March 26, 2009

Water Water Everwhere and Not a Drop For Free

“If the wars of [the 21st] century were fought over oil,
the wars of the next century will be fought over water.”
—Ismail Serageldin, former VP, World Bank, Newsweek, 1995.

The 5th annual World Water Forum was held in Istanbul this past week to facilitate discussion of international water policy among corporations, NGOs, and international financial institutions in the context of the UN’s Millennium Development Goals. Waiting to meet them were throngs of demonstrators holding banners reading “Water for Life, Not for Profit,” looking into the face masks of riot police three deep. Underlying the strain is the contentious issue of water privatization.

In the 1990s governments began inviting private corporations to run their water infrastructure for a profit, the idea being that private enterprise would be much more adept and efficient than any government bureaucracy at getting the water to where it had to go. Unfortunately, many of these huge transnational corporations, a major player being Bechtel, a subsidiary of the infamous Halliburton, were caught in the midst of some serious hanky panky and many of these privatization “experiments” resulted in disaster for everyone involved, the brunt of the fall of course being taken by the poor. Take, for example, the incident of Cochabamba, Bolivia.

In 1999, the Bolivian government turned over control of their water infrastructure to Bechtel in the hopes that it would save them a little money and improve existing problems with infrastructure. Soon after their take over, Bechtel reneged on its infrastructure promise and hiked prices up 300%, meaning that many Bolivians whose family income was no more than $100 per month were now forced to cough up $20 per month for water alone. Bechtel coldly replied that if they couldn’t pay the water would simply be turned off. Outraged, the citizens of Cochabamba revolted and ran Bechtel out of town. Bechtel lost major profits and is now suing Bolivia’s government via the World Bank to recoup its losses.

The World Bank and IMF are STILL pushing water privatization as the answer to the 2.5 billion people without improved sanitation facilities, the 200 million people that get sick due to waterborne diseases, and the 2 million people that die each year from using unclean water. The same UN report that published those figures on March 22, also warns that increases in population and climate change, coupled with demands for more food and energy production, are depleting the planet's freshwater supply at an unsustainable rate.

Unsustainable: market demand for finite resources drives up the price and encourages speculation by vulture corporations, as it goes for oil, will it go for water? Now we are back to the protester’s slogan, water for life, not for profit.Water, unlike oil, is necessary for human life. If all of it is owned by TyranoCorp, how will those who cannot PAY UP afford to live? Clean water is a HUMAN RIGHT and the UN should recognize this in its Universal Declaration of Human Rights just as it recognizes the right to be free from slavery.

The privatization experiment has already shown that corporations are primarily successful in getting clean water to the middle and upper class because that’s where the money is, while the urban poor, particularly women and children, who cannot pay those heavenly bills, are stuck in the same situation. Granted that government control of water infrastructure has not accomplished much either. Is there a way to meet in the middle?

They’re a lot of solutions out there, many of which put the onus on better collaboration between governments and localized NGOs. Find out more about the debate on world water at www.foodandwaterwatch.org.


This post was written by Leah Bush, a freelance writer, volunteer blogger for the Literacy ‘n’ Poverty Project, and aspiring Guru whose past involvement includes the American Red Cross Hurricane Katrina Recovery Project and volunteerism in Honduras and the Dominican Republic. Questions regarding this post may be forwarded to ultraEchelon@gmail.com.

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