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We Don’t Charge People for Air. We Shouldn’t Charge for Water, Either.

A new bill from Elizabeth Warren and Ro Khanna seeks to ban the trade of water futures. Let's go one step further.

A river flows between farm fields, with green vegetation along its banks.
Mario Tama/Getty Images
An aerial view shows the long-depleted Colorado River as it flows between California and Arizona, and an irrigation ditch carrying river water toward Quechan tribal land on May 26, 2023 near Winterhaven, California.

One of the most terrifying features of the climate crisis is how it jeopardizes our access to water, without which we cannot live. Some two billion people lack safe drinking water, while almost two-thirds of the human population suffers from water scarcity for some part of the year. This in turn imperils food security, since agriculture is impossible without water.

As climate change exacerbates water shortages, water profiteering is making the problem even worse. The barbaric capitalist insistence on treating water as a commodity incentivizes scarcity and hoarding, as well as imposes ever more extreme levels of thirst upon the world’s poor.

Responding to the threat of profiteers exploiting a water shortage in the western United States, Senator Elizabeth Warren and Representative Ro Khanna recently introduced a bill that would ban trading water as a commodity. Speaking to the press last week, Warren rejected the premise that the water crisis should be a source of profit for “the rich and powerful.” Instead, she said, the bill would “protect water from Wall Street speculation and ensure our most essential resources isn’t auctioned off to the highest bidder.”

That’s a good start: We’re long overdue for policymakers to question the capitalist premise that water scarcity should be a profit opportunity. But why stop there? Water, especially as our access to it is increasingly imperiled, ought to be a public good.

At present, investors in California—which has been wracked by frequent and severe drought in recent years—can buy and sell water rights in the water futures trading market. That practice could spread to other states, stretching supplies and driving up prices; corporations are buying up farmland to acquire the water rights that come with it.

There are obvious problems with this: In addition to the ethical case against profiting from a water shortage, water profiteering gives people incentivizes to make the shortage worse.

The same specter—that dangerous profiteering could drive western states into further water scarcity—has also driven efforts in Missouri, Iowa, and Nebraska to forbid or limit the export of water. It’s easy to imagine how some of these regulations could pose problems—what if people in a neighboring state need water?—but the intention of curbing disaster capitalism is a commendable one.

But trading water futures is only one form of profiteering. This bill would leave another, more widely accepted form completely untouched: namely, private water utility companies. If most people can agree that speculation on water rights in a time of drought is wrong, perhaps we should rethink the morality and legality of buying and selling water at all. Why should private commerce be involved in water, ever? It shouldn’t. Water, essential to life, should be a public good.

The United Kingdom can attest to the disaster of for-profit water hucksterism. From the early twentieth century until the Thatcher era, water was nationalized for public health reasons. After a disastrous decades-long experiment in water privatization, which by one estimate has cost consumers 2.3 billion pounds a year more than they would have paid under a public water utility—England and Wales became the only countries with fully privatized water and sewage systems—the government is now preparing for a possible takeover of the Thames Water company, which is wracked with debt and scandal and on the brink of collapse. Even worse, Thames Water operated with zero regard for the public interest, despite being entrusted with one of the most important goods on Earth. Early this year, the Mayor of London released data showing that last year, the amount of sewage released by Thames Water into London’s waterways increased fivefold. Indeed, since 2020, according to reports from late last year, the company pumped at least 72 billion liters of sewage into the famous river that shares its name, a billion of it dumped in on day in 2021. Environmentalists said the company had been neglecting this problem for decades and had failed to invest in modernizing its infrastructure. Disgracefully, in addition to its carelessness with public health and the environment, Thames has proposed a 56 percent rate hike to bail itself out—charging customers more for sewage-y water (yum). Even the respectable Financial Times has called “a spell of public ownership … hardly the worst-case scenario.”

Like the Khanna-Warren bill, the idea of a public takeover of Thames is exactly right, but needs to go bigger. Water should be permanently nationalized in the U.K. Nationalization of Thames enjoys strong popular support in the U.K., with more than 80 percent in favor of privatizing all water despite the government’s currently cautious approach.

Nationalizing water might seem like a long shot in the U.S., where privatization tends to be the default. But even in this enthusiastically capitalist country, we’d be pretty upset if some hucksters figured out a way to charge us for the air we breathe, probably the only public good that is as essential to our existence as water.

And all over the world, societies socialize many other public goods that we deem vital. In the United States, we’d be outraged if children were charged fees to attend K-12 schools or use public playgrounds. Many countries have rejected the idea of private profit in health care, making it a public responsibility through a single-payer system. Plenty of European countries take a similar approach to childcare.

Water is just as essential as any of those things. Speculation should surely be banned, as Warren and Khanna seek to do—but all private ownership of water should be banned, too. As we face worsening droughts, let’s move past half measures and recognize that business has no business at all in our water. Instead, it should be extracted from it like so much toxic sewage in the Thames.