LATIN AMERICA, USA: The importance of water in the global dispute for strategic resources

by Monica Brukmann sociologist, Doctor in Political Science, professor in the Department of Political Science at the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro (Brazil) and researcher with the Chair and UNESCO Network/University of the United Nations on Global Economy and Sustainable Development – REGGEN.

Two opposed visions are in confrontation in the global dispute over water. The first, based on the commercial exploitation of this resource, that proposes to turn it into a commodity, subject to a policy of prices increasingly dominated by the process of financialisation and the so-called “futures market”. The most dynamic space pushing this vision is the World Water Council, made up of representatives of the main private water companies, which dominate 75% of the world market. The second World Water Forum, in the year 2000, declared that water is not an ‘inalienable right” but a “human need”. This declaration justifies, from the ethical point of view, the current process of deregulation and privatization of this natural resource. The Istanbul meeting of the 4th World Water Forum, in March of 2009, ratified this view of water. An important ally of the World Water Forum has been the World Bank, the main factor behind the push for mixed public-private enterprises, for the local management of water resources.

The other view is grounded in the consideration of water as an inalienable human right. This perspective is defended by a wide group of social movements, activists and intellectuals joined in a global movement for the defence of water, which proposes the creation of democratic and transparent spaces for the discussion of this question on a planetary level. This movement, which does not recognize the legitimacy of the World Water Forum, produced an alternative declaration to the Istanbul meeting, calling for the creation of a space for global debate on the question of water in the framework of the UN, and reaffirming the need for public management of this resource and its condition as an inalienable human right (1).

The General Assembly of the United Nations approved, in July of 2010, the proposal presented by Bolivia, backed by 33 other nation-states, declaring the access to drinking water as a human right. As could be predicted, the governments of the United States, Canada, Australia and the United Kingdom were opposed to this resolution, which, in the opinion of Maude Barlow, former consultant on water of the president of the General Assembly of the United Nations Organization, the resolution has lost political impact and any practical force (2). These four countries, and their most conservative political forces, appear to be the biggest obstacle. No doubt the danger for water managers is great, since the recognition of water and sanitation as human rights would put limits on the rights of big corporations over water resources, rights consecrated by multilateral agreements on trade and investment.

The governments of Latin America have advanced in the recognition of water as an inalienable right and in the affirmation of sovereignty and public management of these resources. The Political Constitution of the Plurinational State of Bolivia recognizes, in article 371, that “water constitutes a most fundamental right for life, in the framework of the sovereignty of the people”. It also establishes that “the State will promote the use and access to water on a basis of solidarity, complementarity, reciprocity, equity, diversity and sustainability.”

Certainly the dispute around the appropriation and control of water in the planet acquires dimensions that surpass the mere commercial interests of transnational corporations, becoming a fundamental element in worldwide geopolitics. It is clear that the planet urgently needs a global policy to change the tendency of a complex process of ecological disorder, which even as it accelerates the process of desertification in some regions, aggravates the phenomenon of flooding as a result of torrential rainfall in others. The devastating consequences of this degradation of the environment are increasing the seriousness of a global situation that tends to deepen the discussion of the notion of development and of civilization.

Aquifers and the preservation of ecosystems

For some time now, hydrological research on global water cycles has shown that 99% of accessible fresh water of this planet is found in fresh water aquifers, visible in rivers, lakes and glaciers. These water sources constitute dynamic systems, and develop their own mechanisms of replacement that depend, basically, on rainfall. Part of this flow is infiltrated in underground rock formations and is deposited under the surface, in what we call aquifers. These aquifers are replenished by rainfall, and because of this they are, for the most part, renewable. Depending on the climatic conditions and the location of the aquifers, the period of renewal oscillates between days and weeks (in karstic rock formations), or between years and thousands of years in the case of the great sedimentary basins. In regions where the reposition is limited (as in arid and hyper arid regions) subterranean water resources may be considered as “non-renewable” (3).

Aquifers and the subterranean water they contain are part of a hydrological cycle whose functioning determines a complex interrelation with the environment. Subterranean waters are a key element for many geological and hydro-chemical processes, since they maintain the flow of rivers and are the basis for lakes and swamps. These have a definitive impact on the aquatic habitats that are found in them. Hence the aquifer systems, in addition to constituting important reserves of fresh water, are basic for the preservation of eco-systems.

The identification of aquifer systems is a basic requirement for any policy of sustainability and management of water resources, to allow the system to continue functioning, and from the point of view of our research, is absolutely necessary for a geopolitical analysis that looks to demonstrate the strategic elements in the dispute over the control and appropriation of water.

The large water reserves, such as the Congo basin, the Amazon, the Guarani aquifer or the great lakes of central Africa coincide with the existence of large and expanding populations and strong ethic and religious conflicts. In addition, most of the countries of these regions are subject o strong pressure from the international financial system, which attempts to establish neoliberal management of water resources through technical personnel, for whom water treatment stations, recycling and the building of mechanisms to prevent the contamination of aquifers can be considered superfluous expenses (4).

This is a violent process of expropriation and privatization of the most important natural resource for human life. In addition to the importance of drinking water for human consumption, it is also necessary to point out the vital importance of this resource for agriculture, which has a direct impact on food sovereignty, and for industrial development as a whole.

The major aquifers of Europe are found in the Eurasian region, particularly, because of its size, the Russian basin, close to the polar region. Western Europe is reduced to the only aquifer of medium size, in the Paris basin. In almost every case, the reserves of water in Europe suffer problems that affect their quality, which has drastically amplified the consumption of bottled water, which has become an obligatory item on the family shopping list (5). Europe has proportionally the biggest world rate of extraction of water for human consumption: of all the water extracted, more than 50% is used by municipalities, some 40% is for agriculture and the rest is consumed by the industrial sector.

Asia depends on the great aquifers of northern China and Siberia, close to the polar regions. One of the more serious cases is that of India, which together with the United States, has one of the highest rates of extraction of underground water in the world.

South America has three great aquifers: the Amazon basis, the basin of the Marañón and the Guarani aquifer system, which is practically an “underground sea” of fresh water that extends through four countries of the southern cone: Argentina, Brazil, Uruguay and Paraguay. For the sheer volume of the reserves of these aquifers and for the capacity of restoration of water in these systems, South America represents the principal reserve of fresh water in the planet.

The most critical regions, due to their very limited water replenishment (less than 5 millimeters of rain per year) are northern Africa, in the desert region of the Sahara, India, central Asia, most of Australia; and the narrow desert fringe that extends from the Peruvian coast to the Atacama desert in Chile and the northern region of Mexico and a great part of the Middle West of the United States. In these regions, water can be considered a non-renewable resource. Subsaharan Africa, Europe, the Balkans, the northern region of Asia and the northwest region of North America register moderate levels of renovation of water, between 50 and 100 mm. annually.

The region of the world where the replacement of water supply is the greatest is South America, where almost all of the territory of the subcontinent registers levels of water replacement greater than 500 mm/year, which constitutes the main source of supply for the aquifer systems of the region. The extremely high capacity for replenishment of surface and subterranean water is fundamental, not only for the supply of fresh water but also for the maintenance and reproduction of aquifer systems and the biodiversity of the region.


1) See: Mabel Faria de Melo. “Agua não é mercadoria” In ALAI, April 3, 2009.
2) See: Roberto Bissio. El derecho humano al agua.  Available at 39769
3) Atlas of Transboundary Aquifers. Global maps, regional cooperation and local inventories. Paris : UNESCO, p. 16.
4) TEIXEIRA, Francisco Carlos. Por uma geopolítica da água. 23 de enero
5) Ibid.

The complete version of this text, in Spanish, has been published in ALAI’s magazine “América Latina en Movimiento”, No 473 (March 2012), titles ” Extractivism: contradiction and conflict”.  See also (includes maps).

Puesto en línea por AlaiNet, América Latina en Movimiento

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