Water is a basic and fundamental human need. Each human on Earth needs up to 50 litres of water a day; not just for drinking, but also cooking and cleaning. Without water, life on our planet would fall apart in a matter of hours.
However, more than 700 million people globally do not have access to basic water services, and almost 900 million people do not have safe drinking water. Within Bosnia and Herzegovina, there is an overflowing amount of water resources, but almost 50% of the population is not connected to the public water system.
As a researcher and regular author of articles and collected texts on the topic, Alma Midžić held a workshop on the topics of what we call the “commons”, as well as social control of resources, the mechanisms of direct democracy, and practical guides to support local associations and orientations.
“My first activism within water protection was back in 2008,” Alma said. “At the time, I started to think that it wasn’t enough just to protect something. We also need to propose new concepts, some new vision… it wasn’t until 2012 that I learned of this term of a common good, in my search for that kind of concept to act as an umbrella term.”
A crucial distinction Alma drew during the workshop was what separated a “common” good with a “public” good. In her own words, they both operate as a resource that ought to be available to everybody, no matter the context. However, a public good can be consumed indefinitely, without one consumer decreasing the resource for another consumer. With a common good, this resource isn’t infinite—in other words, consumers will affect the quality of the resource for others.
“A water spring is a common good,” she explains, after gathering several questions from the audience. “Another distinction is that a public good is governed by the state. A water supply system is governed by somebody, so it’s a public good. Highways are another example of a public good, as well as riverbanks. That’s why there is a need for a clear definition as to who is governing them. But water springs aren’t governed, and we’re facing a crisis. We’re already seeing real-world examples of people trying to govern common goods.”
A third option is for the citizens of an area to take control over common goods. In terms of water springs, this means that local people would be responsible for the care and protection of their springs. Furthermore, by placing responsibilities on citizens, we’re insuring we can pass these resources down to future generations without conflict.
The main problem with citizens taking control over these goods, which is called commoning, is that these systems are small by necessity. Commoning requires a small and tight-knit community to work together and handle responsibilities equally, which means such a system would be nearly impossible to incorporate in large or wealthy communities. More than anything, commoning requires an intense connection with the good, which also means that these communities often lack the wealth and the basic resources needed in the first place.
Something else Alma addresses in her workshop is the terrifying implications of water being put on the global stock market. As a country, Bosnia and Herzegovina is teeming with water resources, and this is a fact most of the population is aware of. Somehow, it is a fact that the government is either unaware of or unwilling to utilize. Some fear that the country will sell off valuable water sources. Others fear that the government will make no move to protect water until it’s too late.
The struggle towards making water a common good is a reflection of economic crisis and the shifts in balance of power between capital and labour. Several countries, such as Greece, have made steps towards privatizing water supplies in order to insure protection and care. In other countries, such as Slovenia, all water sources have been classified as under the protection of the civilians. With Bosnia and Herzegovina, a lack of decision in any direction is slowly crippling possible futures, and is even increasing the probability of water wars in the area.
However, even these struggles have a good side. For one, it advocates democratic decision-making, as well as the idea of self-government. More importantly, it is an action based on the cooperation of humanity. It is a philosophy of real and human needs. Finally, it is an active criticism of capitalism and blind state control.
Alma finishes the workshop with some examples of activism her team has performed. From protesting hydroelectric dams on small rivers, to protecting local playgrounds and parks, and even supporting medical workers, Alma does it all. It’s a profound message of taking matters into our own hands and inspiring change through actions and not just words. She is living proof that one person can and should make a difference.