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Water has been called "the mother of all symbols." As well as being the most generative of ciphers, it is also the parent of all life forms: it reproduces the planet and thus belongs to everyone. There have been numerous social movements oriented around the right to access water with the most famous being the residents of Cochabamba, Bolivia, who successfully resisted attempts at water privatization in 1999-2000. What the Bolivians demonstrated is that substantial public consultation is needed to guarantee universal access to water. As the epic failure of the Rio+20 summit confirms, universal access to water and sustainable development is being denied by neoliberal economic policies, expert-dominated bureaucracies and mainstream political parties.
Commodification and privatization have created an unacceptable global water crisis: 37 per cent per cent of the developing world's population -- 2.5 billion people -- lack improved sanitation facilities, and over 780 million people still use unsafe drinking water sources. Neoliberal policies articulated by development experts perpetuate the inequality of access to water for the indigent.
The experts working in the World Trade Organization and the Bretton Woods institutions export credit agencies and states have framed the commercial, financial and industrial process. Blending their neoliberal interests with their technicist ethos, the experts have commodified, privatized and thus individualized access to water. Against commercialization and bureaucratization, many social movements propose that democratically determined universal access to water is an inalienable human, social, collective and individual good. This alternative encompasses ensuring universal availability of drinkable water by 2020: the only way to achieve access to this inalienable good is via a sustainable management of water resources.
Sustainable water management encompasses a variety of strategies, one of which is rainwater harvesting. One of the most prominent social movements with a focus on water is Tarun Bharat Sangh. This movement began in 1975 in Jaipur, India when a group of teachers came together with the goal of operationalizing a Gandhian philosophy. They live communally amongst villagers and engage in social activism and are most famous for their work concerning rainwater harvesting. They argue that the water harvesting tradition begins from the fact that rain is the primary source of water -- therefore pumping water from the earth is a secondary form of water production. The primary method of water production promoted by Tarun Bharat Sangh and their spokesman, Rajendra Singh, is to harvest rain. In India, monsoons produce 100 hours of rainfall per year: these 100 must be utilized over the other 8,000 hours that make up the rest of the year. This intense but meagre spell of rain can easily escape human channelling of rain towards groundwater; however, it does not escape human direction in rural and urban areas that invest in rainwater harvesting.
Water harvesting builds systems to catch rain where it falls -- for example, in the desert state of Rajasthan in India, villagers participating with Tarun Bharat Sangh have built thousands of small dams. These dams prevent the loss of rainwater during the monsoon season, thus making surface water available for animals and irrigation. Because of these dams, over 90 villages have become drought proof. This process not only produces greater access to natural resources but also consolidates renewability because it involves so many members of the public in the process. The funds to make the dams were produced by the villagers themselves and the dams are small, affordable and sustainable. Rainwater harvesting appears to be a viable alternative to the mega-dams promoted by governments and international institutions.
Access to sanitation and drinkable water is threatened by the contemporary commercialization of nature. Decisions concerning water should be enacted via a substantial consultation with social movements, peasants, farmers and progressive political parties: they are the key to ensuring that the mother of all symbols and the parent of all life forms is democratically accessible to all.
Thomas Ponniah was a Lecturer on Social Studies and Assistant Director of Studies at Harvard University from 2003-2011. He remains an affiliate of Harvard's David Rockefeller Center for Latin American Studies and an Associate of the Department of African and African-American Studies.