New Water Order

More and more people around the world are confronting the issue of water privatization. In Michigan, a controversial water bottling scheme in Mecosta County -- in the heart of the Great Lakes basin -- has resulted in increased public debate on the subject as well as a lawsuit and a variety of direct actions, including a recent blockade of the bottling plant by activists calling for an end to what they call “water theft.”

In early September, activist Maude Barlow, author of “Blue Gold: The Global Water Crisis and the Commodification of the World’s Water Supply,” joined water activists from around South Africa and the rest of the world to call for an end to the "corporatization of water” at the World Summit on Sustainable Development (WSSD). With water scarcity and pollution of freshwater reserves on the rise, water was at the top of the agenda in Johannesburg.

In recent talks to students and activists, Barlow has stressed the need to make connections between the growing movement against Ice Mountain/Perrier/Nestlé Waters North America in Michigan, and other struggles against water privatization around the world.

In Johannesburg, Barlow used her WSSD delegate’s pass to investigate what she called “one of the most cynical and awful things I have ever seen in my life.”

Delegates met at the Coca-Cola sponsored U.N. conference on water inside swank meeting spaces, surrounded by fountains and water-themed displays including billboards for DeBeers diamonds declaring “Water is forever.” Here, in the new financial capital of South Africa, officials advanced their agenda of mass privatization of water resources as a means of dealing with a global water crisis.

Some of the WSSD events took place inside a casino at “The Water Dome,” which one entered through a lavish shopping mall draped in advertisements and products few ordinary people can afford.

“It had the feeling of a grand trade show, including dressed up Zulu warriors and dancing women who were supposed to be the Nile,” recalled Barlow, who said the scene contrasted harshly with conditions in nearby townships beyond the summit gates, where people living in poverty have had water services suspended since the advent of post-Apartheid privatization of utilities services.

In the township of Orange Farm, residents live in corrugated steel shacks, while state-of-the-art electronic meters control the trickle of water that comes to them for a fee each month. When people can no longer afford the rising water costs -- which can represent as much as 20 percent of a family’s monthly income -- private security firms go in and cut off service. Here, Barlow said, corporations are “making money off the poorest people on the world.”

Meanwhile, the 400,000-square-foot Ice Mountain plant in rural Mecosta County hovers like a fortress on what was once a working family farm. Here, water that has traveled 12 miles from a private hunting reserve within the Muskegon River watershed arrives by way of stainless steel pipes laid in the ruins of a once forested corridor. The water is treated with biocides and injected into non-recyclable plastic bottles. Every day palettes full of shrink-wrapped bottles are loaded onto semis for distribution at Meijer, Sam's Club and other retailers throughout the Midwest.

Most of this water leaves the basin, never to return, resulting in what many believe is an “export and diversion” of Great Lakes water. According to Jim Olson, attorney for the citizens group challenging the project in state court, water should be preserved in the public trust.

“No one is talking about this water going to people in need. This is boutique water,” Barlow said. “In the U.S., the water shortages are already here,” she continued. “You already have deep drought, and watersheds drying up.” Addressing a group of around 150 students and concerned citizens, Barlow said, “We are facing probably the greatest ecological threat to our survival …You have nothing more important to do than to take care of the water heritage.”

Barlow spoke of her experience working with citizens considering a water-bottling venture in Newfoundland, Canada. She said that if this is deemed the most appropriate and desirable form of economic development, people should seriously think about doing it for themselves rather than letting a transnational corporation control the conditions of the project.

At the same time, she is concerned about the fact that under Chapter 11 of NAFTA, operations of that sort risk opening up the province or the state to unfettered exploitation. What weak laws exist to protect the water are no longer honored since “trade friendly” NAFTA terms often supersede local and federal environmental regulations.

Water bottling schemes must be regulated, says Barlow, as well as locally controlled and environmentally safe, and should not be pumping out more than the watershed can sustain. And a strong recycling program could defray some of the environmental costs of all those discarded bottles now languishing in the watershed. According to her book, “Blue Gold,” in the year 2000 “over eight billion gallons of water was bottled and traded globally; over 90 percent in non-renewable plastic.”

“Direct action is an enormously important element in the work we have to do,” she stressed. “We have to continue to have the on-the-ground resistance, and we have to connect up the international and local struggles.”

Nationally, there needs to be legislation protecting water or more often than not, legislation must replace the lack of laws concerning water. The “growth at any cost” mentality that has dominated the political debate thus far is the logic of the cancer cell. Barlow advocates that citizens hold governments accountable, and that they establish new strategies of going forward based on watershed management, conservation and equity.

At the international level, people need to be confronting water privatization. Much of Barlow’s own activism with the 100,000-member-strong Council of Canadians is a response to the fact that people everywhere in the new globalized economy are experiencing an unprecedented “assault on everything we grew up believing belonged to the common heritage -- water, genes; the salmon before they are caught, the rain before it falls.”

Those who are working on water rights, Maud Barlow says, are “on the cusp of the most important issue of our time.”

Holly Wren Spaulding has written for Z Magazine, Clamor and Earth First! Journal.

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