Reifiyng The Social Relations Of Production Of Potable Water

The new pricing system, combined with the threat of a drought-induced imminent water scarcity and a strong political rhetoric of crisis, facilitated the construction and public acceptance of water as an economic resource and, finally, as a valuable commodity (Bakker 2000; Kaika 2003a). What is important to note, however, is that the scarce character of water and the increase in its exchange value was attributed to the "natural" character of the resource, rather than to the actual institutional, economic and social organization of a produced commodity. While the "natural = scarce" equation was invoked in order to create public consensus around increasing water prices, the very process that actually makes water a commodity—that is, its production process—was suppressed. The social relations of the production and consumption of water remained in the background as if they were not part of the equation of water's availability, distribution and pricing. Ironically, even the president of the Union of Employees of the Water Company failed to address the fact that it is not nature, but the production process involved in the urbanization of water that lies behind changes in its availability and price. Arguing against price hikes and privatization, the Union's President marshalled exactly the same argument as his opponents, namely, the "natural" character of water:

[M]arket competition cannot be applied to the case of the water company, since the product that this company delivers [i.e. water] is not produced as is, for example, electricity.

(T.Zaharopoulos, interview, Newspaper To B^pa 24 May 1998; emphasis added)

Perhaps more acutely aware than anybody else of the materiality, labour-power expenditure and social relations involved in water's production, the Union's President still opted to emphasize the "natural" character of water, rather than its production process, as part of his argument against the increase in water's exchange value and against the company's pending privatization. The dominant rhetoric and the pensée unique of market liberalization, which depicts anything produced as necessarily and automatically commodified, made the Union's president resort to using "nature" as a lever for his argument in favour of maintaining the sacred human right to water: "Water is a natural good; moreover, it is scarce; therefore, it cannot be privatized" (T.Zaharopoulos, interview, Newspaper ToB^pa 24 May 1998).

It becomes clear from the above analysis that the discursive construction of water as a purely natural element and the reification of the social relations of its production strip the discourse over water resource management and allocation from any social and political meaning. Once taken out of the social and political nexus in which they are positioned, the production, consumption and conservation of water can be used to support almost any argument: for or against privatization; for or against the commodification of nature. As a case in this point, it is useful to note that the argument used by the Minister of Environment Planning and Public Works in favour of price hikes was identical to the one used by the President of the Trade Union against price hikes, namely, the dependence of water availability on nature's whims:

The sole target of the admittedly high price rises is the reduction of water consumption, since, according to the available data, the existing water reserves are enough to last only until the 2nd of November [1990]. If we achieve a 20% drop in consumption levels.water could last until mid-December, by which time it is hoped that it will have rained.

(Newspaper Ta Nsa, 9 May 1990)

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