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Transnational Water and Mining. Water inequalities and biopolitical implications

Transnational Water and Mining. Water inequalities and biopolitical implications

By Horacio Machado Aráoz

This work analyzes the incidence of transnational metal mining in the economic-political production of ‘water scarcity’ and its impact on the deepening of water inequalities worldwide. For this, the conceptions of water typical of pre-modern cultures are contrasted with the vision that modern scientific reason inaugurates of it.


The times we live in seem to be marked by the depletion of 'Nature'. Since their emergence during the last quarter of the 20th century to the present day, manifest ecological problems at different socio-territorial scales (local, national, regional and global) have played an increasingly prominent and unavoidable role on the world political agenda.

The ecological unviability of the historical pattern of ‘economic modernization’ and industrialization followed by modern societies has been revealed in a series of symptoms that are as obvious as they are worrying: the continuous and growing extinction of species; the loss of native vegetation and forests; the depletion of minerals and energy sources; the accelerated processes of soil erosion and the correlative advance of desertification; the incessant increase in the production of garbage and toxic emissions of all kinds that pollute water, air and soil; the loss of biodiversity in general; global warming and associated climate change.

All these processes will not only affect the conditions and possibilities of life in the future, but already in the present they are costing large human lives and the deterioration - often irreversible - of the health of vast segments of the population. According to the United Nations, in the 1990s there were more than 700,000 fatalities caused by so-called 'natural disasters' linked to climate change (ECLAC, 2002: 149).

The number of this type of events registers a continuous increase in quantity, frequency and intensity; correlatively, from an average of 147 million affected in the 1980s, it went to 211 million in the 1990s; In 1998 alone there were 50,000 deaths and more than 300 million displaced by socio-environmental causes (ECLAC, op. cit. 150). Inasmuch as it is an issue in which literally "our lives are going," ecological problems are an increasingly relevant and decisive source of contemporary socio-political conflict.

Within this framework, one of the most important factors is the issue of the growing "scarcity" of water, since it is an essential natural asset. Without it, no form of life would be possible. Water makes possible photosynthesis and the processes of energy capture and circulation, the production of nutrients on which all living beings depend. Vegetation depends on it and, with it - through it - the entire food chain.

It also plays a fundamental role in the absorption of carbon and the production of oxygen, the regulation of temperature, the climate in general, and in particular, the balances in the composition of gases that make the atmosphere an environment suitable for lifetime. Animals of all kinds, including humans, also depend directly on their consumption: we could not survive more than a few days without water. The seriousness of a scenario marked by its eventual scarcity is then understood.


Given its essential nature for life, it is difficult to accept that once the 21st century has entered, access to drinking water does not reach the entire population. By promoting its recognition as a basic human right, the UN states that by 2009 almost 900 million people lack it, while 2.6 billion do not have access to sanitation services and more than 1.5 million children under five years of age die per year as a result of diseases linked to poor water quality (UN, 2010).

Beyond the various global and intergovernmental campaigns carried out to extend the validity of this right, progress in this area is far below the expectations and the proposed objectives. In contrast, the use of water for productive purposes in general and industrial purposes in particular, does not stop growing, so that, at the current rate, it would double in the span of 20 years, according to calculations made for 2025 (Barlow, 2001: 8 ).

In this context, we are witnessing the growing installation of 'water scarcity' and the 'inevitable' conflict over it, as a 'global problem': rulers of various countries and at different levels, international organizations, 'specialists' from universities and companies, in addition to the media, are increasingly concerned with 'informing' us about this issue. From the highest spheres of power it is affirmed that "the wars of the future will be over water", without giving an account of the origins and reasons for the sudden crisis; also occluding, with this, the analysis on the current patterns of use and distribution and on the measures already promoted to - presumably - face it.

An analysis of this type, however, would allow us to recognize in this matter the growing configuration of a global discourse that seeks to naturalize the current state of 'world ecological disorder' (Porto Gonçalves, 2006), a historical-geographical disorder resulting from the globalization of the West and that, in its aftermath, shows as one of its burdensome consequences, the intensification -to the extreme of endangering the survival of the most vulnerable populations- of ecological inequalities in general and water inequalities in particular, which are verified both at the geopolitical level as in the intergenerational plane.

Understanding that it is a problem as serious as it is real, although distortively configured, we propose to analyze the growing 'global water shortage' as an expression of a political discourse typical of the ongoing hegemonic globalization, aimed at naturalizing the serious biopolitical inequalities existing around to the same. The ‘scarcity discourse’ conceals, in our opinion, the privatized world assault on water sources, being, therefore, a politically produced and economically convenient ‘scarcity’.

Being multiple and diverse the ways through which progress is made in the unequal appropriation of the vital element - among them, the privatization and oligopolistic control of the services of provision of drinking water and sanitation, the generalization of practices of commercialization of the same for human consumption (bottling and beverage companies) and the relocation strategies of industries that are intensive in water resources, among others-, here we will try to put under the magnifying glass the consequences that transnational mining implies in this regard today.

Taking into account the particular technological characteristics and the geo-economic design of said extractive activity worldwide, an attempt will be made to show the crucial role that it plays in the spatio-temporal production of water inequalities.

Now, in order to make explicit the political ecology of the water policy involved in transnational mining, it will be necessary to start with the necessary exercise of denaturing the very notion of ‘water’. [Download document]

Horacio Machado Aráoz - Faculty of Humanities and Faculty of Philosophy of Social Sciences, National University of Catamarca, Argentina. This article presents some of the results obtained in the Research Project, SECYT, UNCa. Work published in the magazine Projection No. 9 Year 2010 Dossier Urban Habitat: Dimensions and perspectives. “Proyección” magazine is published by the Institute of Cartography, Research and Training for Territorial Planning (CIFOT), of the Faculty of Philosophy and Letters of the National University of Cuyo./Observatorio Petrolero del Sur - OPSUR - http: // opsur .wordpress.com


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