Artifacts II

An excerpt from a practice research proposal written as an assignment for a human rights history course in graduate school. I can’t pinpoint when I became interested in water resource policy and management, but I can tell you right now: water resources are vastly misunderstood by Americans because we pay so little for it. Behind that veil of disinterest however, is a world that almost resembles science fiction. Water is a massive business, the third largest industry on the planet behind electricity and petroleum, and comprises everything from bottled water sales to filtration, delivery, treatment, and access. It can also be privatized, which is what happened in Cochabamba, Bolivia, a contract that went so far as to ban citizens from COLLECTING RAINWATER. There have been a few, small, initial violent outbreaks over its ownership. It is honestly hard to convey in a brief manner what is going on behind the scenes as military planners, corporate boards, speculators, local populations, and human rights activists scramble to achieve their respective goals. I can promise one thing, we will see a water war, and probably several, because we are running out of fresh water that is clean enough to drink. And if you don’t belief, do some googling and check out what the pentagon thinks, or what giant corporations like Bechtel and Suez think.

The Wealth in Water: Environmental Policy and International Politics in an Era of Human Rights Consciousness

The availability of clean, accessible drinking water is the most basic, indispensable prerequisite of a functioning human society; and, despite its primacy within the canon of human needs the history of freshwater resource management has remained largely unexplored by historians of international humanitarianism. During the summer of 2010 I will be conducting research on the history of water-rights policy and popular discourse in the United States. My research will provide the foundation for an article entitled The Wealth in Water: Environmental Policy and International Politics in an Era of Human Rights Consciousness.  This article will explore the relationship between two areas of transnational and international concern traditionally separated by historical scholarship: environmental degradation and human rights. Linking human and environmental rights, the paper will argue that recognition of reliable access to safe drinking water as a fundamental human right combined older progressive values and nascent internationalist ideology (emerging after the conclusion of World War II) with American environmentalism. Settlement by state and federal judiciaries of disputes involving water resources in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries shaped through legal precedent American standards for human and environmental health. As a powerful member of the global community, American expectations for water quality and sanitation were influenced significantly by the international human rights discussion. As a corollary to this hypothesis, my paper will argue that a resurgence of conservative free market doctrine in the 1980’s and 1990’s led to the separation of environmental health from human rights policy at the practical level. While environmental concerns continued to be addressed by America through multilateral negotiation, economic and political rights began to assume primacy in the language of human rights initiatives, a process by which the natural environment was reclassified under an economic rubric; and, as a result of aggressive support for international free trade, the commodification of environmental rights has facilitated the exploitation of vulnerable populations in developing nations by powerful transnational corporate interests.

In recent decades the linkage of local environments with human economic rights in official discourse has been used to expand a nascent international water market. A curiously worded and precedent setting phrase in The Dublin Statement on Water and Sustainable Development, a United Nations report released on January 31, 1992, illustrates clearly how the right to a reliable supply of clean water, or the negative right to assert ownership over an imperative human need, has been undermined. This statement, for the first time in the organization’s history, recognized water as a commodity, a good or resource that could be bought and sold on the global market; more importantly, this declaration created a historical basis for allowing extraction and transportation of water far from its region of origin. Private ownership of water resources is not a latent development, but a practice that has existed for centuries in nations like France and Germany, but commodification of water by international agreement is fundamentally different as the introduction of privatization subordinates environmental, and by extension, human rights to market pressures that affect how collective necessities are delivered. Private ownership transfers responsibility for provision and maintenance of water resource management systems from public trust to profit oriented, transnational corporations. GDF Suez, a French company employing over two hundred thousand workers with business operations in every continent on the planet serves as one such example. Current efforts to privatize the world’s water supplies begs incorporating the histories of international human rights and environmental history to achieve and thorough understanding of the formation and development of humanitarian thought, its development throughout the twentieth century, and to develop future legislative policies. International support for private ownership of water supply and provision systems is a potential stumbling block for international human rights reform which challenges notions of progress and underscores the need to include the evolution of multilateral water policy when analyzing American history in an international context.

A. Research and Contribution

The devastation wrought by World War II contributed to a resurgence of civilian and governmental support for multilateral human rights initiatives in the US following a period of isolation during the Great Depression. While other factors contributed to the emergence of international support, recognition, and enforcement of human rights policy, the brutality of World War II influenced heavily how the global community engaged shared humanitarian concerns following the conflict, with The Universal Declaration of Human Rights becoming the most visible manifestation of renewed efforts  to ensure the well being of populations and societies beyond national boundaries. Originally the domain of international bodies like the UN, World Trade Organization, and the World Bank, efforts to secure, maintain, or improve the lives of individuals around the globe has outgrown the initial governmental monopoly on implementation and enforcement. During the latter half of the twentieth century non-governmental organizations engaging in human rights advocacy, assistance, and monitoring have undergone a startling proliferation despite the fact that governments around the world continue to operate, and in some cases expand, the agencies and networks created in response to the Second World War. For historians, recent decades have also witnessed a growing interest in the development of   international human rights awareness and the institutions brought into existence, such as the UN, to address what national leaders recognized increasingly as an interest in stability and prosperity shared collectively by many nations. As the two World Wars demonstrated, abuse of human rights in one nation could potentially affect regions and peoples far beyond its borders, prompting leaders in the United States and around the world to embrace multilateralism as a strategy to encourage equality and prosperity and reduce the likelihood of destructive conflict.

Recognizing the potential for exceptionalism to create analytical blind spots, the legitimacy of treating US history as a case study in unprecedented national success has been directly challenged in recent decades as scholars have demonstrated the distortion caused by artificially separating American development from global currents of commerce, information, and population movement. While emancipation from restrictive nationalist interpretations has delivered valuable insights and brought into consideration aspects of US and human rights history previously ignored, many of these studies remain devoted to evaluations along social, political, and economic lines of argumentation to describe the causality of events and outcomes. Reliance on traditional causal narratives can be detrimental to the historiographical development of human rights history if research and dialogue remain fixated on political or socio-economic issues. My article intends to address the bifurcation of environmental history and human rights history. Because water is so necessary for survival, basic sanitation, maintaining healthy populations, food and livestock cultivation, industrial manufacturing, and recreation, it is necessary to recast environmentalism, or at least the components relevant to water provision and water quality, as an integral part of human rights advocacy in the world today. By placing emphasis on economic rights and freedoms, industrialized nations have allowed a system that facilitates the extraction of natural resources from developing nations at minimal benefit to domestic populations. Reclassification of water as a commodity by international agreement and the emergence of a transnational corporate water industry, obstructs advances in human rights because privatizing the extraction of water supplies transfers responsibility for a critical human need from government oversight to for-profit private enterprises insulated by robust free trade mechanisms. This current arrangement is due partly to the Dublin conference but also the Thatcher/Reagan market economy ideology of the 1980s which extolled the virtues of private industry and sought to eliminate many of the regulatory measures governing international trade.

This article will serve two important purposes: first, by looking at the evolution of regulatory frameworks and the public debate over water rights in the United States, the processes which shape how individual rights are defined and changed over time can be more clearly understood. Considering the strong influence wielded by America throughout the world, tracing the public debate and legal precedents concerning water will shed light on the underlying motivations of US foreign policy. Secondly, water can be understood as a transnational mechanism itself. Valuable topsoil  is carried out of America and into Mexico by the Colorado River, sediment obstruction caused by hydroelectric dams in China rob Laotian, Vietnamese, Burmese, and Indian farmers of nutrient and mineral replenishment while simultaneously concentrating pollutants in the reservoir. Environmental processes like rain patterns or river flows do not observe national borders, embargoes, or trade agreements, and while human societies are constantly improving methods to control natural processes like geological and climatological cycles, it is still far beyond the capacity of individual nations or coalitions. Water’s disregard for national boundaries thus demands international cooperation to effectively avoid the human rights disaster a collapse of local or regional water supplies would cause. International organizations must re-evaluate the water policies articulated and implemented by previous leaders. Including the developmental histories of current water policies, and how international water management strategies have been affected by the human environmental rights discourse in America will provide depth to the story of global humanitarianism and can add significantly to the existing historiography by illustrating the importance of natural regimes to human rights and international political structures.


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