Water is the new oil
The privatization of water
By Tara Lohan
Thanks to global warming, pollution, population growth, and privatization, we are teetering on the edge of a global crisis.
Albert Szent-Gyorgyi, the Hungarian biochemist and Nobel Prize winner for medicine once said, “Water is life’s matter and matrix, mother and medium. There is no life without water.”
We depend on water for survival. It circulates through our bodies and the land, replenishing nutrients and carrying away waste. It is passed down like stories over generations - from ice-capped mountains to rivers to oceans.
Historically water has been a facet of ritual, a place of gathering and the backbone of community.
But times have changed. “In an age when man has forgotten his origins and is blind even to his most essential needs for survival, water has become the victim of his indifference,” Rachel Carson wrote.
As a result, today, 35 years since the passage of the Clean Water Act, we find ourselves teetering on the edge of a global crisis that is being exacerbated by climate change, which is shrinking glaciers and raising sea levels.
We are faced with thoughtless development that paves flood plains and destroys wetlands; dams that displace native people and scar watersheds; unchecked industrial growth that pollutes water sources; and rising rates of consumption that nature can’t match. Increasingly, we are also threatened by the wave of privatization that is sweeping across the world, turning water from a precious public resource into a commodity for economic gain.
The problems extend from the global north to the south and are as pervasive as water itself. Equally encompassing are the politics of water. Discussions about our water crisis include issues like poverty, trade, community and privatization. In talking about water, we must also talk about indigenous rights, environmental justice, education, corporate accountability, and democracy. In this mix of terms are not only the causes of our crisis but also the solutions.
What’s gone wrong?
As our world heats up, as pollution increases, as population grows and as our globe’s resources of fresh water are tapped, we are faced with an environmental and humanitarian problem of mammoth proportions.
Demand for water is doubling every 20 years, outpacing population growth twice as fast. Currently 1.3 billion people don’t have access to clean water and 2.5 billion lack proper sewage and sanitation. In less than 20 years, it is estimated that demand for fresh water will exceed the world’s supply by over 50 percent.
The biggest drain on our water sources is agriculture, which accounts for 70 percent of the water used worldwide - much of which is subsidized in the industrial world, providing little incentive for agribusiness to use conservation measures or less water-intensive crops.
This number is also likely to increase as we struggle to feed a growing world. Population is expected to rise from 6 billion to 8 billion by 2050.
Water scarcity is not just an issue of the developing world. “Twenty-one percent of irrigation in the United States is achieved by pumping groundwater at rates that exceed the water’s ability to recharge,” wrote water experts Tony Clarke of the Polaris Institute and Maude Barlow of the Council of Canadians in their landmark book Blue Gold: The Fight to Stop the Corporate Theft of the World’s Water.
The Ogallala aquifer - the largest in the North America and a major source for agriculture stretching from Texas to South Dakota - is currently being pumped at a rate 14 times greater than it can be replenished, they wrote. And, across the country, “California’s Department of Water Resources predicts that, by 2020, if more supplies are not found, the state will face a shortfall of fresh water nearly as great as the amount that all of its cities and towns together are consuming today,” add Clarke and Barlow.
Demand is outstripping supply from Seattle to desert cities like Tucson and Albuquerque, and from Midwest farming regions to East Coast cities. The crisis is also worldwide, most noticeable in Mexico, the Middle East, China and Africa.
As population growth, development, consumption and pollution take its toll on our water resources, the ability to fight this problem has been further complicated by the spread of neoliberalism. The same ideas that have resulted in the booty of private contracts being doled out in Iraq also have contributed greatly to our water crisis. Neoliberalism is the belief in “economic liberalism,” which espoused that government control over the economy was bad. It opened up the commons to commodification and let corporations privatize what once belonged to the public.
In 2000 Fortune magazine printed this telling statement: “Water promises to be to the 21st century what oil was to the 20th century; the precious commodity that determines the wealth of nations.”
It has oft been expressed that the next resource wars will not be over oil - or energy at all - but over water. As the idea of neoliberalism, proliferated by institutions like the World Bank and the IMF, spread, the public sector has become dangerously privatized. And it may not be the wealth of nations on the line - but the wealth of corporations.
A senior executive at a subsidiary of Vivendi, the world’s largest water controller summed it up, “Water is a critical and necessary ingredient to the daily life of every human being, and it is an equally powerful ingredient for profitable manufacturing companies.”
But when private companies control water resources, people’s needs for survival are pushed aside in place of the bottom line. In Africa, an estimated five million people die each year for lack of safe drinking water. And yet Africa, with its many cash-strapped countries, is targeted by multinationals that force governments to turn over their public water systems in exchange for promises of debt relief.
When corporations control water, rates go up, services go down, and those who can’t afford to pay are forced to drink unsafe water, risking their lives. This has happened across the world - in South Africa, in Bolivia, in the United States.
This same philosophy of corporate control drives the construction of dams, which have displaced an estimated 80 million people worldwide. In India alone, over 4,000 dams have submerged 37,500 square kilometers of land and forced 42 million people from their homes.
Multinationals looking to cash in on the water business have also made giant inroads in selling bottled water in richer countries. Expensive marketing campaigns convince people that their tap water is unsafe to drink. Then, companies like Coke and Pepsi bottle municipal tap water and others like Nestle, pilfer spring water from rural communities and resell it at huge profits.
The water crisis may be growing, but so is resistance to privatization. Communities are fighting back against the corporate control of the world’s most vital resource.
How we can fix it
We need water to survive, not just as individuals, but as communities. Author John Thorson put it perfectly when he said, “Water links us to our neighbor in a way more profound and complex than any other.”
Just ask the people of the Klamath Basin of Southern Oregon and Northern California. They’ve experienced water wars for the last hundred years that have pitted neighbor against neighbor and tribal member against farmer.
Native American tribes in the region - the Klamath, Hoopa, Karuk, and Yaruk - with priority rights to water, have struggled with farmers over limited water resources. Nature has been unable to deliver as much water as the government has promised to farmers and tribal members, as well as downstream fishermen. With not enough water in the river, either crops have failed or fish have died, creating community strife and economic hardship.
But in the last year, things have begun to change. These groups have formed a coalition to save the river they all depend on for survival. They are sitting at the same table and finally beginning to hear from each other about the needs of farmers, the value of subsistence economies, the history of families on the river, the ceremony that comes with the salmon runs, the rights of nature.
Together, this unlikely alliance is taking on PacifiCorp, one of the largest multinational power companies, whose out-of-date dams are threatening the ecosystem and the economy of the region.
And just over the peak of Mount Shasta another community and tribe are battling to save their spring water from Nestle, which hopes to tap the community’s greatest asset for its own wealth.
The people of the small town of McCloud and the Winnemem Wintu tribe are fighting back, and they are not alone. Across the country a backlash to the bottled-water business is gaining steam. Fancy restaurants like California’s Chez Panisse, Incanto, and Poggio and New York’s Del Posto have gotten on board. San Francisco has also led the way among municipalities that are beginning to cancel their bottled water contracts, understanding the great harm the industry does to the environment and communities.
It is not just bottled water that has posed a problem, but private companies buying out municipal water systems and then raising rates and lowering services. One of the best examples is Stockton, California, which went private in the largest “public-private partnership” in the West. Since 2001, the people of Stockton have been fighting for control of their water against a multinational consortium.
The case gained international attention when it was featured in the film and book Thirst: Fighting the Corporate Theft of Our Water. The public finally won out in July, when the city council voted to get rid of the 20-year contract and send the corporation packing.
The citizen groups that have been working to defend their communities are being supported by many national and international groups pushing back against corporate control and empowering people - groups like Tony Clarke’s Polaris Institute in Canada, which has focused on public education and research around issues like the privatization of water services, bulk water exports, water security and bottled water.
In the United States, Corporate Accountability International is encouraging people to drink tap water over bottled water with their “Think Outside the Bottle Campaign.” They are working to educate the public, as well as city governments and businesses, with great success.
On the 35th anniversary of the Clean Water Act, Food and Water Watch sponsored a National Call-In Day for action on clean water to urge representatives to support the creation of a clean water trust fund, “which is a long-term, sustainable, and reliable source of funding to upgrade and improve our public water systems.” The organization has been working to protect public water systems from private takeover and to help fund municipal water so that all residents have clean, safe and affordable water.
The movement extends across the country and the world as people are also rebelling against the corporate takeover of their municipal water systems - in California, in Ghana, in Brazil, in Canada, in France, in Indonesia - and the list goes on.
Opposition to corporate control is rooted in the belief that water is part of the commons. Everyone should have access to clean water, regardless of their level of income or their country’s international standing.
In order to ensure that all people have access to clean, affordable water, we need to make some changes.
Some see technology as the necessary fix - or at least a step in the right direction. New technology can help, however, especially by cleaning up pollution and so making more water useable, and in agriculture, where water use can be made far more efficient. Drought-resistant plants can also help.
Drip irrigation drastically cuts the amount of water needed, low-pressure sprinklers are an improvement, and even building simple earth walls to trap rainfall is helpful. Some countries are now treating waste water so that it can be used - and drunk - several times over.
Desalinization makes sea water available, but takes huge quantities of energy and leaves vast amounts of brine.
But many warn against relying on a “techno-fix” to solve our problems.
Water experts argue that we need to reduce consumption on individual and community levels. Author Tony Clarke advises working with those closest to the problems, such as helping farmers to develop a more sustainable agriculture system. And the same goes for industry. Looking to the folks who have been on the land longest, like indigenous and traditional cultures, will also help us learn how an ecosystem works.
And experts say that we also need to start developing a comprehensive water policy that goes from the regional to international level. The World Bank and United Nations have the capability to change the designation of water from a human need to a human right, ensuring that corporations can’t exploit this resource for economic gain, as Clarke and Barlow advocate for in Blue Gold.
Governments should be investing in their people, in conservation and in the infrastructure that we depend on to access clean, affordable water.
It ultimately comes down to an issue of democracy. “We came to see that the conflicts over water are really about fundamental questions of democracy itself: Who will make the decisions that affect our future, and who will be excluded?” wrote Alan Snitow, Deborah Kaufman and Michael Fox in their recent book Thirst. “And if citizens no longer control their most basic resource, their water, do they really control anything at all?”
Tara Lohan is a managing editor at www.AlterNet.org. AlterNet’s aim is to inspire citizen action and advocacy on the environment, human rights and civil liberties, social justice, media, and health care issues.