The fight for liquid assets
Transnational firms are taking control of a basic
element of life, as Maude Barlow will warn the
10th Stockholm Water Symposium tomorrow

Maude Barlow -
The Globe and Mail, Toronto, Ontario
Wednesday, August 16, 2000

The world is poised to make crucial, even irrevocable, decisions about water. We face a crisis. We all know that the supply of available fresh water is finite and represents less than half of 1 per cent of the world's total water stock. We agree that 31 countries are facing water stress and scarcity and more a billion people lack adequate access to clean drinking water. By the year 2025, as much as two-thirds of the world's population will be living with a serious scarcity of water.

We even agree that instead of taking great care with the limited water we have, we humans are diverting, polluting and depleting it at an astonishing rate, as if there were no reckoning ahead.

On all these things we agree. Where there may be profound disagreement is around the nature of the threat, and the solution to it.

A growing movement of people believes that the imperatives of economic globalization -- unlimited growth, a seamless global consumer market, corporate rule, deregulation, privatization and free trade -- are the driving forces behind the destruction of our water systems, and must be challenged and rejected if we are to save the world's water.

Under the current system of market-driven economic globalization, there are no limits placed on where capital can go to "harvest" nature. In the global market, running out of a local resource can be quickly rectified. When the East Coast cod are depleted, we just move on to Chilean sea bass.

In the race to compete for foreign direct investment, countries are stripping their environmental laws and natural-resource protection regimes, including water protection. All through Latin America, China and Asia, massive industrialization is affecting the balance between humans and nature in rural communities. Water use is being diverted from agriculture to industry and agribusiness; factories and factory farms are moving up the rivers of the Third World, drinking them dry as they go. Already 80 per cent of China's major rivers are so degraded, they no longer support fish.

This is not sustainable. And it leads to the second area of disagreement: What should be the role of transnational corporations in determining the future of water?

Just as governments are backing away from their regulatory responsibilities, giant transnational water, food, energy and shipping corporations are acquiring control of water. They do so through the ownership of dams and waterways, control over the burgeoning bottled water industry, the development of new technologies such as water desalination and purification, the privatization of municipal and regional water services, including sewage and water delivery, the construction of water infrastructure, and water exportation. These companies do not view water as a social resource necessary for all life, but an economic resource to be managed by market forces like any other commodity.

The transnational water companies will assert that they are in this business for almost altruistic reasons. But elsewhere the message is different: Gerard Mestrallet, chief executive officer of Suez Lyonnaise des Eaux, says that, taking a page from France's past, he wants to develop in his company the philosophy of "conquest" as Suez moves into new markets around the world. And one of his directors adds: "We are here to make money. Sooner or later the company that invests recoups its investment, which means the customer has to pay for it." Such comments might be appropriate if one is talking about cars or golf clubs, but are distressing to hear about one of the basic units of life.

In North America, the water companies are even more obvious about their frontier mentality. Global Water Corp. of Canada, which has a contract to ship 58 billion litres per year of Alaskan glacier water by tanker to be bottled in a free-trade zone in China, openly boasts that this venture will "substantially undercut all other imported products" (because of China's cheap labour). Global declares that "water has moved from being an endless commodity that may be taken for granted to a rationed necessity that may be taken by force."

These corporations argue that privatizing water is the best way to deliver it safely to a thirsty world. I'm personally not opposed to private sector involvement in the building of infrastructure. What's at issue here is the private control and ownership of water services and delivery.

True, governments have done an abysmal job of protecting water within their boundaries. However, the answer is not to hand this precious resource over to transnational corporations who live by no international law other than business-friendly trade agreements. The answer is to demand that governments accept their responsibilities and establish full water-protection regimes.

The privatization of water is wrong on many counts. It ensures that decisions regarding the allocation of water centre almost exclusively on commercial considerations. It means that the management of water resources is based on the principles of scarcity and profit maximization, rather than long-term sustainability. Corporations are dependent on increased consumption to generate profits and are, therefore, much more likely to invest in desalination, diversion or export of water than conservation.

Pro-privatization advocates argue that they are seeking private-public partnerships, and give assurances that governments will still be able to establish regulations. However, because the provision of water services itself does not provide sufficient return, water corporations are increasingly seeking exclusive control over water-service provision through acquisitions of infrastructure and water licences -- creating huge monopolies against which local suppliers cannot compete.

In their support for large-scale project financing, the World Bank and others give preference to large multi-utility infrastructure projects that favour the biggest corporations, leading to monopolies. And they underwrite these giant corporations with public money, and often incur the risk, while the company reaps the profit. Often governments are asked to assure a return to the shareholder. As a condition imposed by the World Bank, Chile had to guarantee a profit margin of 33 per cent to Suez Lyonnaise des Eaux -- regardless of performance.

The effect of the privatization of this scarce resource will lead to a two-tiered world -- those who can afford water and those who cannot. It will force millions to choose between necessities such as water and health care.

There is simply no way to overstate the water crisis of the planet today. No piecemeal solution is going to prevent the collapse of whole societies and ecosystems. A radical rethinking of our values, priorities and political systems is urgent and still possible.

First, we have to declare that water belongs to the Earth and all its species. All decisions about water must be based on ecosystem and watershed-based management. We need strong national and international laws to promote conservation, reclaim polluted water systems, develop water-supply restrictions, ban toxic dumping and pesticides, control or ban corporate farming, and bring the rule of law to transnational corporations who pollute water systems anywhere.

Second, water must be declared a basic human right. It this sounds elemental, it was the subject of hot debate at the World Water Forum in The Hague, with the World Bank and the water companies seeking to have it declared a human "need." The point is, if water is a human need, it can be serviced by the private sector. And if it's a "right"? You cannot sell a human right.
Maude Barlow is national chairperson of The Council of Canadians and a director with the International Forum on Globalization. She is the best-selling author or co-author of 11 books including, Blue Gold: The Global Water Crisis and the Commodification of the World's Water Supply.