Water for Life Not for Profit - Who Will Control the World’s Water Supply? by Ashley Powdar
The current 1.1 billion people worldwide without access to potable water opens, for those willing to look, a small window onto the injustices and casualties being wrought when corporations come to control water-related industries. Most of us are clueless about the magnitude of the victims—present and projected—of the growing worldwide water crisis. Currently, 2.6 billion people are at high risk of not having access to potable water; 1.8 million children die each year from water-related diseases.
Being clueless about the victims means we’re equally clueless about the victimizers. Most of us are ignorant of the inhumane role played by the private sector in the commodification of water, now characterized as a thing that can be owned and sold for profit (or put another way, a thing that can be withheld from people too poor to pay for it). The worldwide trend in water privatization has grown almost undetected by the general public for well over a decade—this despite the huge ramifications it has on many millions of lives.
In the mix of chaos, confusion and despair that most affects the poor in societies across the world, it is important to note the role of private corporations. These corporations are culprits in causing or exacerbating the crisis (although their PR brags about creating the cure for it). Within recent decades, water privatization firms such as Suez, Vivendi, and RWE have purchased control of a number of communities’ municipal water services, and then drastically increased the price of water. Some have been documented as failing to effectively purify the water resources they had come to monopolize.
An Innate Right Public water activists argue that, because water is a necessity of life, no individual or corporation should have the right to possess ownership and place a value on the resource. In short, water is for life, not for profit. Advocate and author Vandana Shiva resolutely states, “Water is a commons because it is the basis of all life. Water rights are natural rights and thus usufructuary rights, meaning that water can be used, but not owned.”
Water privatization has caused considerable strife around the world, most especially in less industrialized nations. Major water companies, aided and abetted by the World Bank and International Monetary Fund (IMF), aggressively work to divest human communities of their natural right to water, thus undermining the essence of local autonomy, as well as contributing to an insidious form of globalized deprivation.
Water is a Means to Life At a 2 percent water loss from the body, one is thirsty. At 5 percent, one is dehydrated, and at 11 percent, one is immobilized.
It is estimated by WaterAid that in less industrialized countries, one child dies every 15 seconds from the lack of water. And it gets worse. Because the global clean water supply is predicted to be depleted by 30-40 percent in the foreseeable future, and the population expected to rise, this statistic has potential to grow into an even harsher reality, as many greater numbers are put at risk over the next few decades.
“Blue Gold” of the 21st Century
Water Privatization — 3 Pro-Arguments
- The World Bank and IMF are principal players behind the implementation of water privatization. The commodification of water began in earnest in the 1990’s in many developing regions of the world, ostensibly as an effort to address water-related problems, from scarcity to woeful mismanagement of the resource. To begin, the World Bank and IMF, together with multinational enterprises, argued that by placing a value on water, the general public was less likely to abuse, waste, and indiscriminately consume large amounts of the increasingly scant resource. Independent environmental journalist Carmelo Ruiz Marrero explains the position taken by pro-privatization international lending agencies: “Water is wasted because people get it for free or for artificially low prices. Therefore, if its price reflected its true ecological and economic cost, people would avoid its abuse and overuse.” Conclusion: Let the free market reign, and the price of water will establish itself through laws of supply and demand, resulting in wiser use of the resource.
- Pro-privatization defenders maintain that in addition to poor water management by the general population, there is a serious lack of good management practices on a national level. They argue that governments, either through corruption, poor planning, or inability to invest in necessary infrastructure, are unable to comprehend and properly execute methods needed to widely and effectively distribute water to the general public. Conclusion: By inviting experienced international corporations into the country, water allocation, purity, and affordability will be made more efficient.
- The third argument is that population growth will soon overwhelm the ecosystem’s ability to provide adequate water supply for every individual, thus resulting in catastrophic water scarcity. This will lead inexorably to social conflicts among communities, nations, and regions. Conclusion: Privatization of the resource will spur market-driven research and development responses to meet these challenges. When viewed through the lens of experience on the ground, however, a very different story emerges about privatization of water. The assumption that profit-driven transnational corporations can do a better job at managing peoples’ affairs than people themselves doesn’t hold up against evidence showing that private water companies often make problems worse, not better. For instance, some companies exacerbate regional social tensions by failing to properly assess the many different factors of water consumption that are present in a given population. Environmental journalist Marrero maintains that the free-market approach to water distribution “tends to grossly simplify complex social dynamics surrounding use of natural resources by assuming that extreme economic inequalities and differences in consumption patterns do not exist, and if they do, they are of no consequence.”
Water Privatization in the Western Hemisphere - 4 Stories Cancun to Kyoto Less industrialized countries have borne the brunt of the most severe effects of water commodification. In Latin America and the Caribbean, corporate ownership of water has only aggravated an already dire situation—both in terms of compromising the democratic, innate rights of citizens and endangering the environment. For example, during the Fox Administration in Mexico, water privatization often left Mexican citizens —specifically the poorest sector of the population— deprived of water resources and contending with a deteriorating infrastructure. By 2002, precisely a decade after the Mexican government constitutionalized the jurisdiction of foreign-based corporations over what formally had been municipal water services, 28 of the country’s 30 states had been affected by privatization practices; this represented roughly 70% of the nation’s water supply. Once President Fox had created the Program for the Modernization of Water Management Companies (PROMAGUA), an agenda geared towards the commodification of the nation’s water supplies, Mexican citizens began to feel the harsh consequences of private ownership of water—and at an exceedingly expensive price. Some of those citizens began to organize around the issue. Maude Barlow, a highly regarded Canadian field expert in the subject of water privatization, described the actions of one very irate Mexican citizen as he confronted a panel of executives and specialists in water policy, during the 2004 World Water Forum in Kyoto, Japan:
“Representatives of an international civil society network appeared at a meeting of chief executive officers at the World Water Forum in Kyoto, Japan, in March. The group took over the microphones and offered a series of testimonials about the impact of water privatization around the world. Toward the end of the event, a water activist from Cancun, Mexico, stepped to the microphone and held up a glass of pitch-black, putrid-smelling water. He explained that he had taken the water from his home tap in Cancun, where French company Suez runs the municipal water system. He then requested that the moderator pass the glass of black, smelly water up on stage to the CEO of Suez, inviting him to drink it.”
Water decentralization critics maintain that once these foreign companies, such as Vivendi and Suez, came into Mexico, they increased water prices by at least 60 percent and those who could not pay were cut off from services altogether. Furthermore, as the price of water escalated, its quality continued to deteriorate. The technology and filtration practices used to purify water reservoirs often caused serious damage to the environment while contaminating the surrounding air and soil, and displacing local wildlife.
Stockton, California Local communities in the United States and Canada have also succumbed to the promises of water privatization. But some locals were prepared to fight for what they felt was rightfully theirs. In 2003, the city council of Stockton, California signed an agreement with water companies Thames and OWI to privatize the municipal water services for a period of 20 years, with the value of the contract approaching $600 million dollars. Similar to the citizens of Mexico, Stockton residents resisted once they discovered what was being signed away in their name. Despite the residents’ plea to be involved in the decision-making process, the city government continued to ignore the general consensus to oppose the privatization of the city’s water services. One resident attempted to reason with city council members, insisting that, “I’m ashamed that we’ve followed this path and have gone down the road at making something happen that was not consensus building, not citizen-involved. It was basically handed down as a dictate. This is not the principle of an All-America City.” Despite overwhelming opposition by the Stockton’s citizens, the city government overrode the group’s dogged opposition and its water resources were privatized. However, the persistence of the residents finally proved successful. In March of 2007, an overwhelming vote granted the residents their long-standing wish to keep water a free, equally accessible resource. This major reversal could turn out to be a pivotal moment in the debate over water privatization in the United States. Not only did it prove that private firms failed to purify and deliver water any better than the previous public services, but it was the second time that the largest commodification project in the region was defeated by the electorate.
Walkerton, Canada Mirroring the lockout of popular participation to privatize water in Stockton, the Canadian city of Walkerton was subjected to a comparable lack of transparency in the management of that community’s water resources. In May of 2000, the lack of proper water management techniques resulted in the death of seven Walkerton residents in a catastrophe that left at least 2,000 ill (half of the population). The culprit behind this tragedy?—the private corporation in charge of managing the city’s municipal water supply. It had failed to report indications of contamination for two reasons: (1) because such reporting would hinder the corporation’s revenue, and (2) more alarmingly, such reporting was not required by law.
Canada continues to remain a lucrative location in the eyes of privatization companies, as the country contains approximately 408 publicly owned water systems. The tragedy of Walkerton only reflects the greater global struggle for water democracy, a struggle that has resulted in many casualties.
Cochabamba, Bolivia Perhaps the most infamous water privatization case involved the residents of Cochabamba, Bolivia, where the community overwhelmingly spoke out against the American firm Betchel, based in San Francisco. In October of 1999, the Drinking Water and Sanitation Law was passed, which permitted foreign water corporations to privatize Bolivia’s municipal water systems, and the giant U.S. multinational gained contractual rights over the region’s water resources. Water prices in the Cochabamba region soon reached a catastrophic high—the average Bolivian, who hardly earned $100 a month, had to pay $20 alone for water services. The choice for many residents soon became whether to feed and house their families or purchase water. Through protest and perseverance, the local community rose up and soon won the battle, but not without dire costs. Seventeen year-old Victor Hugo Daza was killed by the police during the uprisings, and hundreds more were injured. After the uprisings, Oliver Olivera, a Bolivian water activist, stated to the supporters of water privatization, “You have blood on your hands!” These six simple words, heard throughout the world, attested to the severity of the situation on the ground in Cochabamba.
The Price of a Bottle There are several forms of water privatization, but none so exploitive as the bottling of water. Most people remain unaware of the scandals behind the bottled water industry. Here’s one way it works. Typically, a multinational water company goes into a less industrialized country and purchase water rights from local leaders all too willing to personally profit at the expense of the local community. The company monopolizes water reservoirs—most often, these public reservoirs are the only locally available potable water resource that a community has. The company then sells the water back to the community at a price too expensive for many residents to pay.
Social consequences can follow unpredictable courses. For instance, in Africa, where privatization and lack of access to water is most prevalent, over half of the population earns less than one dollar a day. One can imagine the burden of trying to afford a bottle of water that is often priced a little higher than a dollar. Lacking money to purchase the bottled water, women and female children are most affected, as they are forced to travel an average of five miles a day to fetch available water from a non-privatized source—often such water is not even potable. This time-consuming task of hunting and gathering water impedes women from obtaining jobs to help feed their families and hinders female children from attending school on a regular basis. It is estimated that 40 billion working hours are spent carrying water each year and 26 percent of women’s time around the world is spent on physically obtaining the water. In addition, it is estimated that 443 million school days are lost each year due to the consequences stemming from water privatization and its effects on individual lives.
The next time you, as a consumer, purchase a bottle of water, consider its true cost.
Through the Looking Glass One way to view water commodification is as a corporate opportunity with great profit potential. It’s an industry, working in thousands of local environments, that has become a global movement. However, another way to view water commodification is through the lens of its results. Though the effects of water privatization are felt initially at the local level, the cumulative impacts are global in nature.
Once the attendant injustices of water privatization became evident to the international community, activists, environmentalists, and average citizens alike began advocating for a greater local presence in the decision-making process affecting water use. These advocates have been urging the World Bank, IMF, and WTO, as well as national governments, to discard their privatization schemes, due to high cost and other identified problems.
Alternatives exist. Advocates for democratizing water, Maude Barlow and Tony Clarke, assert that there are three essentials the public must control in order to secure their water from corporate monopolization. First, there is the need for conservation. As noted, the population is predicted to greatly increase while the ecosystem’s water supply is projected to decrease by at least 30 percent. Preservation of the precious resource is a vital first step. Second, it is imperative to establish equity in regards to water allocation. Although some nations are blessed with abundant access to fresh water, others are beleaguered by a dangerous lack of this fundamental source of life. Third, in order to institutionalize conservation and equity, water democracy must be established. Water management should be in the hands of the people who use it, not under the control of corporations whose principle desire is to generate profit. It is also important that accountability, transparency, and consensus are vital in the management of water.
Water for life, not profit If the principle of commodification of water is allowed to stand—potentially trumping the basic right to life of many in the world—then other vital resources may follow, becoming available only on a pay-to-use basis as well. The coming water crisis must be dealt with through a transparent, democratic process or the world as we know it will only get worse. Barlow and Clark lay it out plainly: “In the 21st century, our water is becoming a commodity. Some want to profit from it and others are ready to go to war over it, but every form of life must have it. The overarching question will be, ‘who will control this source of life?’”
Ashley Powdar is a Research Associate for the Council on Hemispheric Affairs. She is a major in Political Science and Modern Languages and Cultures. Ashley’s deep concern for water democracy and environmental issues, stems from an interest in international relations as well as years of traveling.