Many in the global water justice movement are hesitant to see a solution in putting a price tag on water. At the same time, many argue that water’s loss through over-exploitation and abuse could be at least partially mitigated though pricing arrangements. Mirroring a “cap and tax” solution offered for CO2 emissions control, the notion of commons trusts attempts to put a value on the natural commons in the hope of curbing exploitation and raising revenue for multiple potential uses, including infrastructure enhancements.
The idea of a “common assets trust” is being floated in the American state of Vermont as a means to curb the unsustainable exploitation of elements of the “natural commons” such as groundwater. If passed, a bill (S-44) would effectively recognize groundwater as a form of common property subject to usage limits and fees for industrial users. By attempting to assign a “true cost” for water, such an initiative would aim to progressively cap water use for mass purposes. Bill S-44 proposes that the fee income could revert to every individual Vermonter as a type of “dividend” from fees attached to mass usage of water resources. Today groundwater is not assigned a value that reflects its “true cost,” including impact overuse degradation of ecosystems and long-term sustainable access. In addition, such a bill would give priority in times of shortage to use of water for drinking and agriculture over commercial use.
According to Peter Barnes of the Tomales Bay Institute, common property rights should be ascribed to elements of the natural commons as a way to ensure that our planet and its gifts – including water resources – are valued properly for their contribution to social and ecological well-being.
Barnes argues that such a shift entails a new form of capitalism which has the potential to limit ecological exploitation and degradation, as well as facilitate either individual dividends, or even public investment in common goods and public services. In Maine, legislators are attempting to expand the coverage of the “public trust doctrine” to groundwater, where such legal protection currently covers surface waters such as ponds and tidal rivers. Both Vermont and Maine are considering various means of charging adequately valued usage fees for mass industrial users such as bottled water operations. In Michigan, the women-led social movement Sweetwater Alliance has challenged the ecological impact of Nestlé’s water bottling operations and its effective privatization of water through bottling of groundwater for sale.
Similar efforts have begun to expand and flourish. Other campaigns in the U.S. and Canada have targeted bottled water in particular, and the role of large and small corporations that seek to profit from the effective commodification and privatization of water for sale to consumers, pitched through heavy marketing as a preferable alternative to tap water from municipal utilities. At the same time, local municipalities in New Hampshire have begun pressing for the implementation of ordinances and bylaws to limit or ban the bulk withdrawal of groundwater resources for bottled water operations. Such momentum echoes the successful struggles of women in Plachimada, India, to resist Coca-Cola bottling operations that have had a serious impact on water levels and agriculture in the region.
- Should water be “valued” (given a price tag that may vary according to its use) in order to be protected for sustainable and equitable use?
- How would new forms of common property rights interact with existing private property rights?
- How can we most effectively pressure states to not simply side with large water users and corporations but rather to advance broad, public and sustainable access to water? corporations but rather to advance broad, public and sustainable access to water?
Notes and Links
- Bill S-44
- Peter Barnes’ book on the economics of the commons, Capitalism 3.0.
- For information on movements opposing bottling factories and bottled water, see the following sites: