The Sociology of Water: Commodification, Privatisation and its impact on disadvantaged communities

In this article, I’ll be looking at water scarcity from a sociological perspective. Shortage of water has been the topic of various articles and papers, but this piece will be exploring the Sociology of water. I will be exploring the consequences of the water crisis(concerning commodification and privatization) specifically on disadvantaged communities like the underprivileged community and women.

The Sociology of Water - Commodification, Privatisation and its impact on disadvantaged communities (1)

Conserving water has become a necessity today. At the rate we consume water and all other basic resources, the future generation might have to develop a taste for seawater and genetically mutate to accept the extra salinity that comes with it.783 million people all across the world don’t have access to clean water. Water covers 71 per cent of the earth’s surface but if all the water in the world was to be filled into a twenty litres bucket then all the freshwater would be contained in just a single teaspoon.

Cape Town has already faced the wrath of nature as they experienced “Day Zero”. Cape Town and the surrounding region have reached “peak water,” which is the limit of how much water can be reasonably taken from the area, says water scientist Peter Gleick. Climate change too has disrupted the hydrological cycle changing how and when rainfalls. Even Bangalore is supposed to be the first city in India to reach its tipping point.

Strategies to conserve water are being discussed not only with environmentalists but also with social science experts including sociologists to develop effective strategies for conservation of water. But water is not a topic to be only discussed by water managers, researchers, or sociologists, it’s everybody’s business.

Today, in cities and towns, and even villages it’s possible to buy water. These bottles are marketed by many companies including Bisley, Kinley, etc. But once upon a time, The idea that water would have to be bought was unthinkable. It was, convenient, normal, and taken for granted. This is called commodification, this occurs when a thing that was earlier not traded in the market becomes a commodity and enters a trade.

The trade of bottled water is a fast-growing and the least regulated industry in the world. As the world’s freshwater supply decreases, more and more people are rushing to replace this with bottled water.

The reason why something becomes a commodity out of the many given by Karl Marx, the famous sociologist is, the existence of a social need for it (a market demand) that must be met through trade, or at any event cannot be met otherwise turns something to a commodity. Commodification and Privatisation of water, which is moving the ownership of this essential resource from public hands to private owners, are both a consequence and antecedent of the water crisis. Let’s explore what’s wrong with both of them.

Read: Karl Marx’s Commodity fetishism

Firstly, the commodification of water will lead to it being subject to the market price. This leads to a lot of instability and may even lead to the monopolization of the resource. Thus, just like a packet of chips, those who can pay for it will have access to it. This threatens the notion that water is a fundamental right and should be made available to everyone. Privatization by definition eliminates public control of the resource. Public control of water is essential not only because water is necessary for survival, and also because of the severe water crisis the world is faced with. Once it hands over the resource to a private corporation, it becomes difficult and expensive for the government to reverse the decision. The corporation also ends up assuming control over most of the resource itself. For eg. Ind Chattisgarh, The Sheonath Industrial Water Supply Project, the owner banned the locals from using the water.

And what happened in Bolivia, is a testament to the fact that people will not suffer silently if the right to their basic resource is taken away from them. The government in Bolivia had given the rights of its water systems to the corporate company, Aguas del Illimani, responding to the precondition the World Bank had put before giving the country a loan. On January 10, 6000 people came on the streets to join a peaceful civic strike against the water and sanitation contract with the private consortium. In early 2000, protests against the raised price of water due to privatization had been growing. In April 2000, Víctor Hugo Daza, a student, was shot in the face by the Bolivian Army while protesting the increase of local water rates due to privatization. Following these two uprisings, the concession was terminated, and the war of water was won

Even though bottled water is advertised as a safer and cleaner option, it’s clearly a myth. A March 1999 study by U.S.-based Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) indicates that bottled water is not much safer than tap water. This is the other problem with private ownership. Private Corporations and Companies will do anything to earn profits, they might even go to the extent of compromising on water quality. This can lead to outbreaks of epidemics in the community. Coca cola’s excessive mining in Kerala to procure groundwater has left it contaminated with magnesium and calcium.

What happened in Ontario, Canada was equally. Disastrous. As a part of Canada’s “Common Sense Revolution” massive programs for the privatization of water testing labs, the deregulation of water protection infrastructure, and massive lay-offs of trained water testing experts followed. The result of this was that the dangerous waterborne disease- E Coli broke out. The private lab, A and L Laboratories had found E. Coli in the water but had failed to report it to the concerned authorities, an option it had under the new rules of the common sense revolution.

Having focused on how the water crisis affects the underprivileged section adversely, I want to bring attention to how this crisis is a huge cause for concern amongst another disadvantaged section- Women. Women are often disproportionately affected by the water crisis, as they are the ones who usually go out to collect water. This gender-specific role has a severe impact on women’s health, education, and their ability to have a say in the community. A statistic from states that women around the world spend a collective 200 million hours collecting water. Access to safe water is important when it comes to the health of pregnant women and their babies. If the source of water is too far from their home, the walk to it can be very time consuming and takes away from their time to do household chores, take care of the baby, etc.

The water crisis also impacts children. Growing up, for the sake of their health, children need to be sanitised and clean water for drinking. If not provided with clean water, often they have to resort to dirty water that is infected by a lot of pathogens which can cause a lot of diseases. Secondly, in many rural areas, children are supposed to fetch water for the house. If the source of water is too far, the walk can be laborious and lengthy. This leads to them spending more time travelling rather than going to school, spending time with their friends, etc.

The reason for this problem lies at the grassroots level, which is, -unsustainable water consumption and inequitable water management. The central government has tried implementing schemes like the National Rural Drinking Water program, but it needs to do more to provide access to safe drinking water everyone. The water crisis needs to solved soon, and can only be done with the involvement of all stakeholders.

Many groups like ‘The Blue Planet Project’ initiative begun by the council of Canadians which aims to protect freshwater from the growing threat of privatization. Environmentalists and anti-poverty activists have also been working together to solve this problem.  We need solutions that are quick, efficient, and effective. Till then think about what you can do personally to help out, start by making sure you don’t waste any water in your glass when you drink it.

“For every drop of water you waste, you must know that somewhere on earth someone is desperately looking for a drop of water!”
― Mehmet Murat Ildan


  2. Costa, A. (1981). Water Crisis. Journal of College Science Teaching,11(2), 120-121. Retrieved June 23, 2020, from
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Saanjh Shekhar is a first-year student of Lady Shri Ram College. She is studying sociology and is passionate about the subject. She loves writing and debating. Her other interests include reading lots of fiction. She's a fan of all things classic, including movies and books. If you ever want to have deep discussions about life or even light ones about social conditioning, you can hit her up on her Insta id which is saanjh_shekhar