The Failure of Capitalism to Avert Arizona’s Water Crisis

The Colorado River Basin, which covers the entire state of Arizona and stretches up into western Wyoming, is one of the most vital water sources for the Southwest. It feeds Lakes Mead and Powell, the largest artificial reservoirs in the US, and provides water for 40 million people across seven states. Lake Mead alone provides water to 25 million people in Arizona, California, Nevada, and parts of Mexico.

But the western United States has been plagued by what has been called a megadrought. Since 2000, the river flow of the Colorado River has slowed by 20%. Lake Mead is at just 35% capacity, and Lake Powell is doing even worse, at 32%. More than just the 40 million people who depend on this river for their water, this endangers over five million acres of farmland in the Southwest.

In August 2021, the federal government declared a water shortage. This unprecedented step means mandating water rationing across the basin and reducing Arizona’s water supply by 18%. This rationing is likely to get worse in the coming years.

Naturally, the response of the capitalists is to seek profit in this crisis. Despite the misery the profit motive is inflicting on millions, they continue to buy and sell water from the Colorado River. In significant ways, the water crisis is a microcosm of the dual global crises of capitalism and climate change.

Despite the misery the profit motive is inflicting on millions, they continue to buy and sell water from the Colorado River. / Image: Ken Lund, Flickr

Effects of historic megadrought made worse by capitalism

A significant cause of this shortage is the drought that has plagued the Southwest since 2000—the worst Arizona has experienced in 1,200 years—as low rainfall has significantly slowed the river’s flow. According to a study published in Nature Climate Change, about 40% of this drought results directly from climate change. The same study found that average rainfall in the region this century is 8.3% lower than the average between 1950–1999. In the same period, temperatures have been 0.91˚C (1.638˚F) above average. The upshot is that the drought may have still happened without it, but anthropogenic climate change is making it much more severe.

The study graphically quantifies the impact of global warming on the Colorado River: for every 1.8˚F of warming, there is a 10% reduction in water flow! Unless humanity dramatically reduces carbon emissions, the river’s flow will shrink by up to 31% by the middle of the century. Such a reduction would be catastrophic for a region that relies on the river for much of its water supply.

The study, of course, only functions as a partial diagnosis, limited to evaluating the effects of human-induced climate change on the megadrought. It stops short of a class analysis of the crisis and thus short of proposing real solutions. Consequently, the outlook offered within the study is bleak, predicting that the drought could last until the end of the decade or even longer.

Capitalism to blame

Any serious analysis of the roots of this crisis must consider the role of the socio-economic system that dominates our planet: capitalism. For centuries, capitalists have extracted resources with impunity, buying, selling, and tearing up vast swathes of the planet to take advantage of the raw materials available. The long-term impacts of this extraction have never been a serious consideration, not even now when it presents a genuine threat to vast swaths of humanity. As always, under capitalism, profit is the only real consideration.

It shouldn’t be surprising that the capitalists are doing what they can to take advantage of ever-scarcer water resources to pad their portfolios. In 2020, a Phoenix-based investment firm called GSC Farms got approval from the Arizona Department of Water Resources to buy 485 acres of land in Cibola, a small farming community on the California border, for its water rights. The plan, as admitted by the firm, is to sell those water rights to Queen Creek, a rapidly growing Phoenix suburb over 200 miles away.

Regina Cobb, a Republican in the state legislature who represents Cibola, criticized this move, calling it a transfer of wealth “from one area to another” and accusing the state of abandoning its river communities. She went on to say that “hedge fund groups have been planning on this and buying up property in the last few years. This feeds right into their hands.” While this accurately depicts what happened, this is only a partial analysis. It stops short of criticizing the capitalist system that encourages this kind of profiteering. In the absence of a mass socialist party, Arizona’s Republican and Democratic parties have met no resistance to their enablement of capitalist plunder.

At the national level, Biden’s Department of the Interior has announced plans to resume onshore oil drilling and sales of gas leases on federal land, selling the right to further the country’s dependence on fossil fuels to the highest bidder. Despite this gift to the capitalists, the American Petroleum Institute believes it doesn’t go far enough. They complained that the government wasn’t willing to sell leases on enough federal land, as the recent announcement reduced available land by about 80%.

The greed of capitalists has consistently led them to ignore their impact on the climate in favor of engendering doubt and confusion. We’ve seen this play out for decades. Even as it gets harder to avoid the truth behind climate change, companies like Exxon continue to insist that all we need to do is reduce our individual carbon footprint. Although they don’t publicly admit it, they know full well that this won’t reverse the damage they have done. The average worker cutting down on driving in a sprawling metropolitan area won’t bring back the hundreds of feet of water now missing from Lake Mead. It won’t restore water to Cibola, or any other communities left dry. And using more reusable bottles won’t stop Nestlé from continuing to drain springs and creeks to sell their own bottled water.

The average worker cutting down on driving in a sprawling metropolitan area won’t bring back the hundreds of feet of water now missing from Lake Mead.  / Image: Oakley Originals, Flickr

Reformism or class struggle?

So, where do we go from here? According to scientists, we need to reduce greenhouse gas emissions immediately. Since most scientists do not have a conscious philosophy, they tend to adopt the liberal philosophy of the ruling class. They admit that we have the technology and productive capacity to do so but insist that we lack “the will” to follow through. They tell us that we merely need the right policies, often going on to say the solution is to elect more politicians who “believe in science” and will presumably thus act on said science.

While it is true that anthropogenic climate change is a settled question, electing the “right politicians” will not be enough to curb climate change and restrain the capitalist system that brought us to this point in the first place. The anarchy of production has exacerbated a growing water shortage and left working-class communities without vital resources. As global temperatures rise, thanks mainly to the greed of corporations, governments at every level see fit to allow these same corporations to dry up smaller communities and redirect water to more profitable areas.

It’s impossible to meaningfully address the megadrought, water shortages, or climate change as a whole on a capitalist basis. Buying and selling water rights won’t solve anything. And the politicians who represent the capitalists will not challenge the profit motive. The only solution is to nationalize companies like Exxon and firms like GSC to be operated in the public interest under the control of the working class. By doing this, we can democratically and rationally plan the economy, including resource extraction, turning production toward the sustainable production and distribution of water.

Only a mass socialist party can fight for such a program, only a workers’ government can enact it, and only world socialism can genuinely end the threat of water shortages and give everyone the resources they need to live with dignity. This is what the International Marxist Tendency is fighting for.


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