The Battle for Water
By Maude Barlow and Tony Clarke
December 9, 2003
We are taught in school that the Earth has a closed hydrologic system;
water is continually being recycled through rain and evaporation and none
of it leaves the planet's atmosphere. Not only is there the same amount of
water on the Earth today as there was at the creation of the planet, it's
the same water. The next time you're walking in the rain, stop and think
that some of the water falling on you ran through the blood of dinosaurs
or swelled the tears of children who lived thousands of years ago.
While there will always be the same amount of water, we can render water
unusable for ourselves and for the planet. The growing scarcity of potable
water stems from a variety of causes. Per capita water consumption is
doubling every 20 years, more than twice the rate of human population
growth, which itself is exploding. Technology and sanitation systems,
particularly those in the wealthy industrialized nations, have encouraged
people to use far more water than they need. Yet even with this increase
in personal water use, households and municipalities account for only 10
percent of water use.
Industry claims 20 to 25 percent of the world's fresh water supplies, and
its demands are dramatically increasing. Many of the world's fastest
growing industries are water intensive. For example, in the U.S. alone,
the computer industry will soon use over 396 billion gallons of water each
Nonetheless, it is irrigation that is the real water hog, claiming 65 to
70 percent of all water used by humans. Increasing amounts of irrigation
water are used for industrial farming. These water-intensive corporate
farming practices are subsidized by governments and their taxpayers, and
this creates a strong disincentive for farm operations to move to
conservation practices such as drip irrigation.
Along with population growth and increasing per capita water consumption,
massive pollution of the world's surface water systems has placed a great
strain on remaining supplies of clean fresh water. Global deforestation,
destruction of wetlands, dumping of pesticides and fertilizer into
waterways, and global warming are all taking a terrible toll on the
Earth's fragile water systems.
The world is running out of fresh water. By the year 2025, there will be
2.6 billion more people on Earth than there are today. As many as
two-thirds of those people will be living in conditions of serious water
shortage, and one-third will be living with absolute water scarcity.
Demand for water will exceed availability by 56 percent.
Water as a commodity
The combination of increasing demand and shrinking supply has attracted
the interest of global corporations who want to sell water for a profit.
The water industry is touted by the World Bank as a potential
trillion-dollar industry. Water has become the "blue gold" of the 21st
The move to privatize water coincides with the rise of the Washington
Consensus as the dominant world economic philosophy. This philosophy calls
for trade and investment liberalization, and turning responsibility for
social programs and resource management over to the private sector. In
this case, it is an assault on the ancient commons of water.
Global trade agreements have become perhaps the most important tool for
corporations trading in water and their allies. All of the multinational
governing bodies, the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), the
General Agreement on Trade and Tariffs (GATT), and the World Trade
Organization (WTO), define water as a commodity. As a result, water is now
subject to the same rules and regulations governing other commodities,
such as oil and natural gas. Under these combined international rules, a
country cannot prohibit or limit the export of water without risking
censure by the WTO. Nations are also restricted from denying the import of
water from any country. NAFTA's "proportionality clause" means that if a
country turns on the tap to export its natural resources, it cannot turn
off the tap until it runs out of that resource.
In addition, the push to privatize water services will be greatly enhanced
by new rules governing cross-border trade in services at the WTO, known as
the GATS (General Agreement on Trade in Services). Under the proposed GATS
rules, not only will governments face added pressures to deregulate and
privatize their water systems, but once a city's water services have been
taken over by a foreign-based corporation, efforts to take these services
back into public hands will invite severe economic penalties under the WTO.
Leading the charge for privatization are three big transnational
corporations based in Europe: Vivendi, Suez, and RWE. All three have
systematically bought out smaller rivals to become the dominate powers in
the business of water all over the globe. The long-range strategy of these
companies began with their efforts to take over the public water systems
in Third World countries where they hoped to position themselves as the
saviors of the water crisis. Instead, a series of private-sector fiascoes
in the Third World derailed their plans.
The case of Buenos Aires is especially instructive. Buenos Aires was to be
the flagship operation of Third-World water privatization. Suez, through
its subsidiary Aguas Argentinas, took over the Buenos Aires water and
sewage system in 1992. A common argument for privatizing water systems is
that, unlike the cash-strapped public sector, the private sector has the
capital necessary to update or refurbish aging water systems. But public
sources like the World Bank, International Monetary Fund, and other
smaller banks supplied 97 percent of the $1 billion necessary for the Suez
privatization experiment. Suez did expand water and sewage service by a
small increment, but failed to meet its projected targets in both areas.
Nonetheless, the company managed to reap annual profits of around 25
percent in the mid-1990s. Recently, Suez announced that it plans to pull
out of Argentina because the country's currency crisis has cut into its
profits. There have been other private-sector fiascoes in places like
Johannesburg, New Delhi, Manila, and most famously in Cochabamba, Bolivia.
The effort to privatize Third World water systems has become a target of
civil society protests. Representatives of an international civil society
network appeared at a meeting of chief executive officers at the World
Water Forum in Kyoto, Japan, in March. The group took over the microphones
and offered a series of testimonials about the impact of water
privatization around the world. Toward the end of the event, a water
activist from Cancun, Mexico, stepped to the microphone and held up a
glass of pitch-black, putrid-smelling water. He explained that he had
taken the water from his home tap in Cancun, where Suez runs the municipal
water system. He then requested that the moderator pass the glass of
black, smelly water up on stage to the CEO of Suez, inviting him to drink
Targeting First World water
The big water companies are now changing their strategy and concentrating
their operations and their investment on more secure markets in North
America and Europe. Eighty-five percent of all water services in the U.S.
are still in public hands. That's a tempting target for conglomerates like
Suez, Vivendi, and RWE. Within the next 10 years, they aim to control 70
percent of water services across the United States.
They have positioned themselves to move aggressively. Vivendi, Suez, and
RWE have bought up the leading U.S. water companies, U.S. Filter, United
Water, and American Water Works, respectively. These water companies had
largely serviced small towns and communities, but under the tutelage of
the global giants they have become the engines for privatization in the
When transnational water conglomerates take over a municipal water system,
it feels like a local problem, but because the same corporate players are
targeting communities all over the world, we must build alliances and
connections, learn from one another, and start to build a frontal attack.
At the Polaris Institute, we propose a three-pronged strategy. First,
develop a water-alert network so we can know where companies are operating
and where they are going next. How are they going to move? And how can we
get ahead of them?
Second, we need water-action teams that bring citizens together to build
local water-watch coalitions and develop campaigns to protect their water
supplies and services from conglomerates. Then we should link those local
campaigns with the national campaigns of groups like Public Citizen or the
Council of Canadians.
Third, we need to offer alternatives. It is not enough to say we want to
defend our public water systems against private takeovers. There are
problems with public water systems, and we must find new ways of
revitalizing them in our own communities through citizen participation.
Engaged citizens can act as watchdogs for their local water systems.
Our local actions should be informed by three global principles. One is
water conservation. We cannot kid ourselves about water scarcity. Water
may be abundant in one place, but scarce in others. Water conservation
must be a top priority.
The second principle is that water is a fundamental human right. People
need water to live. Water must be provided equitably to all people and not
on the basis of the ability to pay.
The third principle is water democracy. We cannot leave the management of
our most precious resource in the hands of bureaucrats in government or
the private corporations, whether or not they are well intentioned. We,
the people, must preserve this special trust, we must fight for it, and we
must take our proper role and demand water democracy.
Reprinted from Yes! A Journal of Positive Futures, PO Box
10818, Bainbridge Island, WA 98110.