these interests, rather than taking a sure-to-fail stand with one against the other (either way). That's why I balanced between the two sides, respectively, in Parts I and II of my book. Piper will have none of this, as she puts scare quotes around "cost-recovery", "water pricing" and labels this and that as neo-liberal, ex-colonial, money making ventures. Frankly, I was distressed and disgusted by her populism: many water problems can be traced to under-investment and failure to recover costs (seen those headlines about how the US needs to invest $1 trillion to preserve water services?)

Presumably, Piper opposes the "cost recovery" and "water pricing" that are necessary to protect services, reduce demand, and prevent shortages in California, Sao Paolo, Spain, Saudi Arabia and dozens of other countries and regions. Sadly, she puts the blame for these failures on colonialism without looking for deeper problems. Yes, colonial administration (and ideas) underpin many exploitative systems, but can we blame colonialism for failures in China or South America? How long can we blame them for failures in India, Pakistan and African nations? What about water failures in Ukraine? Shall we blame those on the Russians -- or should we blame the Ukranians (who colonized Russia)? Can Americans blame Britain for disasters in California, Ohio, W Virginia and elsewhere? Piper would have got a lot more traction if she stopped blaming long dead outsiders and looked at today's corrupt, incompetent local failures.

How will you save yourself, without water, Mr. Bond?
Piper loves hyperbole and exaggeration. Her book opens with the 2012 World Water Forum in Marseilles (I was also there). She tries to sex up a boring meeting of ministers (10 percent), businessmen (20 percent) and water wonks (70 percent) with hush-hush conspiracies that were neither new (the World Bank loves dams) nor interesting (water companies had big booths). If her stories were supposed to be insightful, then I'd have wanted to see more facts; if they were supposed to be entertaining, then I'd have wanted to see more sex and violence. The WWF is big and boring, sure, but there are no Bond villains walking around.***

Sadly, Piper resorts to ad-hominem attacks on various engineers and bureaucrats (e.g., Lesseps, Camdessus) as if these men's failings can be extrapolated into a global conspiracy to kill the poor. This mis-emphasis sounds not only churlish -- it distracts from the broader issues of public policy failure (at the Bank but most often in national governments). Her book would have been far more powerful if she had pursued (accidental and intentional) government failure. Instead, she draws false conclusions from imaginary connections, claiming that "by visiting every continent except Antarctica, I demonstrate not only the scope of the problem but also how these stories are interconnected. This is truly a planetary problem" [p 34] Sorry, no. Water flows are global but management failures are local.

The index lacks references to politics, governance and corruption, but Piper discusses these themes -- usually in an upside-down manner. In one surreal passage (p 57), Piper says that California "farmers threatened to sue, and the state could not afford to fight... [so it] was forced to the negotiating table." Statements like these omit the fact that states (anywhere) can do what they want when it's legal to do so or change the laws to make their will legal. Piper fails to grasp (or discuss) this fact at the same time as she misses its corollary -- that corruption ("the abuse of public power for private gain") is directly related to the monopoly power of the state. Farmers, water companies, and even the IMF cannot dictate terms to sovereign states. Those facts mean that states either negotiate because the alternative is "worse" (e.g., privatizing water companies rather than reducing military spending) or because corrupt politicians prefer to sacrifice their people. The important issue here is not that Piper would disagree with my summary (I don't think she would). It's that privatization is only one way for a broke or corrupt state to abuse its people. Another way -- and much more common -- is for the state to neglect or run down the public water utility. That outcome equally or more tragic for water consumers.** Indeed, in her section on "how to profit from a water crisis" [p 26], Piper identifies threats from pollution, groundwater depletion, and climate change. I agree that these are problems, but she jumps from the problems to the "corporations celebrating, rather than lamenting, uncorking champagne as the ship goes down" [p 28]. I would have said "in the absence of governance reforms to counter these problems, people will look for solutions and corporations will step in when government fails to do so," but Piper misses that context. Worse, she jumps in the wrong direction: "Corporations can make profit by raising water rates, cutting spending on infrastructure and labor, receiving government subsidies, and selling more water" [p 29]. And where is government during all this? Presumably no government exists in Piper's neo-colonial hell.

What solutions does Piper propose? She supports the "Alternative Forum" (FAME, in French), which is composed of "happy people of all colors and genders... that promotes the idea that no one owns the water" [p 8-9], which is surely a lovely image, except for its massive failure in addressing water's rivalrous nature. Presumably, Piper would be pleased to allow anyone to take water from anywhere. This would leave poor farmers dry, as their richer neighbors pumped deeper or bribed higher. It would leave the poor in slums without water that was intercepted and routed to rich neighbors. It would desecrate and destroy environments far and wide, as water was taken from rivers and put into cotton fields. Piper clearly misses the basic idea of separating water into private OR communal property. The English say "different horses for different courses," but Piper wants to use the same horse for racing, pulling a cart and sausage (as les FAMEeurs would say).

Her over-simplified view would wreak havoc with our systems of allocating water for food, drinking and the environment, and it's based on ideology over rationality or practicality. Piper dismisses the "language of development... with terms like benchmarking, scaling up and best international practices." Instead she evokes a "language of water [that] is evasive and a trickster [sic]. It is smarter than those in power. It will turn to steam and then to clouds when it is hot..." Piper gets so carried away with her revolutionary rhetoric that she forgets that humans just want water for drinking, bathing, eating and living. Water is not a revolutionary ideology. It's a necessary and rich part of our lives that deserves respect, requires cooperation, and must be managed for safety, efficiency and equity.

In her concluding chapter [pp 222-227], Piper offers a wish list of solutions ("stop climate change, stop throwing people off their land, recognize indigenous knowledge, revive small-scale and local solutions, regulate the virtual water market, imagine alternative economies, imagine an alternative blueprint, and reform the globalization regime") that reflect her anti-corporate, anti-money, anti-globalization agenda more than the real issues in the water sector. I would have given one suggestion -- hold public and private water utilities accountable to customers --  over all of these, but Piper has a different agenda. Indeed, she ends with a sob story about how her ears were damaged at an anti-G-20 rally in Pittsburgh, parting with a final non-sequitur: "Although I learned nothing about water privatization at the G-20, I did learn what its opponents are up against" [p 231]

Bottom Line: I give this book TWO STARS for describing the dark side of water governance failures without providing any useful analysis of how failures arise, or how to fix them. Piper makes 3-4 overwrought, sensationalist statements for every good point, which undermines her credibility at the same time as it distracts attention from real problems. Don't waste your time or money on this book. Go talk to your community's water managers to understand how the system works, where it's at risk, and how you can help.

* For example:
  • "Imagine that we should withhold medical care as... a method of population control... this is precisely what he [Camdessus] is saying about Africa" [p 15]
  • "China owns 9 percent of Thames water... RWE decided to dump American Water on the open market" [p 18]
  • Drinking water was not a primary concern [of the World Bank] because drinking water offered no obvious return on investment" [p 22]
  • The re-emergence of a powerful water industry could only occur through deregulation and force" [p 23]
  • OMG: "Corporations raise water rates as high as they can... unlike public utilities, corporations have to pay taxes... they have high advertising costs, which public utilities do not... layoffs are the main reason for privatization... corporations can require that governments provide subsidies for poor people who cannot pay their bills... cities are losing a permanent income stream from water bills" [p 29]
  • "Water rights and utilities are being bought up at bargain basement rates in the US, thanks to the housing market crash in 2008" [p 32]
  • "The Ganges River is now being diverted to Suez in Delhi" [p 33]
  • "I will show how privatization lead to a growing insurgency in Iraq" [p 33]
  • "My goal with this book is to help return cultural diversity to the management of the world's water supplies... the solutions just need funding and legitimacy" [p 36]
  • "Today, California cities are going bankrupt at a staggering rate... they lose leverage to control their own water supplies" [pp 62-63]
  • "Thus, Fox News" [p 65 -- and yes, no context]
  • "Along with suicides, water cutoffs are increasing throughout Greece" [p 217]
  • "The truth is that the IMF kills people" [p 219]
  • "The price of a thirsty world has been an increase in vultures, or corporations that would steal the last pennies from dying people" [p 221]

** More tragic if you consider the benefit of separating the water company into a "corporate unit" whose operations are easier to understand, before or during privatization.

*** Another howler  [p 30-31]: "The 2008 James Bond movie Quantum of Solace shows an uncanny presentiment about the shadowy world of water corporations... the WWF was like a fundraiser for a Bond villain... in this world, bribery and corruption seem to be an industry standard"


  1. omg David, that's some loony stuff there! But is it no wonder that positive progress on water policy is so hard to achieve? The voting majority is ill-informed, and they are being fed misinformation from all corners. Thanks for trying to filter out some of the worst crap.

  2. David Lloyd Owen30 October, 2014 17:06

    This looks like Barlow III, after the farragoes of the 2002 and 2007 offerings. The real problem is that following the collapse of the Soviet Empire from 1989, water has been an ideal proxy for people of a certain outlook to vent their anger at the modern world. I have not been able to fine any substantive engagement with facts in these diatribes, so rational discourse is not possible. If you want a useful and stimulating critique of PSP, Karen Bakker has written two; one on England & Wales and one on the wider world.


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