Occurring far outside the daily public consciousness, the Harvard Management Company, which represents the interests of Harvard University’s private endowment fund, finalized a purchase of 7,500 acres of land in Santa Barbara County, California. That 2014 purchase brought the total amount of land in California purchased by the company to over 10,000 acres, costing more than $60 million. The Harvard Endowment Fund is immense, estimated at approximately $37 billion, with a myriad of diversified investments. So, it is not necessarily newsworthy that this fund would be purchasing land as an investment, especially valuable southern California land capable of producing great wine. What is noteworthy is what is stored deep below the surface of this valuable land, and what many suspect is the real reason for this purchase; something much more valuable than wine: water.

Private interests buying up rights to large water sources is not a new phenomenon. The discussion revolving around who should own these water rights, and how much is acceptable to own, is not new, either. Investing in water has become quite popular in recent years, and the Harvard Endowment Fund is not the only private entity that has been purchasing land with access to large water resources. Nestlé, Coca-Cola, American oil tycoon T. Boone Pickens, and even former U.S. President George W. Bush have been quietly laying claim to land that contains large amounts of the planet’s most valuable resource. 

Less than 1%

of the Earth's total water is fresh water. The rest is salt water, much of which is inaccessible. 

What we must collectively answer going forward is how much of the world’s water we are comfortable handing over to wealthy private control. Is the source of all life on Earth something that should be controlled, priced, traded, and sold like corn, cattle, or gold? Who has the ultimate say in how these resources are managed and how accessible they are to the rest of us? The argument is not that those buying up water rights are evil and plan on withholding water as billions of people die. Water is valuable and would be a smart investment. The real question is thusly: should something as vital as water be treated as an investment opportunity rather than being fiercely protected as our planet’s most important resource?

The usual arguments from proponents of a free market system don’t seem to register when it comes to something like clean and accessible drinking water. This resource is simply too important to leave to people with the ultimate goal of maximizing profits. Private business has shown time and time again that finances take priority over people. Are all private interests guilty of this? Certainly not. But would you trust your own personal water supply to the whims of a private corporation? The concerns are legitimate. Nestlé, for example, is involved in several high profile cases of citizens fighting against their takeover of local water supples, including areas in California, Oregon, and Ontario

Should something as vital as water be treated as an investment opportunity rather than being fiercely protected as our planet’s most important resource?

The argument that governments should have total control of our water supply is, however, not also without its detractions. One needs only to look to the recent water disaster in Flint, Michigan, to see that government control of water supplies is only as good as the government controlling them. Governments require oversight on cost and behavior as well, but citizens have more say in the operations and representatives of their local government. What power will we have to influence the cost and distribution of water owned by private entities?

This is such a critical issue, not only because it involves ceding public control of our most important natural resource, but because of the anticipated effects of climate change. Dwindling resources, most notably shrinking consumable water supplies, could be the most important issue facing human populations over the next few decades. When wealth equals water, there will be countries that have it and others that don’t. Wars may be fought over access and, unfortunately, people are likely to die. What regulations will we have to control how private interests distribute the water they own and how much it will cost? Leaving the concept of monopolies aside, governments really shouldn’t have this kind of oversight over how private entities conduct their business and price their products. There aren’t many who openly advocate for this much government influence. However, are there exceptions to be made for businesses dealing with something as important as water? 

Privatization of water 

led by multinational and corporate interests, potentially threatens equitable and affordable access to clean water. In the transfer of ownership of water services to private interests, water management priorities change from need to profit. The results of this change in priorities have already adversely affected many communities that have had their water systems privatized

This issue requires real foresight, reasonable discussion, and proactive measures to adequately prevent global catastrophe. Most people knowledgable on the subject agree that climate change is a real threat. Many more will suggest that despite our best efforts to influence the impact of humans, the results are now largely inevitable. While we should continue to address the role that we play in the changing global climate, we must also begin to look at the potential political and territorial repercussions of dwindling natural resources.

Water is the most important resource of them all. We can change what we eat and how we produce energy. There is no substitute for clean, accessible, and consumable water. We need to begin to address who should own it, how much they should be able to own, and what the cost and access for the public will be. It really comes down to one critical question: should water be treated as a commodity? It is a question that is far too complex to solve here, and the answer won’t come tomorrow, but it is a question we must start asking.

Featured stat information courtesy of the World Water Council