Jan 25, 2010

Where will water come from?

By Aasim Sajjad Akhtar

The country is on the verge of drought. Winter has come and virtually gone but winter rains appear to have deserted us. Crops are suffering, the cities are covered in a layer of dust and experts are making dire predictions about the summer to come. The once preposterous notion that the world – Pakistan included – will eventually be ripped apart by wars over water doesn’t seem so far-fetched anymore.

Despite the impending water crisis (even if it is averted this year, it is a matter of time), most of us do not appear to be changing our habits. Those who have lawns continue to use water lavishly to maintain them; those who have cars use buckets of water everyday to clean them; the list could go on. There are two possible explanations for the apparent lack of concern: first, we simply do not understand the extent and nature of the problem, and second, we do not care. These two explanations are not mutually exclusive by any means and are captured together in the fairly typical reflection amongst the high elite about ordinary peoples’ lack of ‘civic sense’.

As a general rule, it is true that the concept of the ‘public commons’ simply does not resonate widely in post-colonial societies such as ours. In other words, resources that are supposed to be available to all citizens and maintained by the state are, in fact, almost completely captured by private interests. The scholarly consensus is that the absence of shared attitudes towards public goods is rooted in the history of the colonial state and the transfer of the colonial state apparatus to parasitic elite following the end of foreign rule.

The colonial state was an extremely contradictory beast. On the one hand, Europeans insisted that they were the harbingers of civilization to the uncultured hordes that they had conquered. They built formal legal institutions and apparently impersonal bureaucracies. But in practice, the state discriminated openly against the natives and established a system in which personal patronage was the operative principle. When the colonizers departed the local elite that they had created took over and in many cases dispensed with even the pretense of impartiality and fair play.

Over time, ordinary Ugandans, Haitians, Indonesians and Pakistanis alike have imbibed the cynicism of their paternalistic elites. Outside every big mansion in Defence are piles and piles of garbage; electricity theft is greatest in affluent neighbourhoods; and the biggest culprits when it comes to wasting water are the rich and famous who are fully aware of the impending crisis yet choose to do nothing about it (and in fact continue to fritter away water and other resources in virtually criminal fashion to sustain their ostentatious lifestyles).

The poor are not blameless because they are not unthinking idiots who simply ape the elite. It is important to acknowledge that those who generally need public resources the most are willing participants in their pillaging. And it must be a fundamental objective of a politics of the poor to forge a new kind of agency that is conscious and self-critical. But regardless of whether such a politics can be fashioned, there can be no doubt about who is primarily responsible for the lack of ‘civic sense’ that prevails in our societies.

All of this is important because the typical refrain that the government is responsible for the mess and should fix it is greatly misleading if taken out of context. So, for example, when one talks about the American Empire, one is not talking only about those who rule the United States but the entire behemoth that is American society and economy. The American government does what it does to sustain the lifestyles of Americans (there are serious inequalities within the US which means that imperialism primarily benefits the rich).

Similarly, while the mindless Punjab-bashing of some ethno-nationalists in Pakistan is unacceptable, it is impossible to deny that even Punjab’s workers and peasants are generally more affluent than their counterparts in the weak and oppressed provinces. All Punjabis are not oppressive but those within Punjab who are not exploiters are given a (small) share of the benefits garnered by the (predominantly Punjabi) establishment so as to keep status quo intact. It is thus crucial for workers and peasants in Punjab, just as it is for ordinary people in the United States, to distinguish themselves from ruling classes by not only expressing solidarity with oppressed nations but, especially in the case of Americans, willingly giving up some of their many material comforts.

The water crisis demands action from everyone, even though the onus must be on the elite to lead the way. If it does not – and frankly I do not harbour great hopes – then it should stop its hypocritical drawing-room hyperbole about the lack of ‘civic sense’ amongst the ‘common hordes’. Sadly it is more than likely that the elite continues to live unsustainably – aping its mentors in the industrialized countries – and then jumps ship when things reach boiling point.

As for the poor, it is important to bear in mind that a balance had existed between natural resources and ordinary people’s use of them for centuries before the onset of capitalism and a global commodity market. Locked into the system, poor people are party to an unsustainable exploitation of natural resources, including water. Non-governmental organizations (NGOs) funded by western governments have been providing ‘training’ to the poor for years to try and undo the poverty-environment nexus. But dare I say these NGOs and the interests that they knowingly or unknowingly represent are themselves party to the problem.

Unfortunately, it may take a meltdown to forge a new social consensus (and probably an entirely new social contract) and with it a new development paradigm in which every social agent consciously protects the rights not only of people but also the environment which sustains us. I know who I will blame if this meltdown comes about but I also know that only playing the blame game will not get us anywhere. As is the case for virtually all the other problems we face today, we need a new politics to avert a war over water.

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