July 11, 2019; New York Times
The United Nations General Assembly explicitly recognized the human right to water and sanitation through Resolution 64/292. The UN acknowledged that clean drinking water and sanitation are essential to the realization of all human rights.
Dire water shortages in California, US; in Chennai, India; and in Cape Town, South Africa are just the latest reports from hundreds of cities around the world with millions of people left without safe and accessible drinking water. And water scarcity is becoming more frequent; according to UNESCO, under the existing climate change scenario, by 2030, water scarcity in some arid and semi-arid places will displace between 24 million and 700 million people.
Where there is scarcity, there is money to be made, and investment companies have already started flocking to invest in all things water. For Harvard University, this has been a multifold investment. NPQ’s Erin Rubin explored the Harvard Management Company’s investment in California vineyards. The idea that a single exorbitantly wealthy institution should own not only land but also the water underneath it, and profit off that ownership in times of environmental stress, runs counter to the collective economy vision shared by many in the nonprofit sector. Monika J. Freyman, director for investor engagement, water, at Ceres, a Boston nonprofit says, “Water’s needed for life itself. So, if you’re jacking up rates, you are going to run into social justice issues. Do you turn off a poor family’s water?”
These sorts of questions should provide a critical framework for investors when it comes to their environmental, social, and governance funds. However, what happens when a crisis point is already reached? War and disaster—both natural and manmade—have always made for lucrative investment and moneymaking opportunities. Reports out of Chennai claim that private tankers have fitted more than eight bore wells and are “indiscriminately extracting thousands of liters of water every day.” Villagers are then “capturing” the tankers, leading the price of hiring tankers to deliver water during periods of shortage to rise dramatically.
The rise of water programming across nonprofits of all sizes has also increased dramatically over the past 20 years. Education-based charities have turned to fundraising initiatives, including water provision in schools, and equipping, supplying, and managing water. This sort of programmatic expansion is common and often touted as the natural and organic growth of capacity, in direct response to the needs of the community.
The challenge for the nonprofit sector is how we manage these crises and avoid falling into the same bucket as disaster capitalists. Humanitarian disasters have long been financial windfalls for nonprofits, allowing organizations of all sizes to push out fundraising appeals that let us not only address the immediate disaster but also develop programming post-disaster—which often simply becomes programming. This sort of revenue growth may not be dished out as shareholder dividends, but it does feed our “do-gooder/aid industrial complex” and propel our nonprofits’ capacities both financially and programmatically—which raises the question, are we any better than the profiteers investing in scarcity?—Niduk D’Souza