After Seattle, Fresno in California has become the second US city to ban caste discrimination following the city council's unanimous 7-0 vote in favour of adding caste as a 'protected category' in its anti-discrimination policy.
We now live in an ahistorical age. That is, we don’t learn from history. We love revising and rewriting history, but can we ignore what Canadian historian Margaret McMillan calls “the uses and abuses of history” both old and recent? History tells us that there were always those who tried to overcome boundaries and those who tried to restore them, those who erected walls and those who destroyed them.
The United States has often been on the wrong side of history. The Fukuyamas and Huntingtons of the world proclaimed a premature “end of history” and ‘clash of civilisations.’ BBC’s familiar refrain for long was that “fluttering of butterfly wings in Tokyo can raise tornadoes in Texas” which prompted The Independent to retort, “A BBC butterfly flutters by, telling lies.”
The prophets of US-led globalisation promised to lift all boats, but experience tells us that globalization from above has lifted only yachts. What it has ended up in is what American journalist Evan Osnos calls the ‘haves and have-yachts.’ The international system, constructed following the Second World War, is almost unrecognizable. New geopolitical realities demand new structures of global governance and a new economy for many which will provide a greater voice for developing and emerging countries.
But it remains a work in progress thanks to US intransigence. The US record of being on the wrong side of history is unparalleled. More than two billion people around the world live in “water stressed” countries.
The Biden administration has said that it will support investments in water infrastructure abroad and provide technical expertise to help other countries manage their water resources. Vice-President Kamala Harris believes there will be “wars fought over water.” Are Biden and Harris water warriors? Has the Biden administration elevated water security as a foreign policy priority? Or is the US seeking to take advantage of water insecurity and wielding it as a weapon of war? Aaron Salzberg, director of the Water Institute at the University of North Carolina, argues that a greater emphasis on deploying US technical expertise abroad and datasharing with partners can be a “game changer.” When the US declares a war on poverty, one conclusion is certain.
The rich people will win. Why do so many people remain deprived of clean drinking water? Because the rich benefit from them. Historian Jason W Moore explains how nature became “everything that the bourgeoisie didn’t wish to pay (for) ~ land, water, plants, animals and the labour…” Water and water bodies are considered by most as no man’s land.
But they have their own imagination, their own ontology of living. Sadly, we are witnessing the fast commodification of elements like water and seeds that are vital for reproducing life. Overexploitation of nature will give us the deserts of tomorrow. But who cares? Peter Gleick in his book, Bottled and Sold: The Story behind our Obsession with Bottled Water, explains how water has gone from being a free natural resource to one of the most successful commercial products of the last one hundred years.
History is replete with cases of violence over water resources and water systems. Water is also being used as a weapon and has triggered armed conflicts. Mass poverty and water scarcity are inextricably linked to the histories and geographies of capital and empire.
Marxists explain privatisation of safe drinking water as a strategy of “accumulation through dispossession.” As Norwegian author and documentary film maker Terje Tvedt writes in his book, Hydrology and Empire, the British advances into tropical Africa were imperialist and its aims were essentially hydrological and related to Nile control upstream and for the benefit of British interests.
American interests are no different. Central Asia and Africa are now the two main regions where the US has set its sights regarding water supplies. Since the collapse of the Soviet bloc and the privatization of many state-owned industries, tensions have been growing over the ownership of water resources. As seen in Ukraine, the US sponsored the “color revolutions.” Washington will extract a heavy price from Ukraine for its arms and strategic support.
Many believe the US may have similar intentions in Central Asia. Sub-Saharan Africa has plentiful freshwater supplies. Many US military bases are also located around these strategic assets. AFRICOM, the US military command in Africa, was originally established in the name of “fighting terrorism.” Its real objective is control of precious resources.
This dangerous military apparatus serves to ensure that Africa’s natural resources will continue to be extracted and exploited by transnational corporations. Michael T Clare’s book, Resource Wars: The New Landscapes of Global Conflict, says it all.
Many seemingly ethnic and sectarian conflicts are over natural resources, especially oil, water, timber, and minerals such as diamonds. Are these mere resource wars or wars of plunder? No one believes that the US military personnel is moving to Peru to train the Peruvian military and National Police special forces units.
The US has made no secret of its interest in the mineral deposits that countries like Peru, Bolivia, Chile and Argentina hold in their subsoil. The extravagant words of Gen. Laura Richardson, head of the US Southern Command, about Latin America’s rich deposits of “rare earth elements,” “the lithium triangle ~ Argentina, Bolivia, Chile,” and Venezuela’s oil, copper, gold say a lot about America’s imperialist designs.
The Pentagon considers China a “pacing challenge” and Russia an “acute threat” according to the National Defense Strategy. Water insecurity makes the world unstable. It leads to mass migration. An outcome of water insecurity has created a new category of migrants ~ climate refugees. Water is a human right and it should be harnessed as a common good.
Technological approaches to water will take us nowhere. There is a lot to learn from the lived experiences of the indigenous people as they understand nature better and have a far better sustainability record. Imperial America is a prophet for rich Americans, but a werewolf for Latin America, Africa and the Global South. It continues to believe that the hidden hand of the market will never work without the hidden fist.
ASH NARAIN ROY The writer is director, Institute of Social Sciences, Delhi