Quantcast

Who Owns Water? | The Nation

  •  

Who Owns Water?

  • Share
  • Decrease text size Increase text size

A New Water Ethic

About the Author

Tony Clarke
Tony Clarke is the director of the Polaris Institute. He serves on the board of the International Forum on...
Maude Barlow
Maude Barlow is the chairperson of the Council of Canadians. She serves on the board of the International Forum on...

Also by the Author

In 1998 the World Bank notified the Bolivian government that it would
refuse to guarantee a $25 million loan to refinance water services in
the Bolivian city of Cochabamba unless the local government sold its
public water utility to the private sector and passed on the costs to
consumers. Bolivian authorities gave the contract to a holding company
for US construction giant Bechtel, which immediately doubled the price
of water. For most Bolivians, this meant that water would now cost more
than food. Led by Oscar Olivera, a former machinist turned union
activist, a broad-based movement of workers, peasants, farmers and
others created La Coordinadora de Defensa del Agua y de la Vida (the
Coalition in Defense of Water and Life) to deprivatize the local water
system.

In early 2000 thousands of Bolivians marched to Cochabamba in a showdown
with the government, and a general strike and transportation stoppage
brought the city to a standstill. In spite of mass arrests, violence and
several deaths, the people held firm; in the spring of that year, the
company abandoned Bolivia and the government revoked its hated
privatization legislation. With no one to run the local water company,
leaders of the uprising set up a new public company, whose first act was
to deliver water to the poorest communities in the city. Bechtel,
meanwhile, is suing the government of Bolivia for $25 million at the
World Bank's International Centre for the Settlement of Investment
Disputes.

In South Africa, the only country in the world where people's right to
water is actually written into the Constitution, the townships
surrounding cities like Johannesburg and Durban have become hotbeds of
resistance to water privatization. More than 10 million residents have
had their water cut off since the government implemented a World
Bank-inspired "cost recovery" program (which makes availability
dependent on a company's ability to recover its costs plus a
profit)--something that never happened in the worst days of apartheid.
More than 100,000 people in Kwazulu-Natal province became ill with
cholera recently after water and sanitation services to local
communities were cut off for nonpayment.

Water is at the heart of every fight in this country, where the
population is growing four times faster than the water supply and where
women collectively walk the equivalent of going to the moon and back
sixteen times a day to fetch water for their families. Access to water
is a deeply political issue. Six hundred thousand white farmers consume
60 percent of the country's water supplies for irrigation, while 15
million blacks have no direct access to water. Labor unions like the
South African Municipal Workers Union work with township activists to
organize neighborhood-by-neighborhood resistance, re-hooking up the
water supply and pulling out water meters. Such actions are a growing
sign that citizens are prepared to challenge by action, when they cannot
by law, injustices often originating with foreign-owned firms but
implemented by their own governments.

Also by the Author

Not everyone considers access to water to be a human right. A global water justice movement is changing that notion.

In 1998 the World Bank notified the Bolivian government that it would
refuse to guarantee a $25 million loan to refinance water services in
the Bolivian city of Cochabamba unless the local government sold its
public water utility to the private sector and passed on the costs to
consumers. Bolivian authorities gave the contract to a holding company
for US construction giant Bechtel, which immediately doubled the price
of water. For most Bolivians, this meant that water would now cost more
than food. Led by Oscar Olivera, a former machinist turned union
activist, a broad-based movement of workers, peasants, farmers and
others created La Coordinadora de Defensa del Agua y de la Vida (the
Coalition in Defense of Water and Life) to deprivatize the local water
system.

In early 2000 thousands of Bolivians marched to Cochabamba in a showdown
with the government, and a general strike and transportation stoppage
brought the city to a standstill. In spite of mass arrests, violence and
several deaths, the people held firm; in the spring of that year, the
company abandoned Bolivia and the government revoked its hated
privatization legislation. With no one to run the local water company,
leaders of the uprising set up a new public company, whose first act was
to deliver water to the poorest communities in the city. Bechtel,
meanwhile, is suing the government of Bolivia for $25 million at the
World Bank's International Centre for the Settlement of Investment
Disputes.

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 resources.

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 political vision.

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 it.

  • Share
  • Decrease text size Increase text size

Before commenting, please read our Community Guidelines.