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Interview with Vandana Shiva (2002)

Discussing “Water Wars”

Resurrection of commons, community rights,
and direct and basic democracy

Interview by Nic Paget-Clarke
Johannesburg, South Africa


Dr. Vandana Shiva is founder of both the Research Foundation for Science Technology and Ecology, an independent public industry research group, and Navdanya a grassroots conservation movement in India. This interview was conducted by Nic Paget-Clarke on September 1, 2002 at St Stithians, site of the People's Earth Summit parallel event to the United Nations World Summit on Sustainable Development in Johannesburg. Her most recent book at the time of the interview is "Water Wars: Privatization, Pollution, and Profit".

  • To see our full series of interviews and articles from the United Nations World Summit on Sustainable Development in Johannesburg, South Africa, August 26 - September 4, 2002 - click here.
  • Also see: Interview with Vandana Shiva (2003)
    The Role of Patents in the Rise of Globalization
    New Delhi, India

Anti-poverty movements

In Motion Magazine: One of the things I noticed in your book “Water Wars” is how much mass movements relate to what you talk about. How do mass movements that you’ve been involved in or learned about inform your analysis?

Vandana Shiva: The book “Water Wars” is a synthesis of thirty years of my engagement with communities defending their eco-systems and resources. These movements are called the environment movements but they are also the anti-poverty movements because in the South the forces that make people poor are the same forces that destroy their resources. In fact, it’s because their resources are either destroyed or taken away people are left poor. That is why at this World Summit the environment is being made to look like the opposite of poverty. It’s a perspective from the rich and the powerful who would like to take the resources of the poor away and make it look like a solution to poverty through globalization, financial inputs, etc.

The first movement that taught me about water was the Chipko movement in the early ’70s. Women came out in the Himalayan villages hugging trees and said, “We won’t let them be logged. You’ll have to kill us before you kill our trees.” And they were laughed at and the government said, “Logging is a big revenue in these regions,” and the women said, “Forests do not bare timber and raise them as revenue.” Their real yield is water and soil conservation and fresh air.

People used to laugh in the early ’70s. But, by the early ’80s, our forest policy had changed to recognize that catchment forests’ first function was water conservation and not revenues through killing the trees and logging the trees.

Water lessons

We got a logging ban in the High Himalayas because of this direct action over a whole decade. Ordinary village women, no education, not one word can they write, but they taught the world one of the biggest water lessons. Taught me my big water lesson that as you log the forest you get floods and droughts. Springs dry up. That’s where the water crisis comes from.

The next lesson I learned was when I was commissioned by the Ministry of Environment to look at the impact of mining in Doon Valley. From a typical sort of bureaucratic-agency scientific perspective the impact of mining was the superficial impact that you can literally see with your eyes. But when I started to visit the villages for surveys, the women said, “It’s about water.”

And that’s what took me down the track of recognizing that the limestone was the aquifer, it was the water body that conserved water that would have been conserved, would have been stored by a two hundred thousand crore, which is twenty thousand million Rupees, investment in a water storage system.

That’s what nature and the limestone belt and the mineral deposits were doing for us. It is the women’s lessons in hydro-geology rather than the scientists’ lessons in geology that taught me about mountains and mining and how mining too is linked to water.


Then, in the same period, the early ’80s, one by one our rivers started to get dammed – Survernarekha, Narmada – and I started to go to every local community that was protesting against displacement to help them put together their assessments, including the early assessments and impact of the Narmada dam, and training the younger generation of activists who then really built a massive movement called the Narmada Bichao Andolan.

I learned there, during that period, that dams are built on the assumption that you augment water. All you do is re-direct water. You do not increase the flow of water in a river you merely store it and divert it to places where you can create commercial agriculture, feed industry, feed big towns. And meantime the areas that were getting water through the river, the wells that were being re-charged by that river, the fisheries that were being supported by that river, are killed. That cost is never taken into account.

Industrial agriculture and the World Bank

People's Earth Summit
Site of the People's Earth Summit parallel event to the United Nations World Summit on Sustainable Development in Johannesburg, South Africa. Photo by Nic Paget-Clarke.
It was during that time that the violence in Punjab taught me that industrial agriculture was a very big water destroyer. The economics of industrial agriculture had always been posed as higher productivity. That the reason you need these seeds, these crops, these chemicals is to produce more food. But more food with respect to what was never questioned. Yes, with respect to labor by getting rid of labor from the land. But not with respect to land because you are not producing more nutrition per acre. You were destroying many crops to create monocultures. Densely mixed farming produces far more per acre.

But the most important thing was water was never considered. Water was planned for. Inputs were planned for. But in the productivity assessment the inefficiency of water use was never considered. And my calculations showed me during that period that many of the wars and civil conflicts of that time were around rivers because different regions were fighting over the same rivers to feed these thirsty crops. Five times more water is used in industrial agriculture for growing the same amount of wheat and rice than indigenous agriculture. With respect to scarce water you actually had an inefficient revolution. You had a regressive revolution.

In the ’90s, the early ’90s, women in the coastal areas started to destroy shrimp farms. They called me to help them when they were arrested. I did the studies to file a Supreme Court case in their defense and those studies showed me that for something simple like shrimp landing on a plate in North America … . No one realizes that for one acre of a shrimp farm two hundred acres of eco-systems are being destroyed. The waters are being made saline. Sea waters are being polluted.

There are high costs for the Green Revolution -- the Green Revolution is the word for the industrial agriculture in India. And it is not just the dams. Where there were no rivers and there were no dams, the World Bank gave money to pump water from the ground so that today there are places where water is being pumped from a thousand to five thousand feet.

I remember two regions in particular where I did surveys for governments when the water started to get scarce and they were wondering, “Why is there no water?” I said, “Show me your plans. Show me your policies.” I started reading and I found that at a certain point the World Bank had said, “Stop growing millet. Start growing sugar cane. Stop growing subsistence crops. Start growing cash crops.” And that shift to very, very water-demanding crops, all World Bank requirements, lead to groundwater being mined and creating water famine.

My dream is one day to make a bill for genocide for the World Bank because more than any other agency it has destroyed the hydrological systems of this planet in its arrogance and blindness.

In Motion Magazine: Why would they suggest these changes?

Vandana Shiva: Because the World Bank only looks at returns on investment. It drags countries into borrowing. It forces loans on them and then wants to maximize return on loans. Well, loans don’t come out of stable eco-systems. Loans come out of cash crops. Loan payments, interest payments. They are squeezing out loan re-payments by killing water systems and killing people who depend on them.

Women organizers and activists

In Motion Magazine: How is it that so many of these organizers and activists are women?

Vandana Shiva: Well, for water it is very clear. In the Third World women carry the water to get it home. They are the ones first to know water is polluted. They are the first to know the well has run dry. They are the first to know water is saline. They are the canary of the eco-crisis.

The market paradigm and the ecological paradigm

In Motion Magazine: What’s the difference between the market paradigm of water security and the ecological paradigm?

Vandana Shiva: The ecological paradigm focuses on the water cycle and recognizes that by its very nature water is a renewable resource. If we respect that cycle and do not interfere in it it’s going to give us abundance forever. But we have to function within it. We have to be bounded by it. Within that binding we have limitless water forever.

The market paradigm does not look at the water cycle. It begins with cash. It begins with finance and then it’s, “How can I invest if I have money to extract water as a raw material and put it into something else that will generate more cash?” When that paradigm starts to create water crises that same paradigm comes up with a second solution which it is now offering here at the WSSD (World Summit on Sustainable Development). It’s a big offer. “We will now privatize water and commodify it.” Water is being exploited because it is being treated as valueless, “Therefore, we will put a price on it,” but value and price are two very different things.

When you function in an ecological paradigm you value water but you don’t price it. Because it is in fact priceless. In a market paradigm you price water but you don’t value it.

Water rights and indigenous communities

In Motion Magazine: Why do collective water rights and management work well in indigenous communities?

Vandana Shiva: Well, for example with things like water, water is interconnected. Surface water is connected intimately with the ground water. You can’t separate the two. Your river flows are connected with wells. Your mountain watershed is connected with the waters it receives. And not seeing that interconnectedness of water is what has lead to the privatization.

Communities have always recognized two things. First, that which we need for survival should never belong to an individual. It should be the common wealth. Second, it should be managed as the common wealth. Therefore, community structures of responsibilities have to be put in place.

The rights are derived from collective responsibility. They are secondary. Primary is the collective responsibility.

If you do not build that storage tank to harvest your monsoons in low-rainfall areas you are never going to have water. And you can’t build a tank alone. You have to join collectively. Once you harvest it together, then the only way to make that tank serve you is to have a common regime of what will be grown.

If one individual grows sugar cane and drains that tank dry that is the typical tragedy of the commons that Garret Hardin (The Tragedy of the Commons by Garret Hardin – 1968 Science) talks about. But that is not typical of the commons. That is typical of the destruction of the commons

The tragedy is that Western individualized, atomized societies and their academics have imposed on the rest of the world this very false idea that commons by their very nature must degrade. But it is privatized property by its very nature that must ecologically degrade because it is not being managed for ecological maintenance. It is being managed for highest returns.

Common property is what has allowed tanks built in India four thousand years ago to still supply water to people.

In Motion Magazine: How big are these tanks?

Vandana Shiva: The tanks are small but in huge chains. I have walked down chains of a thousand tanks in a row. Literally connected with overflow from one to the other, feeding the other. Miraculous engineering that cannot be reproduced by any engineer today.

In Motion Magazine: What dimensions?

Vandana Shiva: Some will be a hundred square feet. Some might be a square mile, depending on the topography. But in very dry areas, 600, 700 millimeters … they have been the lifeline in dry regions.

In Motion Magazine: And they are constructed by humans?

Vandana Shiva: They are constructed by humans. And we had, until the British tried to destroy it, systems of community management.

If today we have an ecology movement to fight privatizations it is because we can tap back into our historical memory, to say, “This is how this it could be done.”

Cowboy economics

Corporate Monster.
A sculpture set up by the international NGO Friends of the Earth at the United Nations World Summit on Sustainable Development (August 26 - September 4, 2002) in Johannesburg, South Africa. Photo by Nic Paget-Clarke.
In Motion Magazine: What is cowboy economics?

Vandana Shiva: Cowboy economics is the mentality of, if you get somewhere first you have absolute rights to rape, plunder, pollute. You have no responsibility for neighbors, for those who came before you, the inhabitants who were there, or those who have to come after you.

It is cowboy economics that is being brought back to the front with privatization. Cowboy economics was the basis of the water rights in the western United States. Whoever gets there first has absolute rights.

Eastern United States had a much more decent form of water distribution -- use-rights based on not disrupting the river flow so that others’ rights are not interfered in. It took others into account. Cowboy economics takes no one else into account – just the cowboy. The cowboy and his gun.

The Narmada Project / the Baliraja Memorial Dam

In Motion Magazine: The Narmada project was financed by the World Bank. Can you explain to me the difference between that and the Baliraja Memorial Dam – conceptually?

Vandana Shiva: The Narmada dam is a giant dam – very, very big. The Naramada Project is 30 big dams, and about 300 small ones. The Narmada Sagar is the big, first one they built. It is being built for the state and has the highest commercial agriculture and the highest industrialization. All the polluting chemical industry of the world has relocated to that state. It’s the thirst of the polluting petrochemical and chemical industry for which this dam is being built.

Investors, basically, are looking for returns on investment. What that land did in terms of being ancestral homelands for indigenous people, what that water did, in terms of being a flow down a major, one of India’s most sacred, rivers is not even being considered. It’s based on large amounts of foreign investment, whether it was earlier the World Bank, or later bonds raised internationally.

The Baliraja Dam is a small dam in another drought-prone area built with people’s mobilization. Their hands, their labor. It is meant to serve the sustenance needs of people. That is what it is designed for.

In Motion Magazine: There is such a thing as a good dam?

Vandana Shiva: The word dam is applied for any storage. The problem is the mega-dams, the giant dams. When you try and store water by human work there’s a limit of scale. Baliraja is not a giant dam. It’s a small storage system.

The giant dams which are built with huge earth-moving equipment … that’s where the problem starts because that really disrupts the water cycle. The lesson for the world was the Tennessee Valley corporation and the Hoover Dam -- these displays of huge power.

Harvesting water with smaller dams has not been a problem. For example, there’s a very famous dam system in India built during the Vijayanagar Empire (1336-1565) and that dam has never caused waterlogging. Waterlogging is when too much water gets locked into the ground and the water table rises and your plants can’t grow because now they are getting suffocated.

But in that same place, the World Bank financed a giant dam for the same amount of irrigation in the same region. Within a year, there was waterlogging. Within a year, thirteen people were shot dead for protesting against the land being destroyed through waterlogging.

And this was due to the World Bank’s mechanisms. The World Bank leaves instructions in our countries. We can’t rule ourselves, according to our terms. The Bank tells us, now you will have a department like this, collection of rents like this, water taxes like this. So when the water tax people went to collect taxes from these farmers, the people said, “Not only have we received no benefits, you’ve destroyed our land. We won’t pay you.” And there was the worst form of police action and brutality that created an amazing new organizing among farmers. They realized suddenly they were into a different period with industrial agriculture and these large dams.

Large dams are twins of polluting industry and industrial agriculture.

Water Wars
Public-private water projects

In Motion Magazine: What are the negative consequences of public-private water projects?

Vandana Shiva: There are three negative consequences of public-private water projects. The first is it inevitably leads to the privatization of the state. As is being done here at the World Summit, voluntary agreements are no more part of policy. They are no more debated through transparency of parliamentary debates. Executives, individual bureaucrats in power, usually with a kickback or a bribe, sign off something that does not belong to the state. Water. It is not the property of the state. Water belongs to the people and the earth. It is a community resource, common property. Common property cannot become state property. But private-public partnerships assume water to be a state property, to then be privatized to a private corporation. But the very action privatizes the state and stops it from being a public entity. That to me is the single most crucial damage that it does.

Second, it takes what is a community resource and transfers it into a monopoly right. A distortion. First, a monopoly of the state and then a monopoly of the corporation that takes over.

And the third damage it does, it leaves no accountability system either within a public-oriented state regulation or commons-oriented community regulation to regulate use. And I’ll give you just two examples of how this functions.

Someone signed away rights to Coca Cola. Where do they get their bottled water from? Why are they able to enter the market in such a big way with their Aquafinas and their Kinleys and their whatever they call them? They are capturing the market because they are getting the water for free. How do they get the water for free? Because somewhere someone wrote a contract with them. That was a private-public partnership. They get a piece of land. They start drilling deep – a thousand feet, two thousand feet deep where there is no pollution. They are not purifying water. They can’t manufacture water. That’s not for us to manufacture. They steal water.

In the state of Kerala, for example, in a region that has such high rainfall that that region has never had water scarcity, within one year of a Coca Cola plant coming, pumping up 1.5 million liters a day for bottling water, three lakes went dry, rivers went dry. The women started to protest. Tribal women. Three hundred of them are now in jail. We organized a meeting against water privatization three weeks ago -- they couldn’t join us because they were in jail. That is how the consequences of private-public partnership end up.

Another example is the case of Suez getting the privatization contract for water in Delhi (linked to “Suez - Degrémont and the Privatization of Ganga Water” article). Where does it get the water? By stealing it from the Ganges. Not purifying the Yamuna, which is polluted, but stealing it through a dam that was built on public cost, a hundred thousand people displaced. This is a bigger disaster than Narmada, actually, it’s just not been in the world news so much. They divert the water out of irrigation, 635 million liters a day.

Those bureaucrats who signed those contracts never had those rights. That is why private-public partnerships are in my view illegal both constitutionally, and we are going to file cases on all of these issues, but also illegal in a system of natural rights. Water has to be governed by natural law, not by the law of the market.

Corporate states and privatization

In Motion Magazine: You mention corporate states. What do you mean by that?

Vandana Shiva: The oil industry scandals in the United States have made it very clear that as the nexus between industry and government grows more and more intimate and these kinds of private-public deals allow decisions to be made in a totally undemocratic way against the interests of people and against sustainability, what you get is actually one entity. Mr. Bush is both an oilman and the head of the most powerful state of the world. He is one individual defending the oil industry using state power. He is the corporate state.

Given the way our representative democracy has been perverted, and is depending so much on money with no regulation of how much money gets spent and where the money comes from, there constantly builds up a spiral such that the closer you are to industry, and the more you are industry, the more money you can mobilize to get yourself into power and the more favors and deals and private-public partnerships you can strike to make the industry of which you are a part bigger so that the next time round it can finance you even more against your opponents who might have far more popular backing but don’t have the mobilizing capacity for elections, given that votes today are bought not mobilized.

Anyway, private-public partnership, the privatization of the state, the corporatization of the state, inevitably leads to a situation where electoral democracy also becomes a marketplace and votes become a commodity. That’s why we need deep change.

Earth democracy

In Motion Magazine: Do you have ideas on that deep change?

Vandana Shiva: I’ve called it earth democracy. And by that I mean three critical things.

First, recognizing once again that we are just one inhabitant, one species among many on the earth. We have to be responsible to the rest of the earth’s inhabitants. We have to relocate ourselves not in the global marketplace but in the earth family, in the earth community.

Secondly, to conserve the resources of the earth, and this can only be done through custodianship, guardianship, love and care in concreteness and locally, it is necessary that power-responsibility rights go where water can be conserved, seeds can be conserved, biodiversity can be conserved, education can be guaranteed, livelihoods can be generated, people can have meaning. The highest powers need to go right to the bottom.

We’ve had radical shifts in our Indian constitution recognizing this. If you really want to conserve resources you’ve got to put the powers to make decisions about natural resources on the ground. Of course, now that is conflicting with globalization and we have massacres over that conflict right now. But our constitution recognizes that the highest powers must be at the bottom. The right powers must go upwards.

So, resurrection of commons, community rights, and direct and basic democracy.

Crop prices fixed by farming communities

Monsanto headquarters sign, St Louis, Missouri
A large protest puppet peers over the Monsanto headquarters sign, St Louis, Missouri. Photo by Nic Paget-Clarke.
The third critical change is a shift in both the politics and economic paradigms. Politically, a paradigm based on democracy is bottom upwards. It does not begin with elections, it begins with decisions on everyday matters. What price should crops sell at needs to be fixed by local farming communities not by Chicago commodity exchange control. Once you have the right prices, everything else will fall into place. Justice will fall into place. Sustainability will fall into place.

And that will also generate a living economy. Just now, the economy has become an economy of death. Just killing countries. Killing farmers. Killing fisherman. Killing children. Killing women. It is efficient at killing and then saying that is not my responsibility. “You can’t prove it’s because of what I did.”

For example, U.S. farmers have lost a crop. Indian farmers have lost a crop. Southern African farmers have lost a crop. But the oil industry is still not taking responsibility. President Bush is not taking responsibility. Instead they are taking the damage caused by one irresponsible industry, the oil industry, through climate change, and saying, “Now, we will use this to blackmail the Africans to buy GM (genetically modified) foods and create a market opportunity for another industry – Monsanto.”

To this, a local democracy, a living democracy would basically say, “No. Our economy, we will shape. We know what we can do and we will tell you what we can’t do. Then we’ll import from you.” It turns globalization on its head. You know, we’ve handed over too much power and at this point if we don’t take back power there will be no humans alive on this planet.

It used to be said, “Bread or freedom”. It used to be either / or. It’s very clearly bread and freedom. If we don’t make ourselves really free we won’t have bread.

The World Summit

In Motion Magazine: This seems like a critical conference.

Vandana Shiva: Yes.

In Motion Magazine: What is your understanding of what has been going on?

Vandana Shiva: At the formal conference, two opposite things have been happening. On the one hand they’ve got some negotiators busy with working out timelines for real commitments but implementation about how to get to those objectives is all about WTO (World Trade Organization) globalization.

I just did a count in the negotiations last night. Doha and WTO are mentioned 46 times in the implementation decision. Rio is mentioned once in one square bracket, which means it could disappear. So it is a hijack of the Rio agenda and replacement by the globalization and trade agenda, which means by the corporate agenda.

The countervailing force that international environmental treaties and laws and policies were able to create – the attempt here is to totally dismantle it so that in international law we have nothing but the power of cooperation. That is what is being sought to be done.

Last September 11, there was the hijack of planes which were then rammed into the World Trade Center towers. What we are seeing is a hijack of world governance and the right to ram into all eco-systems and all people’s lives on this earth. We have to find ways other than summit decisions to find ways to protect our lives.

In Motion Magazine: As yet undetermined?

Vandana Shiva: No, I think they are being shaped. I think small invisible gatherings like this People’s Earth Summit, the Children’s Earth Summit, there are places where people are recognizing that we have to withdraw consent and we have to withdraw engagement, and build alternative systems.

Published in In Motion Magazine, March 6, 2003

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