Water is a right

May 30 2003 | by

THE WATER SYSTEM of Cochabamba, in Bolivia, was put up for auction in 1999. A company called Aguas del Tunari, which was a division of the large American construction firm Bechtel, took it over. Within two months, the people of Bolivia’s third largest city were notified of huge increases in their water rates, and riots broke out. A state of emergency was declared and six people died when troops were sent in. The protests forced the Bolivian government to announce the cancellation of water privatisation in April 2000, at least for the time being. Those who ousted Bechtel – an umbrella group of workers, peasants, environmentalists, human rights advocates and church activists - took control of the water system, vowing to run it as a human right, and not as a commodity.

For most of the protestors in Cochabamba, the struggle was about money. When the water system was privatised, Bolivians making $100 a month were suddenly paying $20 of it for water. The rates had risen by around 35%, in a country where 63% of the population live in poverty. Yet, the struggle also had a national context, for at the urging of the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank, the Bolivian national airlines, oil and gas, telephone, rail lines have also been sold off, or are being sold off, and often to foreign investors.


Threat of water privatisation


In March 2003, Friends of the Earth International released a report, `Water Justice for All’, just prior to the 16-23 March World Water Forum in Kyoto, Japan and World Water Day (22 March). It reported “global and local resistance to the control and commodification of water” through case studies covering 14 countries. It challenged the trend towards increased market access for private water companies. Only about 5% of the world’s water is currently in private hands, so the water sector sees an enormous economic potential for the few multinational corporations that dominate this market: mainly Suez (France), Vivendi Universal (France), Thames Water (UK but part of German RWE) and Betchel (USA).

Hemantha Withanage, of Friends of the Earth Sri Lanka, wrote in the report: “Water is a basic human right, and although water management in the public interest may be necessary, this vital resource should not be subject to ownership. International financial institutions, hand-in-hand with multinational water corporations, are paving the way by conditioning their loans to poor countries upon privatisation promises. Trade treaties are helping by requiring countries to deregulate their water sectors and open them up to private investment. The world’s poorest people are desperately in need of water and sanitation services, but experience has shown that they are just further marginalized when their countries follow the corporate mode of privatisation.”

Since water is a critical resource for sustainable livelihoods and therefore a human right, water as a resource should never be privatised, according to Friends of the Earth International. Unfortunately, confirming water as a right did not happen in Kyoto.

Water as a commodity

The human race has taken water for granted and massively misjudged the capacity of the earth’s water systems to sustain the demands made upon it. Our supply of available fresh water is finite and represents less than half of one percent of the world’s total water stock. Thirty-one countries are facing water stress and scarcity and over 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 water shortages or absolute water scarcity. In addition, instead of taking great care with the limited water we have, we are diverting, polluting, and depleting it at an astonishing rate as if there were no reckoning to come.

But there is profound disagreement among those in the ‘water world,’ around the nature of the threat and the solution to it. A growing movement of people believe that the imperatives of economic globalisation - unlimited growth, a seamless global consumer market, corporate rule, deregulation, privatisation, and free trade - are part of the problem rather than the solution; that these are the driving forces behind the destruction of water systems. In the new economy, everything is for sale, even those areas of life once considered sacred, like seeds and genes, culture and heritage, food, air, and water.


Water pricing


Some argue that since we have taken water for granted, and have overused it, pricing water will cause us to understand its real value and force us to start conserving it from economic necessity. However, many fear that water pricing exacerbates the existing global inequality of access to water. The countries that are now suffering severe water shortages are home to the poorest people on earth. To charge them for already scarce supplies is to guarantee growing water disparities. The issue of water pricing will also exacerbate the North/South divide. The privatisation 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.

Water pricing, combined with privatisation, will also seal water’s fate as a commodity under the terms of international trade agreements supported by the World Trade Organization (WTO) and the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). Both the WTO and NAFTA consider water to be a tradeable good, subject to the same rules as any other good. Only if water is maintained as a public service, delivered and protected by governments, can water be exempted from the enforcement measurements of these trade deals. The trade agreements are very clear: if water is privatised and put on the open market for sale, it will go to those who can afford it, not to those who need it.


A human right


Water as a fundamental human right is guaranteed in the UN Universal Declaration on Human Rights. If water is, rather, regarded as a human need, it can be serviced by the private sector. You cannot sell a human right.

In her book, Water Wars, the Indian ecologist Vandana Shiva analyses the historical erosion of communal water rights. Examining the international water trade, damming, mining, and aqua-farming, Shiva points out the disenfranchisement of the world’s poor as they are stripped of their rights to precious local resources. Shiva reveals how many of the most important conflicts of our time, most often camouflaged as ethnic wars or religious wars, such as the ongoing Israeli-Palestinian conflict, are in fact conflicts over scarce but vital natural resources. She suggests that water privatisation threatens cultures and livelihoods worldwide and calls for a movement, like the one in Cochabamba, to preserve water access for all.

According to Shiva, US-based company Monsanto, a biotechnology company which has positioned itself to control seeds, is now attempting also to control water. In one of its strategy papers it states that the crisis of pollution and depletion of water resources is a business opportunity. Monsanto plans to earn revenues of $420 million and a net income of $63 million by 2008 from its water business in India and Mexico. In Shiva’s view, water must continue to be regarded as a communal resource.

Securing access to water can greatly improve a community’s prospects of tackling poverty. The vast majority of the world’s poorest and hungriest people live in rural areas of South Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa. They have neither the means to produce adequate food nor sufficient income to purchase it. Enabling poor farm families to access irrigation water can be one of the most effective ways of liberating them from poverty. Small-plot irrigation can increase land productivity, incomes, and household food security.


Church responses


In Britain, at the end of June, there was a mass lobby of Members of Parliament on Trade Justice. The Catholic Caritas agencies, CAFOD and SCIAF, and Christian Aid were among 40 different UK organisations playing a leading role. Politicians were urged to regulate big business and their investments to ensure people and the environment come before profits. MPs were also asked to bring in measures to prevent rich countries promoting the interests of big business through trade interventions that harm the poor and the environment.

One issue singled out by the lobby was GATS, otherwise known as the General Agreement on Trade and Services. Originally agreed at the WTO in 1994, its aim is to remove any restrictions and internal government regulations in the area of service delivery that are considered to be ‘barriers to trade’. This includes water services. The service industry is heavily dominated by multinationals based in Northern countries. These companies want to operate freely within the service sector, but much of it is owned and regulated by governments. Freeing up the trade in services will benefit business and this is what GATS is designed to do. Corporations have been the driving force and n

Updated on October 06 2016