Building a Water Democracy

This week, to mark the 60th anniversary of the United Nations, San Francisco is hosting World Environment Day, a week-long series of events celebrating the theme of "Green Cities."

Created by the UN to heighten environmental awareness and encourage public action, one of the seven areas to be highlighted is water. This is a perfect opportunity to engage in one of the most important debates of our time: how to preserve water as a human right and public good -- not a commodity to buy and sell -- and how to restore and safeguard our watersheds and guarantee affordable access to clean water.

More than a billion people worldwide lack access to clean water and 6,000 children a day die of preventable water-borne diseases. This crisis is expected to worsen as the demand for fresh water continues to double every 20 years. Yet the call for immediate action to protect the right to water is not just a demand coming from developing countries such as India and Ghana but is originating from communities throughout California.

In California, a number of rural communities, particularly in the Central Valley, lack access to clean water and rely on bottled water for their daily needs. The irrigation water in this vast agricultural region is diverted from a number of imperiled watersheds, including the Bay Delta and the San Joaquin River, which runs bone-dry in some parts. Native American tribes such as the Yurok and Winnemen Wintu continue to fight for basic recognition of their rights to water for fishing and other cultural practices. And now, in the era of globalization, communities are also on the front line of fighting to protect water as a public good and an essential public trust resource.

From Felton to Stockton to McCloud, local water wars are erupting across California against global corporations whose agenda is to privatize and profit from turning water into a commodity. In each case, citizens are banding together to fight back against the private companies proposing to take over municipal water systems.

As budget crises continue to strain local governments, private companies are luring government officials with promises of cost savings and improved compliance with clean water regulations. But municipalities that embark on the path of handing their water systems over to corporate management can find themselves on a slippery slope of hidden costs and weak accountability, with tax and ratepayers usually footing the costs of broken promises.

The trend of privatized water is quickly sweeping the country in diverse ways. Most popular is the bottled water phenomenon -- a marketing gimmick that has duped consumers into believing that water parceled into little plastic bottles and priced 200 times higher than tap water is somehow chic and healthy. Bottled water, however, can ruin local water sheds, drain aquifers and generate over 20 billion plastic bottles to be added to landfills annually.

What is more, bottled water--which is often just tap water in a bottle--does not have to meet the same safety standards as public water systems. But communities are waking up to the ruse. In McCloud, near Mt. Shasta, have won the first round of a battle to keep food giant Nestle from tapping local springs for its bottled water business, which racks up more than $2.7 billion annually in sales.

A second emerging trend is the direct corporate takeover of local water systems. Private water companies are focusing on mid-sized cities like Stockton and smaller cities, such as Felton, near Santa Cruz. Stockton's experience serves as a cautionary tale for other cities being approached by water companies touting the benefits of private management.

Cities should be wary because the personnel, legal and administrative costs involved in privatizing a municipal water utility can balloon far beyond predictions --as they did in Stockton where local watchdog groups are battling the 20-year, $600 million contract with British-based Thames Water and Denver-based OMI in court. Stockton had a well-run public utility before it was thrust into privatization. Now, water rates for Stockton residents have risen two years in a row, customer service requirements have been unfulfilled, maintenance tasks are backlogged and OMI-Thames dumped chlorinated water into an irrigation canal, resulting in a $125,000 fine from the state.

Similarly, residents of Felton and Monterey are so outraged at spiraling rates and service problems caused by the privatization of their water system that they are trying to take back control of it. These communities are also battling Thames Water, the third largest water company in the world, which has taken over local water utilities in 27 states across the country with the intent of profiting from delivering water to millions of homes. Groups like Felton FLOW (For Locally Owned Water) aim to put their local water utilities in public hands to ensure the best possible stewardship of this vital resource.

Water democracy is our future. Water should be protected as a public commons, not subjected to international trade laws or the open market, which would deem it a commodity and sell it off to the highest bidder. Famed Indian activist Vandana Shiva in her book, Water Wars, describes the nine principles of water democracy. In her words, "Communities have always recognized two things. First, that which we need for survival should never belong to an individual. It should be the common wealth. Second, it should be managed as the common wealth. Therefore, community structures of responsibilities have to be put in place."

People-centered and earth-centered water policies are the path to a water-secure future. That is why California communities are joining with social movements worldwide to call for a global convention on the right to water. This legally binding framework would take precedence over international trade laws that grant corporations rights to commodify and privatize water and water utilities. It would also give communities a powerful tool to hold their government accountable for guaranteeing a sustainable water policy.

This policy must begin with the long-term protection of the headwaters and ground water and extend an ecologic stewardship role to the entire hydrological system, which includes the atmosphere that is being destroyed by global warming. The right for future generations to have a safe and sufficient water supply and a healthy environment is at stake.

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