Tap water: a right or a commodity?

James Salzman’s new book, Drinking Water, chronicles the historic tensions between those who want to profit on water and those who need it for survival.


In the late 1700s, New York was the one of the fastest growing cities in a brand new, proudly independent country. It was also stinky, disease-ridden and in constant danger of burning to the ground. The problem, everyone agreed, was a lack of water.

The Collect, the large freshwater pond in lower Manhattan that was the city’s main source of drinking water, was slick with the waste of slaughterhouses and tanneries—“foul with excrement, frogspawn and reptiles,” according to one newspaper of the day. New York City’s water was so noxious, a visitor once claimed that even horses from out of town refused to drink it. Citizens who wanted clean water were forced to buy it by the cask from distributors, who drew it from private pumps and sold it with a tidy profit margin of 2,170%.

It wasn’t until 1795, when a yellow fever epidemic gripped the city, that New Yorkers finally demanded action, and the government was confronted with a question that has only grown more pressing in the 200 years since: what’s the best way to provide clean water to large groups of people?

The story of how New York quenched its thirst is one of the many potted histories in Duke University professor James Salzman’s new book, Drinking Water. Written in the mould of Mark Kurlansky’s Salt or Cod, Salzman’s book is an attempt to tell the history of the world through a single commodity. By focusing on water, however, Salzman has settled on a subject that’s notably different from other economic goods. Yes, drinking water is a product that can be bought or sold, but it’s also a fundamental human need—more akin to oxygen than fish. Salzman’s somewhat uneven history jumps all over the place, from Islamic water law to iceberg towing schemes, but the central theme is about this tension: Is water just a good like any other, or an inalienable human right?

New Yorkers in the 18th century experienced this conflict in real time. After the yellow fever epidemic, the city asked the state government to create a public water infrastructure funded by a new tax, the same way Philadelphia had successfully built its waterworks. Instead of pushing for a public system, however, assemblyman and future U.S. vice-president, Aaron Burr, argued that a private company would be best suited for the job. Taxes were unpopular, and a private company could most easily raise the necessary capital to deliver water to the masses.

The Manhattan Co. was born. Charged with providing clean water, it was given a monopoly and wide-ranging powers, including the ability to use its surplus capital as a bank would. Indeed, it quickly became apparent that the water business was little more than a pretense. The company did the bare minimum to meet the terms of its agreement, piping its water directly from the filthy Collect instead of from the more expensive-to-access Bronx River, and laying just 23 miles of pipe in 32 years. Meanwhile, the company used its capital to create a thriving banking business. Eventually the Manhattan Co. gave up the pretense of delivering water altogether and adopted a new name: Chase Manhattan. Now called JP Morgan Chase, it’s the biggest bank in America.

Today, large swaths of the world remain in the same state as 18th-century New York, with people scrambling to access unhygienic local water or buying it at a serious markup from private vendors. A billion people lack access to a basic water supply, and less than half of Africa lives within a 15-minute walk of a clean source of water. Water privatization continues to be a flashpoint for political conflict across the world. Water services have been privatized, with mixed results, from Poland to Argentina to Indonesia. As Salzman reports, the global water service market has been estimated at more than $250 billion, and it grows every year.

Perhaps the most famous water war in recent years came in Cochabamba, Bolivia, at the turn of the century. When the government privatized water, the new consortium immediately raised the rates, sparking huge protests. Grassroots organizations came together to create the Cochabamba Declaration: “Water is a fundamental human right and a public trust to be guarded by all levels of government, therefore, it should be not be commodified, privatized or traded for commercial purposes.” The enormous demonstrations and fierce opposition forced the government to reverse its decision, and the fight in Cochabamba, documented in the 2003 film The Corporation, came to stand as a signature victory for the anti-globalization movement.

But as Salzman points out, reversing privatization in Cochabamba didn’t bring fresh water to the people. The poor who buy their water from vendors still pay 10 times as much as the rich, who have it piped into their homes. Asserting that water is a human right isn’t enough to make it flow through the taps. “Framing access to drinking water as a binary conflict of rights versus markets, of public versus private management, forces a false choice,” Salzman writes. The two concepts can coexist, he argues. Indeed, that’s when water distribution has been most successful.

In New York, after the disastrous experiment with the Manhattan Co., the city set about building a new water system. An 1835 report from the New York Committee on Fire and Water made the city’s goals clear. Control of water should be “in the hands of the people,” the report read. “To the poor, and those who would be content to receive it from the hydrants at the corners and on the sidewalks, it should be as free as air.”

But there was also room to treat water as a commodity that could be sold on the market. “From the wealthy and those who would require the luxury of having it delivered into their houses; and from the men of business, who would employ it in their workshops and factories, the revenue should be derived,” the report read.

For Salzman, the water system that finally came splashing into New York in 1842 is proof that markets and water rights can thrive together. Whether they can be made to work in the future, remains one of the bigger questions of the 21st century.

Nicholas Hune-Brown is a Toronto-based writer, playwright and frequent water drinker