Who Owns Water
by Maude Barlow and Tony Clarke
The Nation magazine, September 2/9, 2002
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 I 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
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 I 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,
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
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
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 blue gold. According
to Fortune, the annual profits of the water industry now amount
to about 40 percent of those of the oil sector 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
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
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 non-reusable plastic containers,
bringing in profits of $22 billion to this highly polluting industry.
Bottled-water companies like Nestle, 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 bulkwater 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 Darn.
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 "non-tariff" barriers-such as environmental regulations-to
environmental services, which include water.
The Case Against Privatization
f 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
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 non-accountable 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 environmental 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
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
Maude Barlow is the chairperson of the Council of Canadians
and Tony Clarke is the director of the Polaris Institute. They
both serve on the board of the International Forum on Globalization
and are the authors of Blue Gold: The Fight to Stop the Corporate
Theft of the World's Water (The New Press).