March 20, 2006
Wednesday marks World Water Day, an international observance that grew out of the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development more than a decade ago. It's a day for repeating the terrible numbers: More than a billion people on the planet don't have access to clean water. Nearly 2 billion don't have adequate sewage and sanitation. Dirty water kills two children every minute.
These heart-rending statistics are driven home with images of thirsty
children and intense warnings about future water wars and the coming water crisis.
It's all true, sort of. Because, like so many dire warnings and images,
these are designed to provoke a charitable, uncritical, mass response:
Because things are so bad, let's all pull together to provide water and
But don't look behind the curtain where the promotional strings are being pulled by major multinational water companies with a very specific agenda: to make water an economic commodity that is bought and sold on global markets and is managed by transnational companies that claim to be more efficient, flexible and cheaper than public water agencies.
Arrayed against this corporate-planned water future is a growing citizens
movement of community groups and nongovernment organizations. These people believe water is a human right. They want to work toward solving the world's serious water problems not by empowering corporations, but by empowering local people. It's a conflict of ideologies with little room for compromise, and the players are facing off at the fourth World Water Forum in the world's largest metropolis, Mexico City, where ancient pyramids and colonial churches crack slowly as the earth settles from the depletion of its aquifers.
The World Water Forum, a corporate-sponsored triennial event, has attracted more than 20,000 participants from around the world. Its sponsors hope to convince them that technology, new dams and privatization -- so-called public-private partnerships -- can solve global water problems. Outside the forum, critics have also amassed by the tens of thousands to participate in street demonstrations, a mock trial of corporate water "criminals" and an alternative conference that celebrates successful models of community controlled, sustainable, public water services.
These alternative events have sympathetic support from the city government and from recently elected populist governments throughout Latin America. These once-marginal movements are now much closer to centers of power in their own countries, and they are networking.
That wind of change is even being felt north of the Rio Grande. In the
United States, the fight over our water future has become more acute as city after city, gutted by a conservative agenda that is intentionally starving public services, seeks to solve its water problems by contracting out to private companies. Communities such as Stockton, Lexington, Ky., or Holyoke, Mass., are rapidly being overwhelmed by this new politics of water. As prices rise, service declines and consumers are locked out of the decision-making process.
Although water is generally a local issue, growing networks of water
activists, such as Food and Water Watch in the United States and the Council of Canadians, are publicizing privatization disasters not only in Argentina and South Africa, but also in Atlanta, where the city government threw out a contract with water industry giant Suez because of "brown water days," a workforce cut in half and Suez's failure to deliver on its promises.
One could say globalization has come home to roost, as foreign conglomerates with holdings larger than sovereign countries are now bidding to control U.S. water with a ferocity reminiscent of the old American robber barons. But how long can, say, Nestle suck water from the Great Lakes watershed before citizens realize the bottled water fad is feeding enormous profits into corporations that pay little in taxes while extracting the community's most precious natural resource for free.
The public will hear a lot this week about market efficiency and corporate
social responsibility. Starbucks has even branded its image of water
responsibility, selling its Ethos Water with the promise that 5 cents from
the $1.80 sale of each plastic designer bottle goes to "Helping children get clean water." The normal profit margin on bottled water is an astounding 50 to 200 percent, which leaves Starbucks with a per-bottle profit more than 20 times its much-publicized largesse.
Pious Starbucks isn't alone. On World Water Day, multinational water
companies have their public relations departments working overtime selling their clean, pure, healthy water "product," while the companies make billions, deplete aquifers and pollute the environment with, among other things, 30 million plastic water bottles a day in the United States alone.
San Francisco's Bechtel Corp. played a well-known role in the Bolivian
"water war" of 2000, in which price increases spurred by privatization
sparked an insurrection that forced Bolivia to cancel Bechtel's contract for
the city of Cochabamba. It wasn't simply profit and prices that drove people to riot, the Bechtel deal gave the company control of all water sources in the city. In effect, Bechtel owned the rain falling from the skies and water seeping through the earth. Bolivia's example has inspired other countries to resist World Bank policies requiring them to privatize their water systems.
Now, Bolivians are experimenting with community-controlled water services.
The growing emphasis on such alternatives to both privatization and
government corruption represents a new pragmatic stage for the movement against corporate globalization. The movement has long rejected Washington's "market fundamentalism" -- the idea that the market should take over virtually all government functions and public resources -- but with sympathetic governments now in power across Latin America, the movement has to present alternatives for change that go beyond protest. Latin American groups, such as Red Vida, the Americas Network for the Defense and Right to Water, and the Coalition of Mexican Organizations for the Right to Water are becoming influential advocates.
Here in the United States, the anti-privatization movement is also reaching a new stage. Tenacious local groups have forced giant water companies to spend tens of millions of dollars in lobbying, legal and campaign money to win what the companies thought could be won in cheap backroom deals. All the major water companies have run into walls of citizen action, and leading water investment analyst Debra Coy says "aggressive opposition has clearly had a chilling effect" on water privatization efforts. Some of the multinational companies are even pulling out of the U.S. market. For local citizens groups this is the heady stuff of victory, but the battle is far from over. U.S. government funding for our water infrastructure has been slashed by the Bush administration, leaving strapped local governments looking for alternatives.
Water expert Peter Gleick at Oakland's Pacific Institute for Development,
Environment and Security, says it's a matter of political priorities. The
technology, engineers and materials exist to solve the world's water crisis. What's lacking is political will.
Do communities, cities and nations have the will to invest in infrastructure to meet all peoples' water needs in the 21st century, or do we want to auction off this priceless resource to profit the few at the public's expense?
Despite efforts of the corporate water industry to douse controversy with dire predictions of water catastrophe or soothing lullabies of corporate philanthropy, this is the essential question posed by World Water Day.
Deborah Kaufman and Alan Snitow are authors, with Michael Fox, of "Thirst: The Shocking Theft of Our Most Precious Resource," to be published by Jossey-Bass, an imprint of John Wiley & Sons. Their film "Thirst" airs on KQED-TV on World Water Day, March 22.
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