The “Commons” Versus the “Commodity”: Alter-globalization, Anti-privatization and the Human Right to Water in the Global South

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In response to the growth of private sector involvement in water supply management globally, anti-privatization campaigns for a human right to water have emerged in recent years. Simultaneously, alter-globalization activists have promoted alternative water governance models through North-South red-green alliances between organized labour, environmental groups, women's groups, and indigenous groups. In this paper, I explore these distinct (albeit overlapping) responses to water privatization. I first present a generic conceptual model of market environmentalist reforms, and explore the contribution of this framework to debates over ‘neoliberalizing nature’. This conceptual framework is applied to the case of anti-privatization activism to elucidate the limitations of the human right to water as a conceptual counterpoint to privatization, and as an activist strategy. In contrast, I argue that alter-globalization strategies—centred on concepts of the commons—are more conceptually coherent, and also more successful as activist strategies. The paper concludes with a reiteration of the need for greater conceptual precision in our analyses of neoliberalization, for both academics and activists.

Keywords: alter-globalization; commons; environment; human right; neoliberalism; privatization; protest; social movements; water

Document Type: Research Article


Affiliations: University of British Columbia, Vancouver, BC, Canada;, Email:

Publication date: June 1, 2007

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