World Water Day for a plastic world

Water related challenges can not be solved within a global capitalist system that is itself destroying nature.

World Water Day 2018 Reuters
A man looks for recyclable items in the polluted waters of the Sabarmati river, in the face of World Water Day, in Ahmedabad, India, March 21, 2018 [Amit Dave/Reuters]

The theme of this year’s World Water Day – marked annually on 22 March – is “Nature for Water”, which, as the website of the United Nations Environment Programme informs us, “explores nature-based solutions (NBS) to the water challenges we face in the 21st century.” 

The challenges are clearly dire; as the UN notes, 2.1 billion people currently “lack access to safely managed drinking water services,” while an estimated 1.8 billion “use an unimproved source of drinking water with no protection against contamination from human faeces.” 

In theory, of course, nature-based solutions are the obvious answer to problems in nature. The UN advises planting more trees, restoring wetlands, and reconnecting rivers to floodplains.

But while the whole “NBS” campaign will no doubt generate handsome revenues for a UN system that specialises in self-enrichment, no solution to water or related challenges is possible within a global capitalist system that is itself destroying nature.

And even if water is considered a basic human right under international law, there isn’t much room for “rights” in a neoliberal milieu of comprehensive commodification and the eradication of any sort of terrestrial harmony in favour of the financial tyranny of an elite minority. 

Oceans of pollution

Let’s start with the 2.1 billion people reportedly lacking access to “safely managed drinking water services”. Horrifying as this figure is, it would appear to be an egregious underestimate in light of the findings of various recent scientific studies.

Last year, for example, scientists discovered microplastic contamination in tap water around the world. The Guardian’s environment editor noted some of the tragicomic details: “The US had the highest contamination rate, at 94 percent, with plastic fibres found in tap water sampled at sites including Congress buildings, the US Environmental Protection Agency’s headquarters, and Trump Tower in New York”.

Now, a new study has additionally found microplastics in 93 percent of worldwide samples of popular bottled water brands – leaving humanity with the question of what, exactly, we are supposed to drink.

In other uplifting water news, new research suggests that the earth’s oceans are severely more polluted with plastic than previously thought. 


Even before this revelation, a report by the World Economic Forum had indicated that, if we continue with business as usual, there will be more plastic than fish in the oceans by 2050.

The precise effects of ubiquitous plastic contamination on the human body are as yet unknown – but it’s safe to assume we’ll find out soon enough.

In the very least, plastic itself is a fine symbol of the soulless consumerism and overconsumption the forces of capitalism would have us believe constitutes “life”. 

Larger contexts

In her 2013 book A Human Rights Manifesto, Julie Wark discusses the monetisation (read: neoliberal theft) of resources and rights, highlighting the role of the bottled beverage industry in environmental destruction -none of this damage will be reversed by planting trees or restoring wetlands.

The annual production of tens of billions of plastic bottles in the United States alone, writes Wark, “uses 17 million barrels of oil per year and making the bottle takes three times more water than that which fills it”.

Oil production, for its part, also requires large quantities of water – to say nothing of the “wider water and acid rain pollution” that attends the process.

Meanwhile, according to a 2016 Washington Post article on the aforementioned World Economic Forum report, plastic production “accounts for 6 percent of global oil consumption (a number that will hit 20 percent in 2050)”.

In short, on World Water Day, it might be helpful for the world to ponder how water fits into larger contexts of corporate plunder and environmental spoliation – particularly when a certain imperial superpower has been known to wage wars for corporate profit in oil-rich lands, unleashing all manner of human and environmental calamity. 

Water as weapon

Speaking of war, the capitalist order conveniently provides all sorts of nifty opportunities for the effective weaponisation of water. 

The state of Israel comes to mind, where the Zionist tradition of usurping Palestinian water supplies has only exacerbated the suffering of Israel’s Palestinian victims, who are forced to pay disproportionate sums of money for portable water while Israel blissfully waters its lawns, fills the swimming pools of illegal Israeli settlers, and demolishes water cisterns used by Palestinian farmers.

In the Gaza Strip, the Israeli blockade and periodic bombing of relevant infrastructure have left the population to contend with raw sewage on the beach and other delights. A January 2018 headline in the Israeli newspaper Haaretz proclaims: “Ninety-seven Percent of Gaza Drinking Water Contaminated by Sewage, Salt, Expert Warns”. 

Naturally, none of this has prevented Israel from being marketed as a brilliant pioneer in the field of water technology and a veritable oracle on how to quench global thirst – which means loads of money for Israeli firms and a total whitewash of Israel’s ethnic cleansing habit. 

Beyond Israel, there are plenty of other instances of water-based assaults to human dignity. These range from the United States’ apparent determination to poison its own water supplies via reckless oil pipelines and other manoeuvres to a previous World Bank-inspired privatisation experiment in Bolivia in which – as Ben Dangl writes in The Price of Fire: Resource Wars and Social Movements in Bolivia – residents of the city of Cochabamba “were billed for everything from the water piped into their houses, to water collected in rain gutters, to the water in community wells”. 

On World Water Day, it might be nice to pretend that there existed some possibility of hope in a system predicated on economic disparity and a permanent division between haves and have-nots.

But the only nature-based solution to capitalism is to get rid of it.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.