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Who Owns Water? | The Nation

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Who Owns Water?

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"Water promises to be to the 21st century what oil was to the 20th century: the precious commodity that determines the wealth of nations."    

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.

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 1 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 them.

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 1 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.

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