Private Blue Planet

by Jamie Dunn

CovertAction Quarterly, Spring/Summer 2000


"A City Sinking into a Sea of Mud" was the title of a 1966 Readers Digest article about the depletion of Mexico City's ground water. Thirty-three years later, the Toronto Star revealed that this city of 20 million people may have to be evacuated by 2006 due to the exhaustion of its water supplies-a city that in 1519 the Spanish called the Venice of the New World.

Around the world, the stories are the same. Nations have either diverted, depleted or polluted their water resources to such an extent that authorities like the United Nations and the World Watch Institute predict that by 2025, two-thirds of the world's people won't have enough water. Less than one-half of one percent of available water is fresh. Many point to population growth as the culprit, but the truth is that consumption of water is growing at twice the rate of the planet's population. Human beings use only 10 percent of the planets fresh water-65 percent goes to industrial agriculture and the rest goes to other industrial uses.


New plans for water diversions are being drawn up and old ones resurrected. The Northern Alliance for Water and Power that would have used 800 kilometers of the Rocky Mountain trench as a giant sluice-way and flood one-fifth to one-tenth of British Columbia and the Great Recycling and Northern Development Canal, which would have diverted James Bay south to the American Midwest. These options are once again being promoted as viable given the rising global market value of water.

New technology allows the creation of giant bags up to 650 meters long and 150 meters wide (that's seven football fields by one-and-a-half football fields), which would carry 1.75 million cubic meters of water at a time. These bags would be pulled behind tugboats across oceans, making bulk shipments of fresh water less expensive and more profitable than if shipped by refitted oil tankers. Smaller versions have already been tested off the coasts of Monterey, California and Vancouver, British Columbia.

Meanwhile, experts like Sandra Postel say that we could make significant reductions in our use of water without any real change in our lifestyles. However, the solutions that have gained the most momentum have not been to adopt these techniques, but instead to take water out of the commons-those diminishing parcels of things we should be stewarding together- and divide it up as private property Water scarcity has not led to a solution. It has focused the world's biggest corporations on a growing and very lucrative market.


What Maude Barlow has called "blue gold" in her synthesis of the worldwide water crisis and the move to cartelize the worlds water, is seen as the oil of the future. "The wars of the next century will be fought over water" according to the often quoted declaration of Ismail Serageldin, vice president of the World Bank. King Hussein of Jordan once said the only reason he would go to war with Israel would be over water."

For more than 10 years, with this specter looming before us, we have been corralled into the belief that the same paradigm that brought you global free trade will solve the water crisis. In other words, let the market work its magic.

Since 1992, the commodification of water has been wrapped in some very nice packaging. That year the Dublin Accord called for a holistic approach to water management. To raise awareness and to encourage participation in solving water problems-particularly by women-it finally called for the recognition of water as an economic commodity. Section 21 of the Rio de Janeiro Agreement of the following year adopted the same position. In 1998, a conference sponsored by UNESCO announced that the only way to guarantee equitable distribution of water and water services was the total commodification of water, relying on the forces of the open marketplace. Nowhere has any document adopted the position that access to a sufficient supply of clean water is a basic human right. The only reason the private sector is motivated to supply a thirsty world is that people are so dependent on water they will pay anything for it.

The poorest people living on the outskirts of cities in Central and South America and Asia pay many times more for water than do those in upper and middle class areas. Within free-trade zones like the maquiladoras of Mexico, toddlers drink Coke and Pepsi from bottles with rubber nipples because the water they have access to will literally strip the paint off a pencil. Meanwhile, nearby industries keep their landscaping green. This pattern of exploitation mirrors the pattern of water scarcity

At present, more than one billion people live without enough water. Seventy-five percent of these people live in developing countries. By the time the problem reaches the proportions predicted in 2025, people in developing countries will account for 95 percent of those affected. The water crisis is not one of supply, but of overuse and equitable access.

These rights of access to water for commercial purposes have been codified in trade deals since the first half of the last century. Water has been listed as a commodity under the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT) since 1947. ~ 3 The mechanisms allowed under GATT for controlling exploitation of water disappeared in 1994 with the advent of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). 14 Furthermore, under Chapter 11 of NAFTA, corporations gained the right to directly sue governments if their right to investment was thwarted by legislation. Currently Sun Belt Water Inc. of Santa Barbara, California, is suing the Canadian government for $10.5 billion because a license to export water from British Columbia to California was revoked. As NAFTA becomes a hemispheric agreement under the Free Trade Agreement of the Americas (FTAA) every country in Central and South America will come under these obligations.

Measures to protect water from pollution have proved to be just as vulnerable to trade agreements. Methanex, a Canadian company that makes MTBE (methyl tertiary butyl ether) is suing the U.S. government under Chapter 11 of NAFTA for $970 million, because California has moved to ban the gasoline additive, w may be responsible for contaminating water supply of up to 100 million Americans and has been called the greatest environmental disaster of the next decade 16 In fact, no protection of the environment has ever survived a challenge under the WTO or NAFTA.

Changes to the General Agreement on Trade in Services (GATS), currently being negotiated, will gradually force the wholesale privatization of municipal water services around the world, despite the horrible record of the private companies that provide them. Two of these companies, Suez Lyonnaise des Eaux and Vivendi had combined 1998 revenues exceeding $70 billion, to provide water or water services to 120 million people worldwide. Some of the corporations now entering the water business are heavyweights like Bechtel, Enron, and Monsanto. Rebecca Mark, president of Enron's new water division, has said she won't retire until all the water of the world is privatized 20 She has trade agreements, governments, and the World Bank on her side.

Environment watch