Whose Right to Water?
Corporate water giants seek
to privatize this most basic of all natural resources. Consumers
and communities are fighting back.
by Kevin Murray
Dollars and Sense magazine,
"[Water is] one of the world's great
business opportunities. It promises to be to the 21st century
what oil was to the 20th.
Fortune, May 2000
Arriving in Haiti by air provides a dramatic
visual introduction to a country facing a long-term problem with
water. From the sky, a few lush patches of green stand out against
dry hillsides totally devoid of vegetation. The Haiti-Dominican
Republic border appears as a sharp line where forest cover ends
abruptly-on the Dominican side of the frontier.
Haiti receives enough rain that floods
are common. But climate change is slowly changing rainfall patterns,
and poor resource management policies mean that most of the rain
that does fall rushes quickly back to the sea, taking with it
large amounts of precious topsoil.
Topsoil erosion and deforestation have
combined to put tremendous pressure on small-scale agriculture,
still the only source of livelihood for millions of Haitians.
Manielus Exil and his fellow members at the Kopa Koton agricultural
cooperative face this pressure every day. But through learning
and experimentation, they have slowly improved their management
of local water and soil resources. For example, they have invested
in a system that allows them to store water from a source located
in the hills above their farmland. They use gravity to irrigate
their crops in the dry season and have terraced their land to
protect it from erosion during the rainy season. Now they are
investigating the potential benefits of installing a drip irrigation
system. They have established a tree nursery where they cultivate
and then plant hundreds of saplings a year to reverse deforestation.
Still, the cooperative's members continue
to live at the very margin of economic viability. By mid-2003,
lack of rain threatened to push them over that edge. "We
haven't seen hardly any rain for two years," explains Manielus.
"Now the spring has almost dried up. No one remembers that
ever happening before. Our water problem is getting worse."
The cooperative faced catastrophic crop losses that would mean
economic ruin and hunger bordering on starvation for co-op members
and their families. What little food they had been able to store
had long since been eaten.
Early-season rains did come to Papaye
this year in amounts that allowed Kopa Koton and most of its neighbors
to salvage some of their production. While they will be happy
to have a harvest, cooperative members are under no illusion that
their water problem has been solved.
Manielus Exil and his neighbors are not
alone. One could tell a parallel story about the water woes of
township dwellers in South Africa who face a cholera epidemic
because they can no longer afford to pay for clean water. Local
water authorities, under pressure from the World Bank to recover
their costs, began metering water and hiked the price. In both
rural and urban areas, chronic water shortage is a way of life
for an increasing percentage of the world's population.
Why is this the case? We are using this
resource much faster than it can be renewed, pumping aquifers
dry in the process. The United Nations forecasts that, at current
rates of population growth and water use, the per capita supply
of usable fresh water will drop by one-third over the next 20
years. Even conservative projections suggest that one-third of
the world's population will face serious water shortages by 2025.
The overall supply of water is not the
only issue. Like most resources, water is unequally distributed
within and among countries, making water equity an important issue.
Part of this distribution problem is the "natural" result
of population levels, climate, and ecological factors, but much
of it reflects power relations and policy choices at national
and international levels. Around the world, one in five people
(1.1 billion) lack access to safe drinking water and over half
(2.9 billion) lack adequate sanitation facilities-many in countries
where national water supply is not a serious problem. Without
safe water, people drink to their own death and disease. Each
year there are 250 million new cases of water-related disease-mostly
cholera and dysentery-and 10 million people die from those diseases.
Beyond drinking water, the world's water
crisis is undermining millions of small-scale farmers across the
globe. Agriculture accounts for 70% of world water use, but large-scale,
corporate agriculture swallows up most of that water. As aquifers
are pumped dry and water is diverted for commercial purposes,
water tables fall and small farmers in many regions are finding
it increasingly difficult to sustain their harvests.
THE GLOBAL CHALLENGE. THE MARKET RESPONSE
No one disputes the fact that our unsustainable
use of water has created a global water crisis of overuse, pollution,
waste, and lack of access. A widely shared sense of crisis opens
up the possibility of real change, and the international community
has taken some important steps. However, privatization of water
resources threatens to exacerbate the problem and throw millions
more people into the ranks of the "waterpoor."
At major international summits in 2000
and 2002, nations committed themselves to cutting the number of
people without access to safe water or sanitation in half by 2015.
Meeting these goals will require providing new water hookups for
300,000 people every year and new sanitation facilities for 400,000
per year. But most public water authorities are hard pressed to
maintain existing services, let alone expand.
Enter Suez, Vivendi, Thames Water, and
a small number of other corporations that have burst onto the
global water scene over the past decade. These water giants offer
to build large-scale water infrastructure in return for increased
corporate involvement in the provision of water services via "public-private
partnerships," a.k.a. water privatization. The private for-profit
water industry has grown explosively over the past decade. Vivendi
alone already supplies water to 110 million people. In 1990, private
water companies operated in 12 countries; today they are in nearly
100. And industry analysts expect the private drinking water market
to grow from its current level of about $500 billion to about
$3 trillion in just the next five years.
The corporations typically sign long-term
(2S to 30 year) contracts with a municipal or regional water authority
that cedes to the corporation complete control over the water
supply in question. The company sets rates and makes all investment
decisions. Many contracts guarantee the private provider a minimum
rate of return on investment, regardless of the quality of service.
These contracts transfer control over a local or regional water
supply to a single private company that is much more accountable
to its shareholders than it is to any public entity or to water
The collapse of a public authority may
drive the privatization process, but conditions placed on water
loans by lenders like the World Bank have also played a key role.
The Bank used to help countries build public water utilities,
but, in a recent three-year period, 60% of Bank loans for water
infrastructure carried conditions related to privatization. To
date, most privatizations have occurred in Africa, Asia, and Latin
America, but all of the water giants are now targeting Europe
and the United States as priority areas for expansion.
The International Center for Investigative
Journalism conducted an in-depth study of the track record of
the water corporations and found that while privatization has
improved service in some cases, "they [the companies] can
be ruthless players who constantly push for higher rate increases,
frequently fail to meet their commitments and abandon waterworks
if they are not making enough money." For example, some residents
of metro Manila greeted privatization as a miracle when two water
companies were handed control over the city's water supply in
1997. Five years later, corruption charges, poor service, and
the near collapse of one of the companies left the miracle more
than a little tarnished. Suez pulled out of a celebrated agreement
with the city of Buenos Aires, Argentina, when general economic
collapse meant the company's profits did not meet expectations.
And the city of Atlanta, Georgia, recently voted to cancel its
$500 million contract with Suez's U.S. subsidiary, United Water,
after widespread public complaints about poor service, declining
water quality, and high user fees.
Privatization boosters point to a modest
list of examples where water privatization has shown positive
results. But they typically falter when asked to explain how privatization
is going to bring water to the hundreds of millions of people
who currently do not have access to it. Speaking to the Canadian
Broadcasting Company, Gerard Payen, the architect of Suez's international
expansion program, explained, "Water as a business is very
effective when you look at the needs. We purify water and bring
this water to your home. We provide a service, it has a cost,
and somebody has to pay for it." Then how will the market
bring water to people who can never afford to pay for it?
Privatization turns water, an essential
common good, into a commodity like any other, to be owned, shifted
across borders, and sold in search of the highest profit. For
the corporate "water elites," water fits neatly into
a vision of corporate-led global economic integration-along with
sneakers, corn flakes, intellectual property rights, and the genetic
material on which life is based. Water elites are often criticized
for failing to recognize access to safe water as a right. But
they clearly do have a rights-based perspective. Water corporations
and their allies place a high priority on the establishment and
protection of the unfettered right of corporations to own and
trade the world's water as they see fit.
THE REAL RIGHTS SOLUTION
A growing network of social movements,
community groups, and nongovernmental organizations supports a
different notion of the right to water. National and cross-border
networks like the Water for All Campaign, the Blue Planet Project,
and the People's World Water Forum share with the water establishment
a sense of urgency about water, but reject the notion that water
is just another commodity or service. Instead, they consider it
a fundamental human right. They share the water establishment's
interest in conservation and limiting water waste, but question
its reliance on large infrastructure projects, especially dams,
and on water privatization.
The new water activists recognize the
limitations of many public water authorities. Clearly, some water
authorities are inefficient bureaucracies that politicians use
to reward relatives and supporters. Even where water authorities
are committed to providing water to all, public disinvestment
and the "hollowing out" of the state over the past two
decades have made their job very difficult. A massive public investment
program is part of the solution to the water crisis; redirecting
the subsidies and investment capital now flowing to private corporations
would provide a good start.
Money alone, however, will not solve the
water crisis. Public water authorities are going to have to become
much more creative and democratic, finding new ways to turn water
"customers" into active participants in the development
of water policy. There are already plenty of examples of public
water authorities-Porto Alegre, Brazil, and Bogota, Colombia,
for example-that have built successful programs encouraging public
involvement in campaigns against water waste and in the implementation
of new technologies.
In many rural areas, water activists favor
decentralized, community-based resource management, supported
but not dominated by public authorities. Farmers all over the
world are joining those of Haiti's Central Plateau in taking steps
to become more effective stewards of water resources. Too often,
those farmers end up facing the opposition of public water or
power authorities interested in developing a dam or other large
infrastructure project, or in giving a private corporation control
over local resources. In a new vision of "public-public partnership,"
activists advocate public support for community-based watershed
management rather than the hand-off of public water resources
to private, for-profit corporations.
Adherents to radically different views
of how to solve the water crisis are working to put their visions
into practice in urban and rural communities all around the world.
In some cases, the result has been creative solutions to local
water challenges. In many others, local groups have challenged
and blocked plans to increase private control over the water supply.
In Mecosta County, Michigan, a determined
citizen coalition has opposed the efforts of a bottled water subsidiary
of the Nestle corporation to gain private control of important
groundwater supplies. In 2001, the county licensed the company
(then a Perrier subsidiary) to open a bottling plant in Stanwood,
Michigan, for a fee of less than $100 a year. Almost before anyone
knew about it, the company was pumping a half million gallons
of water a day from an aquifer beneath a hunting reserve. After
learning about the plan, Michigan Citizens for Water Conservation
launched a direct action campaign against Nestle and sought a
temporary injunction to stop the pumps while the court decided
on the legality of Nestle's use of the water. The injunction has
yet to be granted.
In Cochabamba, Bolivia, violent conflict
broke out in 1999, when a Bechtel subsidiary signed a 40-year
contract to operate municipal water services there. The private
operator dramatically raised water fees during the first year.
Well-organized public resistance led the municipality to rescind
the contract with Bechtel, but the corporation sued Cochabamba
for damages before a secret World Bank panel. The water is back
in public hands, but the public authority still faces the same
daunting challenges it faced before its flirtation with privatization.
Plans exist to upgrade water services and extend them to more
residents, but it is unclear where the authority will get the
necessary $200 million.
In many locations, governments, power
companies, and irrigation interests have promoted the construction
of large-scale dams in response to water and electricity problems.
Dams often flood out thousands of local residents and completely
destroy regional watershed systems, but they continue to get political
support because they supply electricity to power-hungry urban
areas and facilitate large-scale irrigation projects supporting
corporate agriculture. In August 2003, activists from the Brazilian
Movement of Dam-Affected People (MAB) occupied dams throughout
Brazil. Among other things, MAB was demanding reparations for
Brazilians whose lives have been destroyed by dam projects.
In March 2003,24,000 government and U.N.
officials, civil society activists, corporate executives, journalists,
and water specialists gathered in Kyoto, Japan, for the third
World Water Forum. Organized by the Marseilles-based World Water
Council (WWC), the forum quickly became a stage for debate over
the water crisis and potential solutions.
It was "asymmetrical warfare,"
given the enormous resources at the disposal of corporate representatives
and their control over the forum agenda. Those promoting the notion
of a universal right to water did, however, get their voices heard.
Freely referring to corporate water giants by name,