What does it mean to declare water a human right? Or rather, what does it mean to do more than simply announce that this is so? Most often, these questions are answered with the broadest of brush strokes, as some say that governments should ensure water as a right through political means. Others insist that an excessive focus on human-rights discourse obscures water’s actual value, and that its true price will thus not be recognized. For them, only the treatment of water as a commodity will do that.
Through the thicket of this epochal debate, Andrea Ballestero’s new book, A Future History of Water, treads a much more subtle path. Ballestero moves away from sweeping predictions of the coming global water crisis and the debate regarding “public” versus “private” water. Instead, she leads us toward the intricacies of what it actually takes to distinguish water as a human right from water as a commodity. Surprisingly, she argues that what it takes is achieved mostly through bureaucratic sleights of hand and the fine-grained labor of “bifurcation” on what is exceedingly slippery terrain.
Set in Costa Rica and Brazil, the book tracks the everyday labor that goes into maintaining the sometimes-indeterminate distinction between right and commodity. Dense and beautifully detailed, Ballestero’s story shows how government bureaucrats and regulators moved beyond the declarative to the actual performance of the exacting work that a commitment to rights demands. In the process, the book unravels a set of seemingly uncharismatic devices, such as the consumer price index (CPI). Ballestero makes these technical tools appear as exuberant microcosms of technopolitical craftiness, unexpected historical depth, and ethical future-making.
The book is organized around four such devices—formula, index, list, and pact—all of which serve as vehicles for Ballestero’s interlocutors as they work to move beyond market-driven paradigms. As the narrative unfolds, we learn that the separation of commodities from rights is not achieved by big declarations but instead is quietly crafted by bureaucrats, scientists, representatives of nongovernmental organizations, engineers, and lawyers sitting in their offices and cubicles. This quiet craft is the work of distinction and bifurcation: of discerning where the right to water must be located, and how this array of technopolitical tools can be marshaled toward that end.
A Future History of Water thus shows us that such small technical tools can become objects of wonder if one lingers long enough. They are the humble means through which something as grandiose as a human right must be forged.
Public vs. Private?
When the United Nations declared water a human right, in 2010, it did so in light of dire projections of water scarcity, overextraction, and increased contamination. These threats could affect billions of people, the UN warned, even within the next generation.
Yet the UN also made its declaration at a peculiar moment: when the private sector was—and, indeed, it still is—hailed for its capacity to efficiently provide water, especially where public sectors have supposedly failed. Water, in short, was officially declared a right for all at the very moment that a powerful set of private actors insisted that they are the ones best positioned to guarantee it.
Not surprisingly, the language of rights quickly migrated from the lofty halls of the United Nations into the vocabulary of corporate actors. As Veolia, one of the world’s most powerful global water corporations, put it in 2020: “Water is a human right. This is the strong belief of Veolia and the core of a water operator job: bring water to those who need it most.”
Many critics have responded to such corporate pledges with suspicion, arguing that these commitments obscure what is really at stake. They see a massive corporate push to extract value from water—and to build and maintain water’s concomitant infrastructures—as they conscript it into the process of capital accumulation.
Ballestero leads us toward the intricacies of what it actually takes to distinguish water as a human right from water as a commodity.
After all, capitalism’s predatory logics have today become clearer than ever before, as the world finds itself in the midst of a new round of “accumulation by dispossession.” This is the process by which capitalism preys on all sorts of public assets—universities, schools, and hospitals; cultural forms like music, collectively produced knowledge, and art; and vital, life-giving resources like land, genetic materials, seeds, and water—so as to convert them into private property.
Such predatory schemes are evidenced by public water utilities that have already been privatized. Since their wholesale sell-off by Margaret Thatcher, three decades ago, English water companies have funneled a total of £57 billion to shareholders while failing to carry out significant national infrastructure improvements. Publicly owned Scottish Water has, in contrast, invested nearly 35 percent more per household into infrastructure in the past 18 years and charges households 14 percent less for its services.
Such dramatic narratives—Veolia, Thatcher, and more—rightly pit private against public, commodity against right. Yet they neglect that these distinctions are at times highly unstable and are, in fact, the result of incessant, careful work.
And so, enter the technopolitical tools—formula, index, list, and pact—of A Future History of Water. Here, Ballestero performs anthropology at its best by extracting kaleidoscopic worlds out of small things that might initially seem mundane, even inconsequential. Indeed, on close inspection, Ballestero’s devices all become lively instruments for the organization and channeling of ethical work.
The book’s four chapters orbit around these four devices and how they are tweaked and hacked by the economists, lawyers, engineers, environmental scientists, philosophers, sociologists, farmers, and schoolteachers whom Ballestero observes and engages with in their respective realms. While different in morphology and potential effects, these interlocutors’ interventions all shape regimes of value, allow for the making of juridical decisions, create commensurations across difference, or make new obligations emerge.
The pricing formula, the first of Ballestero’s devices, is the key mathematical tool through which the human right to water is calculated. Analyzing the formula that regulators use at Autoridad Reguladora de los Servicios Públicos (ARESEP), the Costa Rican agency charged with regulating the state’s public utilities, Ballestero shows how regulators engage in the complex process of pricing a human right. In so doing, they differentiate between good and bad price, forms of price that generate a legitimate surplus (the development yield, R) versus forms that generate profits (a return on investment, or ROI, that Costa Rican public utilities are constitutionally forbidden from making).
While Costa Rican regulators deploy the same pricing formula used in other parts of the world to regulate private utilities, they insist that income must only ever recover costs. The development yield, then, is delicately balanced and calculated in relation to utility income and expenditure, its ethical nature hinging not on the absolute magnitude of surplus but on the proportion between income and expenses. Regulators can adjust the variable R up and down, all the while also keeping in mind that the UN Development Programme has determined that the human right to water can be made affordable only if its price does not exceed 3 percent of a household’s income.
Many of Ballestero’s interlocutors insist that a balanced formula creates a balanced price and, by implication, a balanced, more just society. Justice, in short, can be found in more than courts. Indeed, it should be. For Ballestero and her interlocutors, it must be embedded within even the minutest of infrastructures: even, in this case, the formula’s calculation of relations and proportions.
The consumer price index can likewise be used for multiple political ends. Like the pricing formula, the CPI appears when Costa Rica’s perennially indebted public utilities seek to raise water prices as well as when regulators agree on adjusting water price because of inflation rates and their effects on the cost structure of utilities.
The CPI quantifies the fluctuating relation between money (prices) and things (commodities) over time. It hinges on the idea that households work with a “consumption basket”: a set of 315 basic household items, whose prices and constantly shifting relation to one another ultimately translate into the percentage of inflation. It is thus, paradoxically, relations among mundane household goods (like beets, pantyhose, and milk) that influence existential questions such as the just price and authentic value of water. What ultimately determines the affordability of a human right is not a single item but the articulation of all items in relation to one another as they change from month to month.
Put differently, it is only the CPI’s calculation and calibration of these relations—of the price of mundane goods relative to the price of a “godly gift” like water—that secure a just price, not righteous proclamations thereof. Costa Rica’s regulators thus think of themselves as using the CPI as a means to compensate for what would otherwise be the shortcomings of the market; prices, therefore, have social lives and existential value, especially when it comes to water.
Yet sometimes the human right to water fails to be ensured because of the politics of another technical device: the list. Here, Ballestero leads readers through the Costa Rican struggle to have water constitutionally recognized—that is, listed—as a human right and public good.
For years, activists, experts, and public officials aimed to classify water as a bien demanial, to denote a type of public property whose existence and utilization must benefit the common good. While the Costa Rican congress can move some bien demanial into the realm of el comercio de los hombres (the commerce of men), the country’s constitution contains a select group of goods—inalienable possessions—that are beyond congressional reach. Such goods can be privatized only through the complex and lengthy procedure of constitutional reform.
Currently, these inalienable possessions include all types of hydropower, as well as coal, petroleum, railways, ports, and airports. Ballestero describes how activists and politicians worked to include water in this list, since water would then be constitutionally protected.
The intricate technopolitical maneuvers needed to distinguish water from its commodification are worthy because they lay the groundwork for a future yet to be imagined.
Representatives of the country’s Libertarian Movement Party sabotaged this attempt through the introduction of a list that insisted that water’s materiality be specified. How, Libertarians asked, can a shape-shifting substance like water be reduced to the fiction of “public property” or, for that matter, any property at all? If water were to be declared public property, would it become illegal to capture rainwater on private property?
The Libertarians used a list, ever expanding and ever more ridiculous, as a device to subvert the public-property regime as a logical possibility. Their list became the tool that allowed them to deploy the material qualities of water as a weapon against what they insisted was the legal fiction of property.
Devices, in short, can become tools for the opening up of more just social worlds. But they can just as well be used to foreclose them.
Toward the end of the book, Ballestero walks readers through the “pact.” She shows how this device operated in Ceará, a state in northeastern Brazil undergoing severe water scarcity.
Here, the state’s Legislative Assembly initiated a statewide “Water Pact,” which aimed to transform people’s relationship to water by reminding them of their obligation to care for it. The pact was underwritten with small slips of colored paper, which thousands of people used to write down their individual, sometimes idiosyncratic commitments to water. Importantly, the process of making this pact was designed not with a linear vision of change in mind, but with a framework that aggregated a series of small and varied individual promises into a possible future history.
Transcending the elusiveness of state-centered, technical, and “solution-based” planning, the Water Pact was a means to turn water into an intimate moral responsibility. Built not on measurable effectiveness but on a “magic” of encompassment—insofar as thousands of people signed on to it, one by one—the pact was everywhere and nowhere at once.
Today, only around 40 municipalities in Ceará continue to use the pact to organize their actions. But the point of documenting the collective crafting of this pact—and of paying attention to the ways in which this seemingly minor device was marshaled in an effort to make water a human right—is to open our eyes to a particular kind of politics, but not the all-encompassing, revolutionary kind that breaks systems and overturns structures, or smashes extractivist capitalist logics with a clear vision of how-things-should-be. Rather, Ballestero points us toward these devices as small vehicles for political and ethical improvisation, and for opening up what she calls “possibilities for other possibilities.”
The intricate technopolitical maneuvers needed to distinguish water from its commodification are thus worthy of our close attention. They are worthy not because they are revolutionary, but because they lay the groundwork for a future yet to be imagined. These futures are unforeseeable and unpredictable. Only a future history of water will tell whether these minute events and practices will one day be recognized as significant and effective.
Ballestero urges us to pay detailed attention, not just to the spectacular battle between “public” and “private,” but to a politics that hinges on more modest expectations and operates through nuanced, everyday acts. After all, it is in these acts that the preconditions for a postextractive politics and history are perhaps already being built: tentatively, nonteleologically, and through the fascinating capacity of small technical tools.
This gem of a book thus calls our attention not just to a humbler politics but to a curious cabinet of seemingly mundane but quite wondrous devices. It also invites us to notice unsung heroes like government regulators, who disappear out of broader accounts of water justice.
A Future History of Water thus cultivates undivided attention to technopolitical nuance and ethical detail and demands the same of its readers. It asks us to commit to the complexities of thinking through how the bifurcation between a human right and a commodity might come about, and how this distinction can be maintained. The concept of justice, in all its beautiful breadth, thus must always also be thought of as intricate and partial: a practice, not a thing, that demands incessant and focused work.
Thinking through the details of justice’s intricacies and partialities is an important task. And it is one that is urgent like never before, as futures—environmental, economic, political—currently seem so radically, even terrifyingly, open. Such openings must be held, cultivated, and worked on as if our lives depended on it, with the kind of care, precision, and ethical commitment that both Ballestero and her interlocutors display.
This article was commissioned by Gretchen Bakke.
Featured-image photograph by Ameen Fahmy / Unsplash