It is hardly necessary to state how essential water is for our survival and quality of existence, for economic activity, and so on. Indeed, this has now become a policy issue of some import. It is not just that drinking water and sanitation are recognized to be absolutely critical areas of public intervention. There is much talk about the importance of managing water systems and ensuring sustainable patterns of use. There are concerns about over-exploitation, pollution, degradation and even destruction of water sources.
There is also greater recognition of the growing importance of the distributive politics around water: cross-border tangles over the sharing of river water; the choices to be made on industrial versus agricultural versus personal use; within personal consumption, allocation between necessary and luxury consumption of water; related concerns around the ability of local elites and other powerful players to access more water in their own particular locations; and so on. These distributive conflicts have become so prominent that several analysts have argued that remaining decades of the 21st century will be characterized by “water wars” rather than the “energy wars” we have become more familiar with.
Yet in all this heightened awareness and public discussion about water issues, there is typically a deafening silence on one key aspect: the water workers who ensure the treatment, delivery and conservation of water across societies, and the conditions that they must work in. Indeed, it would not be wrong to say that this work is effectively invisible to public policy (and indeed to the public at large). This lack of recognition of the significance of water work has huge implications not only for the workers themselves, but much more significantly for the safety and ease of access to water for people as well as for economic uses, and indeed for the sustainable use of water in different areas.