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The Darling's dead fish of late capitalism

  • 17 January 2019


Humans of Late Capitalism (HOLC) is a social media account that plays on the massively popular Humans of New York (HONY) phenomenon to starkly highlight the reality of what it is like to live on our planet today. Its darkly humorous images serve as an ironic critique of our society and, particularly, our economic system.

Over the last few weeks, Australia has produced two symbolic images that fit well into the HOLC narrative: a massive fish kill in Menindee lakes on the Darling River and Walgett, the town with two rivers and no water.

Water is critical to life on this planet. And yet clean water supplies are dwindling due to the impact of human activity, while demand continues to increase. The United Nations has estimated that 'by 2050, at least one-in-four people is likely to live in countries affected by chronic or recurring shortages of freshwater'.

It is certainly true that population growth and drought (partly caused by climate change) have contributed to this problem, but there is actually plenty of water to meet all of our needs. The main issues we have are systematic inequality of access and a (related) pattern of terrible regulation.

Poor regulation of water has long been an issue, but in the 1990s there was a strong global push for water governance reform through liberalisation. Australia introduced market-based water governance reforms in 1994, when the Council of Australian Governments agreed to unbundle water rights from land in order to enable them to be traded separately on the market. The stated theory behind this approach was that the market would enable water to be valued 'appropriately' and this would increase efficiency and reduce water waste.

A key benefit asserted to justify treating water as an economic good is that the market will encourage 'high-value' water use to be prioritised. But, as the fish of the Darling River and the people of Walgett are experiencing this summer, the problem with commodifying water is that its social and environment values are not naturally reflected in the market. While industry may place a high economic value on water and be willing (and able) to pay for it, the rest of us (including the fish and the river itself) cannot compete.

Chile was a pioneer in these water governance reforms and introduced water markets in the early 1980s. In a 2006 review of the effects, UNDP found these reforms 'predictably gave rise to speculation and