Water rights, commons and advocacy narratives

Authors Patrick Bond

ISSN: 1996-2126
Affiliations: School of Built Environment and Development Studies, University of KwaZulu-Natal (UKZN) Centre for Civil Society (CCS)
Source: South African Journal on Human Rights, Volume 29 Issue 1, 2013, p. 125 – 143


Can a rights-based agenda potentially challenge the dominant market narrative with respect to water access, and in the process, also address climate change reparations, adaptation and mitigation? Learning from the case of water in the most advanced court challenge to neo-liberal state power that has yet been adjudicated, in Johannesburg in 2009, it is just as likely that rights-talk will be co-opted by neo-liberalism. If that happens more systematically within the climate justice struggle, at a time activism intensifies and court cases emerge more frequently, momentum towards a genuine breakthrough against corporate control of global environmental governance (amplified now under the rubric of the ‘Green Economy’) could well be distracted, halted or even reversed. The classical problems associated with rights-based narratives — their basis in liberal individualism and disconnection from broader socio-economic and ecological processes — may continue to be crippling, as witnessed in the example of South African water policy, law and activism. The specific case involves a Paris-based water privatisation company (Suez) whose policies in Johannesburg led five Sowetans to sue the city to increase water supply and cease imposing pre-payment meters. The same ideological debates — how to fuse neo-liberal imperatives with rights rhetoric — took centre stage during the June 2012 Rio+20 Earth Summit. There, the dominant trend towards market determinations of nature required a stronger countervailing ‘decommodification’ narrative than ‘rights talk’ can offer. The question posed here, is whether using human rights considerations will make contestation of ‘neo-liberalised nature’ any easier, and the answer arrived at is negative, based on the evidence from Johannesburg. Instead, ‘commoning’ is the alternative narrative, ie arriving at the commons through and beyond rights.