Mass Water Shortages Latest Capitalist Disaster

by Ashley Rogers

Lake Mead and Lake Powell, the largest reservoirs in the country, have fallen to their lowest levels since the 1930s. This year’s heat waves intensified the long-term drought in the region and drastically lowered water levels. The Colorado River is the lifeblood of the southwestern United States, providing water to 40 million people across six states. Last year, the federal government declared the first-ever mandatory cuts to water use from the river.

Climate change, long regarded as a theoretical future problem, is now causing dangerous, extreme weather. Increasing temperatures worsen droughts, heatwaves, and wildfires and intensify events like hurricanes and tornadoes. Europe is experiencing its worst drought in 500 years, and 2022 is the most active American wildfire season in over a decade. The effects of human-made climate change on our environment are being exposed and made worse by the inadequate response to climate events from capitalist governments. 

Colorado River

80% of the Colorado River’s water goes towards agriculture, turning the arid desert into farmland. This farmland produces 90% of the country’s winter vegetables, but the most significant water use is for feed crops used by the dairy and meat industry. Feed crops include alfalfa, a water-intensive crop that takes up nearly 40% of the river’s water use. Agricultural corporations like Tyson, one of the big four companies that control 85% of all beef production in the country, drive excessive water use. Tyson’s profits nearly doubled this year after raising the price of beef by over 30%.

The federal government set a deadline this summer for states to figure out a plan to cut Colorado River water use—but the deadline has since passed with no plan in place. Cutting water use isn’t just about changing a number on a spreadsheet—it means real decisions about who gets less water. Farmers will have to abandon fields without the water to irrigate them. 

Small farmers and workers in the agriculture industry must be guaranteed a “just transition” with new jobs and full payment for retraining and relocation if needed. That money should come from the big agricultural corporations whose profits have soared by exploiting workers and the environment. But corporations will never sacrifice profits until it’s too late for us—which is why workers must organize to take big agriculture under public ownership and transition to sustainable production.

Mississippi Water Crisis

Water shortages aren’t just limited to the area served by the Colorado River. Drought has emptied the reservoirs that serve Monterrey, the second largest city in Mexico. Jackson, Mississippi, entered the corporate media news cycle in August when severe flooding overwhelmed its long-underfunded, inadequate water system and cut off the city’s access to clean water. 

While flood damage to Jackson’s main water treatment plant caused this latest crisis, the city had already been under a boil water notice for a month, and residents avoided tap water for its dangerous levels of lead contamination. Decades of underfunding and deferred maintenance have left its water infrastructure falling apart. Jackson’s mayor reports that fixing the city’s water crisis might cost upwards of $1 billion, “far beyond the city’s reach.”

The example of Jackson invites comparisons to the water crisis in Flint, Michigan, another majority black city where racism was a significant factor in the neglect and underfunding of their water systems. To cut costs in the middle of a budget crisis in 2014, the state-appointed emergency manager switched the city’s water supply to the Flint River. The refusal to safely treat the polluted water, again to cut costs, degraded the city’s old lead pipes, contaminating the drinking water of 80,000 people with leeched lead. As a result, between 6,000 and 12,000 children were exposed to drinking water with dangerous amounts of lead, which causes permanent damage to brain development. All because the state decided to sacrifice public health to balance the budget. 

“Natural” Disasters

While these water crises are manmade and a result of how capitalism operates, the same is true of disasters labeled “natural.” Burning fossil fuels leads to global warming and changes in weather patterns. The changing climate increases the number and severity of storms. Inadequate planning, preparation, and responses from capitalist governments worsen these disasters. For example, Hurricane Katrina became the costliest hurricane on record primarily due to underfunding and poor maintenance of levees which failed to protect New Orleans during the storm. Afterward, an utterly inadequate disaster response left 80% of the city flooded for weeks.

In 2017, Hurricane Maria hit Puerto Rico, leaving 95% of the island without power and over 50% without tap water. While Puerto Rico’s 3.2 million struggled to survive and rebuild, the federal government dragged its feet on rebuilding infrastructure. As a result, 160,000 Puerto Ricans left for the mainland—but not everyone could simply leave. In a press conference, the mayor of San Juan said to the federal government, “We are dying, and you are killing us with the inefficiency.” 

The state-owned power grid PREPA was privatized under the joint control of American and Canadian energy companies in 2020, despite widespread protests and strikes from PREPA workers. This company, LUMA Energy, focused on increasing profits by raising rates, cutting pay, ignoring maintenance, and crushing workers’ rights. When Hurricane Fiona hit the island in mid-September, millions lost power again, and hundreds of thousands were still without power weeks after the storm.

Socialist Planning Can End Capitalist Crisis

Capitalism is defined by the endless pursuit of short-term maximization of profit and ever-greater amounts of wealth for the capitalist class. Wealth comes from two places: the environment—including natural resources—and labor, which extracts those resources, transports them, and processes them into products that can be used and sold. The more intensive the exploitation of labor and the environment, the more profit is generated. The market enforces short-term, profit-oriented thinking: a capitalist who wants to limit how much they exploit will always be out-competed by capitalists who exploit as much as they can. 

The Colorado River drought is a perfect example of capitalism depleting a natural resource to the point of crisis. While it’s been known for decades that the Colorado River is overused, cutting water use from the river means cutting profits. Funding the maintenance of vital utilities and democratically deciding the use of publicly owned natural resources could avoid chronic water and other resource emergencies. There are enough resources worldwide to meet peoples’ needs instead of satisfying corporate greed. 

Capitalists force privatization whenever and wherever they can. They will underfund the public services they can’t privatize, using the corporate political parties—both Republicans and Democrats—to minimize the massive amounts of spending actually needed to clean and protect public water resources and infrastructure. Any government programs with halfway decent budgets are used to give corporations massive subsidies and lucrative government contracts (like military contracts or contracts for COVID vaccines). 

The capitalists will fight against any environmental regulations they think will reduce corporate profits, seeing serious plans for conservation or sustainable use of resources as a threat. Working people end up suffering the consequences of capitalism’s lack of planning. We need a system that can prioritize human needs over profit, ensure that resources are used democratically and sustainably, and alleviate the effects of environmental disasters. We need socialism!

We don’t just need to respond to climate disasters and their effects—we need an economic system where people can be free from corporate rule and work in order to prevent the destruction of the environment. For example, we can organize housing and design infrastructure to withstand environmental disasters in vulnerable areas or properly relocate people stuck in uninhabitable places. 

We can take crucial infrastructure like power and water utilities into public ownership to ensure that they’re maintained and prepared for emergencies like floods and hurricanes. We can take fossil fuel corporations into public ownership and use their resources to fight the effects of climate change and transition towards sustainable green energy sources. 

Only a socialist society can prevent dangerous climate change while democratically planning where resources are allocated to ensure everyone’s needs are met and our environment is healthy.