Who owns water?
by Maude Barlow & Tony Clarke
   As the World Summit on Sustainable Development draws closer, clear   lines of contention are forming, particularly around the future of   the world's freshwater resources. The setting of the summit paints   the picture. Government and corporate delegates to the September   meeting will gather in the lavish hotels and convention facilities of   Sandton, the fabulously wealthy Johannesburg suburb that houses huge   estates, English gardens and swimming pools, and has become South   Africa's new financial epicenter. There, they will meet with World   Bank and World Trade Organization officials to set the stage for the   privatization of water.
   At the same time, activists from South Africa and around the world   with a very different vision will gather in very different settings   to fight for a water-secure future. 
One such venue will be Alexandra   Township, a poverty-stricken community where sanitation, electricity   and water services have been privatized and cut off to those who   cannot afford them. Alexandra is situated right next door to Sandton   and divided only by a river so polluted that it has cholera warning   signs on its banks. There could not be a more fitting setting for   Rio+10 than South Africa, because neighboring Sandton and Alexandra   represent the great divide that characterizes the current debate over   water. Moreover, South Africa is the birthplace of one of the nucleus   groups that form the heart of a new global civil society movement   dedicated to saving the world's water as part of the global commons.   This movement originates in a fight for survival. 
The world is   running out of fresh water. Humanity is polluting, diverting and   depleting the wellspring of life at a startling rate. With every 
   passing day, our demand for fresh water outpaces its availability,   and thousands more people are put at risk. Already, the social,   political and economic impacts of water scarcity are rapidly becoming   a destabilizing force, with water-related conflicts springing up   around the globe. Quite simply, unless we dramatically change our   ways, between one-half and two-thirds of humanity will be living with   severe freshwater shortages within the next quarter-century.
   It seemed to sneak up on us, or at least those of us living in the
North. Until the past decade, the study of fresh water was left to
highly specialized groups of experts--hydrologists, engineers,
scientists, city planners, weather forecasters and others with a
niche interest in what so many of us took for granted. Many knew
about the condition of water in the Third World, including the
millions who die of waterborne diseases every year. But this was seen
as an issue of poverty, poor sanitation and injustice--all areas that
could be addressed in the just world for which we were fighting.
Now, however, an increasing number of voices--including human rights
and environmental groups, think tanks and research organizations,
official international agencies and thousands of community groups
around the world--are sounding the alarm. The earth's fresh water is
finite and small, representing less than one half of 1 percent of the
world's total water stock. Not only are we adding 85 million new
people to the planet every year, but our per capita use of water is
doubling every twenty years, at more than twice the rate of human
population growth. A legacy of factory farming, flood irrigation, the
construction of massive dams, toxic dumping, wetlands and forest
destruction, and urban and industrial pollution has damaged the
Earth's surface water so badly that we are now mining the underground
water reserves far faster than nature can replenish them.
The earth's "hot stains"--areas where water reserves are
disappearing--include the Middle East, Northern China, Mexico,
California and almost two dozen countries in Africa. Today thirty-one
countries and over 1 billion people completely lack access to clean
water. Every eight seconds a child dies from drinking contaminated
water. The global freshwater crisis looms as one of the greatest
threats ever to the survival of our planet.
Washington Consensus
Tragically, this global call for action comes in an era guided by the
principles of the so-called Washington Consensus, a model of
economics rooted in the belief that liberal market economics
constitutes the one and only economic choice for the whole world.
Competitive nation-states are abandoning natural resources protection
and privatizing their ecological commons. Everything is now for sale,
even those areas of life, such as social services and natural
resources, that were once considered the common heritage of humanity.
Governments around the world are abdicating their responsibilities to
protect the natural resources in their territory, giving authority
away to the private companies involved in resource exploitation.
Faced with the suddenly well-documented freshwater crisis,
governments and international institutions are advocating a
Washington Consensus solution: the privatization and commodification
of water. Price water, they say in chorus; put it up for sale and let
the market determine its future. For them, the debate is closed.
Water, say the World Bank and the United Nations, is a "human need,"
not a "human right." These are not semantics; the difference in
interpretation is crucial. A human need can be supplied many ways,
especially for those with money. No one can sell a human right.
So a handful of transnational corporations, backed by the World Bank
and the International Monetary Fund, are aggressively taking over the
management of public water services in countries around the world,
dramatically raising the price of water to the local residents and
profiting especially from the Third World's desperate search for
solutions to its water crisis. Some are startlingly open; the decline
in freshwater supplies and standards has created a wonderful venture
opportunity for water corporations and their investors, they boast.
The agenda is clear: Water should be treated like any other tradable
good, with its use determined by the principles of profit.
It should come as no surprise that the private sector knew before
most of the world about the looming water crisis and has set out to
take advantage of what it considers to be blue gold. According to
Fortune, the annual profits of the water industry now amount to about
40 percent of those of the oil sector and are already substantially
higher than the pharmaceutical sector, now close to $1 trillion. But
only about 5 percent of the world's water is currently in private
hands, so it is clear that we are talking about huge profit potential
as the water crisis worsens. In 1999 there were more than $15 billion
worth of water acquisitions in the US water industry alone, and all
the big water companies are now listed on the stock exchanges.
Water Lords
There are ten major corporate players now delivering freshwater
services for profit. The two biggest are both from France--Vivendi
Universal and Suez--considered to be the General Motors and Ford of
the global water industry. Between them, they deliver private water
and wastewater services to more than 200 million customers in 150
countries and are in a race, along with others such as Bouygues Saur,
RWE-Thames Water and Bechtel-United Utilities, to expand to every
corner of the globe. In the United States, Vivendi operates through
its subsidiary, USFilter; Suez via its subsidiary, United Water; and
RWE by way of American Water Works.
They are aided by the World Bank and the IMF, which are increasingly
forcing Third World countries to abandon their public water delivery
systems and contract with the water giants in order to be eligible
for debt relief. The performance of these companies in Europe and the
developing world has been well documented: huge profits, higher
prices for water, cutoffs to customers who cannot pay, no
transparency in their dealings, reduced water quality, bribery and
Water for profit takes a number of other forms. The bottled-water
industry is one of the fastest-growing and least regulated industries
in the world, expanding at an annual rate of 20 percent. Last year
close to 90 billion liters of bottled water were sold around the
world--most of it in nonreusable plastic containers, bringing in
profits of $22 billion to this highly polluting industry.
Bottled-water companies like Nestlé, Coca-Cola and Pepsi are
engaged in a constant search for new water supplies to feed the
insatiable appetite of this business. In rural communities all over
the world, corporate interests are buying up farmlands, indigenous
lands, wilderness tracts and whole water systems, then moving on when
sources are depleted. Fierce disputes are being waged in many places
over these "water takings," especially in the Third World. As one
company explains, water is now "a rationed necessity that may be
taken by force."
Corporations are now involved in the construction of massive
pipelines to carry fresh water long distances for commercial sale
while others are constructing supertankers and giant sealed water
bags to transport vast amounts of water across the ocean to paying
customers. Says the World Bank, "One way or another, water will soon
be moved around the world as oil is now." The mass movement of bulk
water could have catalytic environmental impacts. Some proposed
projects would reverse the flow of mighty rivers in Canada's north,
the environmental impact of which would be greater than China's Three
Gorges Dam.
International Trade
At the same time, governments are signing away their control over
domestic water supplies to trade agreements such as the North
American Free Trade Agreement, its expected successor, the Free Trade
Area of the Americas (FTAA), and the World Trade Organization. These
global trade institutions effectively give transnational corporations
unprecedented access to the freshwater resources of signatory
countries. Already, corporations have started to sue governments in
order to gain access to domestic water sources and, armed with the
protection of these international trade agreements, are setting their
sights on the commercialization of water.
Water is listed as a "good" in the WTO and NAFTA, and as an
"investment" in NAFTA. It is to be included as a "service" in the
upcoming WTO services negotiations (the General Agreement on Trade in
Services) and in the FTAA. Under the "National Treatment" provisions
of NAFTA and the GATS, signatory governments who privatize municipal
water services will be obliged to permit competitive bids from
transnational water-service corporations. Similarly, once a permit is
granted to a domestic company to export water for commercial
purposes, foreign corporations will have the right to set up
operations in the host country.
NAFTA contains a provision that requires "proportional sharing" of
energy resources now being traded between the signatory countries.
This means that the oil and gas resources no longer belong to the
country of extraction, but are a shared resource of the continent.
For example, under NAFTA, Canada now exports 57 percent of its
natural gas to the United States and is not allowed to cut back on
these supplies, even to cut fossil fuel production under the Kyoto
accord. Under this same provision, if Canada started selling its
water to the United States--which President Bush has already said he
considers to be part of the United States' continental energy
program--the State Department would consider it to be a trade
violation if Canada tried to turn off the tap. And under NAFTA's
"investor state" Chapter 11 provision, American corporate investors
would be allowed to sue Canada for financial losses [see William
Greider, "The Right and US Trade Law: Invalidating the 20th Century,"
October 15, 2001]. Already, a California company is suing the
Canadian government for $10.5 billion because the province of British
Columbia banned the commercial export of bulk water.
The WTO also opens the door to the commercial export of water by
prohibiting the use of export controls for any "good" for any
purpose. This means that quotas or bans on the export of water
imposed for environmental reasons could be challenged as a form of
protectionism. At the December 2001 Qatar ministerial meeting of the
WTO, a provision was added to the so-called Doha Text, which
requires governments to give up "tariff" and "nontariff"
barriers--such as environmental regulations--to environmental
services, which include water.
The Case Against Privatization
If all this sounds formidable, it is. But the situation is not
without hope. For the fact is, we know how to save the world's water:
reclamation of despoiled water systems, drip irrigation over flood
irrigation, infrastructure repairs, water conservation, radical
changes in production methods and watershed management, just to name
a few. Wealthy industrialized countries could supply every person on
earth with clean water if they canceled the Third World debt,
increased foreign aid payments and placed a tax on financial
None of this will happen, however, until humanity earmarks water as a
global commons and brings the rule of law--local, national and
international--to any corporation or government that dares to
contaminate it. If we allow the commodification of the world's
freshwater supplies, we will lose the capacity to avert the looming
water crisis. We will be allowing the emergence of a water elite that
will determine the world's water future in its own interest. In such
a scenario, water will go to those who can afford it and not to those
who need it.
This is not an argument to excuse the poor way in which some
governments have treated their water heritage, either squandering
it, polluting it or using it for political gain. But the answer to
poor nation-state governance is not a nonaccountable transnational
corporation but good governance. For governments in poor
countries, the rich world's support should go not to profiting
from bad water management but from aiding the public sector in
every country to do its job.
The commodification of water is wrong--ethically, environmentally and
socially. It insures that decisions regarding the allocation of water
would center on commercial, not envir onmental or social justice
considerations. Privatization means that the management of water
resources is based on principles of scarcity and profit maximization
rather than long-term sustainability. Corporations are dependent on
increased consumption to generate profits and are much more likely to
invest in the use of chemical technology, desalination, marketing and
water trading than in conservation.
Depending on desalination technology is a Faustian bargain. It is
prohibitively expensive, highly energy intensive--using the very
fossil fuels that are contributing to global warming--and produces a
lethal byproduct of saline brine that is a major cause of marine
pollution when dumped back into the oceans at high temperatures.
A New Water Ethic
The antidote to water commodification is its decommodification. Water
must be declared and understood for all time to be the common
property of all. In a world where everything is being privatized,
citizens must establish clear perimeters around those areas that are
sacred to life and necessary for the survival of the planet. Simply,
governments must declare that water belongs to the earth and all
species and is a fundamental human right. No one has the right to
appropriate it for profit. Water must be declared a public trust, and
all governments must enact legislation to protect the freshwater
resources in their territory. An international legal framework is
also desperately needed.
It is strikingly clear that neither governments nor their official
global institutions are going to rise to this challenge. This is
where civil society comes in. There is no more vital area of concern
for our international movement than the world's freshwater crisis.
Our entry point is the political question of the ownership of water;
we must come together to form a clear and present opposition to the
commodification and cartelization of the world's freshwater
Already, a common front of environmentalists, human rights and
antipoverty activists, public sector workers, peasants, indigenous
peoples and many others from every part of the world has come
together to fight for a water-secure future based on the notion that
water is part of the public commons. We coordinated strategy at the
World Social Forum in Porto Alegre, Brazil, last January. We will be
in South Africa for the World Summit on Sustainable Development in
September and in Kyoto, Japan, next March, when the World Bank and
the UN bring 8,000 people to the Third World Water Forum. There, we
will oppose water privatization and promote our own World Water
Vision as an alternative to that adopted by the World Bank at the
Second World Water Forum in The Hague two years ago. We will stand
with local people fighting water privatization in Bolivia, or the
construction of a mega-dam in India, or water takings by Perrier in
Michigan, but now all of these local struggles will form part of an
emerging international movement with a common political vision.
Steps needed for a water-secure future include the adoption of a
Treaty Initiative to Share and Protect the Global Water Commons; a
guaranteed "water lifeline"--free clean water every day for every
person as an inalienable political and social right; national water
protection acts to reclaim and preserve freshwater systems;
exemptions for water from international trade and investment regimes;
an end to World Bank and IMF-enforced water privatizations; and a
Global Water Convention that would create an international body of
law to protect the world's water heritage based on the twin
cornerstones of conservation and equity. A tough challenge indeed.
But given the stakes involved, we had better be up to it.
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