Should debt justify scraping water rights?: The case of Ireland

The case of Ireland strikes me most because it takes me out of my usual context where I was raised. I’m Chilean and I’m used to pay for almost everything through multiple privatized systems in my home country. For many of us Chileans, who form the new generations after the restructuring of our economy during the dictatorship, it may even seem normal to pay and have provided almost every basic aspect of our lives by the private sector (education, health, housing, part of transport, highways, etc). In part, this has recently been contested and even reversed with the education related social movements. But it’s just been one aspect among so many that forms our Chilean-liberal culture. Indeed, the Irish protests allows me to look with a bit of distance to what still drives the so called privatization (now known as austerity too)

By peter Morrison/AP

By Peter Morrison/AP

What should be debated? It is relevant to understand what the underpinning motives are to privatize (or neo-liberalize) water provision in Ireland. Much of what has brought such a drastic decision is related to the financial crisis. Ireland has a massive debt as many other countries do in Europe. And (just like Spain, Italy, UK, Greece…) it is targeted with various rounds of neo-liberalization policies, also known as austerity measures, directed at existing public bodies (public health, public transport, in-formalization of work, massive public redundancy programs, etc.). As we all know, the financial crisis is mainly due to an irresponsible use of an already questionable and elitist financial system. As a form of balancing the excesses of the system and to “repay” the debt, the boundary of what is acceptable and legitimate have been redrawn. Not from the bottom up, but top down, and without much debate. It is now OK to scrap water rights, a great achievement in Ireland, in order to cover up the global speculative mess of a few hundred people who run the financial system’s resources. The social movements can be interpreted as a protest against this shift in how the ethics of governance are accommodated, adjusted or adapted to these few hundreds.

The solution to the financial crisis does not come about reinforcing and expanding the system which allows them (the elite) access to resources, or make almost anything an element of financial exchange. Far from that, it is about becoming more accountable, transparent and less elitist. Consuming water is, in economic terms, and inelastic demand: we have no choice but to do drink it. And that is why it is being channelled into filling the debt gap: it is absolutely certain this will pay off as an economic measure. But having water supply run publicly, or consider it as a basic human right which should be subsidized by the state is a choice. A choice which is not available to the general public in Ireland. Moreover, the debate about what should be reformed is being deliberately suppressed by the local media. Considering the underpinning factors of Irish austerity measures, it is in fact the financial system that should be under scrutiny and reform, not water rights.

Where should change take place? I resist believing these social movements are just driven by a don’t-get-into-my-pockets notion. As mentioned earlier, almost everything we do (hospitals, houses, roads, schools…) requires the use of economic resource. From what I have read it is likely to be a genuine and well-founded concern about how you justify its use; what is it being spent for and who decides? These are two questions which are already tricky to answer for many public and private institutions which act as “black boxes” when it comes to managing resources. By “black box” I mean at how we (the public in general) do not really see or allowed to understand how our pooled resources are distributed. Considering these questions, the debate is likely to end up questioning where change should occur, rather than silencing the social resistance to scrap water rights. Indeed, what really should be discussed and debated is an austerity package for the financial system. After all, that is where speculation spiralled out of control. And those are the institutions where measures should be targeted at: a change from within financial institutions.

When we see banners for “free” school and education, it is really about the kind of system in change of distributing our common resources. Things are not resource free. Almost any activity requires mobilizing some level of economic resources. And managing water resources evidently require a large investment, infrastructure, a bureaucracy that manages it, a vision for the future (among other things). But how these are managed should respond to people’s choice, as well as sensible to the diversity and historical circumstances of each nation. It seems the IMF and in general global financial institutions, whether it’s in economic growth or slump, consider it’s always a good moment to smoothen differences among places towards a single global economic system. Ireland, as most countries around the world, is affected by these smoothening out of differences, and water rights is where people were hit at.

Some lessons from a privatized country:  We started pretty much as Ireland did: basic privatization of services such as water. But instead of reversing the system once in democracy, Chile’s establishment  has reinvented privatization and deepened its reach. Chileans are Now further away from their right over this precious resource than in the 90’s. Privatization could therefore be interpreted as a distancing of citizens from their rights.  Mining firms have slowly bought most of Chile’s water rights in economically strategic valleys. They even obstruct small and medium sized firms from obtaining them. Towns and fields which have survived for centuries the deserts climate have dried out. Just attempting to stop any of these advances in privatization process is almost impossible. It is a matter of time these rights will probably be available in UK’s stock exchange. We can provide some lessons to Ireland and UK. But we also know these hard lessons we would like to share to the world usually pass unmentioned, not even in a mainstream political debates or media program. In London we hardly know about the Irish protests,it  is not available in the mainstream media. From a Chilean perspective, Privatization road is very bumpy one. Do learn form us, Ireland.

 

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