Water & Rights

Water is bottled and sold. Think about that. Should water–something that everyone’s life depends on–be just another market commodity? Should we trust the supposed efficiency of the “invisible hand” to provide everyone around the world with clean water?

I never really had to think much about water when I was a kid. It was always there. I walked into the kitchen, turned a little handle, and there it was. I could turn on the hose whenever I wanted and flood the grass with all the water it needed. I never had to walk anywhere to get water, and I certainly never went without. Did you?

I grew up in southern California. We never really SAVED water. But we sure did a good job of using it. And I’m not talking just about household use, but how much water was used in the aggregate sense. Yes, I remember some instances in which people were gently asked to be careful about their water use. There were times during hot summers that we were all supposed to use less water. But it’s not like this was ever a real severe issue. People were asked not to wash their cars in the middle of summer, or maybe not water their lawns too much. But there was never a shortage of water–there was always water coming from the tap (this was after the big drought of 1977).

Water, 2009.  Photo by R.A.

There certainly were few moves toward changing the ways in which we used water–there was no major structural overhaul or attempt to rethink how we used water. All of those lawns and swimming pools throughout suburban neighborhoods illustrate this fact quite clearly. Lawns? If you think about it, the cultural habit of surrounding each and every little tract home with a small green swath of grass makes absolutely no sense. But making sense isn’t what’s at issue here–it’s power that we’re talking about (and this applies all over the world, not just to California). Power, and some well entrenched habits. Yes, access to water = power, and many people get used that to power. But this is going to become a bigger issue that more people (especially those in places like southern California) are going to have to think about.

Of course, there is a long history of water politics and conflicts in southern California. The battle between Owens Valley and the city of Los Angeles is one of the most well known examples (Here’s one more link about this well known political battle). It’s the story of a growing urban community living in a semi-desert environment that had to basically steal water to survive. And there’s no way that Los Angeles could have ever grown to its present day size without making a power grab for water. There simply wasn’t enough to support such a massive population. And, looking at Los Angeles, Orange County, Riverside County, and San Diego County today, it seems pretty clear that there really isn’t enough water to go around–especially considering the absolute waste of so much water.

Some people think that water is basically the next oil, meaning that the international political conflicts that we see over oil today are going to be over water in the future. In many ways, this is already coming to fruition. Many people all over the world do not have access to clean water–and often this boils down to pure politics. A few days ago I watched the film “FLOW,” which got me thinking a lot about water again. If you haven’t seen it, the film is available via YouTube. It takes a global look at the politics of control of and access to water. Here’s the first part:


Water access and use are issues that resonate with my research on development in Baja California as well. Large scale tourism development projects clearly control and use massive amounts of water. Hotels and resorts could not function without the “convenience” of clean water in each and every room. But then, there are the golf courses. Los Cabos already has a number of golf courses, many new development projects include yet another “world class” course. I’m not sure how this happened, but golf courses are one of the signs of prestige these days, so everyone tries to include one in their project in order to appeal to that “luxury” or “high-end” tourism market. But what happens to surrounding populations when these massive resorts and golf courses are built? What happens to water rights? What happens to the cost of access to water?

Tourism is a product. Tourism is sold via various forms of media; idealistic images of landscapes and environments become primary sales tools. Tourism businesses sell relaxation, romance, and luxury. They sell peace and quiet, and they sell adventure. Everything from surfing to diving to walking on those sandy beaches becomes a product for sale. But what are the trade-offs? What are the actual social and political costs of some of these products? What happens when these places are built? Are there winners and losers? And what about environmental damage and degradation? Where are the warning labels for “products” like international tourism? This is one way that I think we all need to look at tourism. We don’t really need to look at the “impacts” of tourism as much as we need to look at the histories, relationships, and politics that pervade tourism development. And the effects of tourism development on water access is just one factor to consider. But it’s a critical factor, and not one that you can expect to read about while perusing an in-flight magazine on your way to Cancun. Does it matter if someone else can’t get clean water just a few miles away from your five star hotel?  Maybe questions like this should at least become a part of the equation when tourists look for places to visit.


A golf course built in the middle of the desert may be picturesque to some people. I suppose it all depends on your personal ideals about beauty. To me golf courses are blatant symbols of power. The ability (and desire) to control water and use it for purely recreational purposes is astounding, all things considered. And I’m not just talking about all of the existing and proposed golf courses in Baja California, I’m talking about the courses that exist all over places like Southern California. Nothing against the sport of golf, but sometimes the use of resources is just beyond the pale. One of the first that always comes to mind when I think about this is Palm Springs. But then, I think my own home town of Carlsbad, CA has about three golf courses now. I understand the fact that golf courses appeal to tourists, and that they seem to improve the image of a city. But at some point, things are going to have to change. As the populations keep growing, people are going to have to rethink how they use water. This applies to everything from golf courses to washing dishes. But it seems to me that lots of Americans, at least, are trying to avoid thinking about these issues for as long as possible.

Drain, California, 2008.  Photo by R.A.

A lot of times when we think about water we think about where it ends up. We see water flowing along gutters or into drains and we wonder about waste. We wonder where it goes, how it will be treated, and then what will be done about it after that. But we should also think about things that happen long before we even reach for the tap. We should think about who has control of our water (and everyone else’s water), and how some people can get it easily and others cannot. In the US, water is seemingly everywhere. Take a look at your local grocery store. Look at public parks, where drinking fountains are routine parts of the landscape. There surely doesn’t seem to be any shortage, right? Distant histories, such as those of Owens Valley, speak otherwise. Water has been an issue in places like Southern California, and for a long time.

But California is just one aspect of the problem. It’s a model, in many ways, of what NOT to do with water. Fortunately, there are some people who are thinking very seriously about water and making changes. But this is an issue that extends far beyond Los Angeles, Palm Springs, Owens Valley, and Baja California Sur. Yes, it matters how we use water. But we also have to think about water access and rights around the world, and specifically how some of our own politics and practices are connected to these issues. Water is a crucial resource that many people around the world simply cannot take for granted. Recently, the UN has declared access to clean water and sanitation a human right. Is that enough?

Cross-posted @ Ethnografix.

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