The United Nations reports that we have 15 years to avert a full-blown water crisis and that, by 2030, demand for water will outstrip supply by 40 percent. Five hundred renowned scientists brought together by UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said that our collective abuse of water has caused the earth to enter a “new geologic age,” a “planetary transformation” akin to the retreat of the glaciers more than 11,000 years ago. Already, they reported, a majority of the world’s population lives within a 30-mile radius of water sources that are badly stressed or running out.
For a long time, we in the Global North, especially North America and Europe, have seen the growing water crisis as an issue of the Global South. Certainly, the grim UN statistics on those without access to water and sanitation have referred mostly to poor countries in Africa, Latin America, and large parts of Asia. Heartbreaking images of children dying of waterborne disease have always seemed to come from the slums of Nairobi, Kolkata, or La Paz. Similarly, the worst stories of water pollution and shortages have originated in the densely populated areas of the South.
But the global water crisis is just that—global—in every sense of the word. A deadly combination of growing inequality, climate change, rising water prices, and mismanagement of water sources in the North has suddenly put the world on a more even footing.
There is now a Third World in the First World. Growing poverty in rich countries has created an underclass that cannot pay rising water rates. As reported by Circle of Blue, the price of water in 30 major US cities is rising faster than most other household staples—41 percent since 2010, with no end in sight. As a result, increasing numbers cannot pay their water bills, and cutoffs are growing across the country. Inner-city Detroit reminds me more of the slums of BogotÃ¡ than the North American cities of my childhood.
Historic poverty and unemployment in Europe have also put millions at risk. Caught between unaffordable rising water rates and the imposition of European-wide austerity measures, thousands of families in Spain, Portugal, and Greece have had their water service cut off. An employee of the water utility Veolia Eau was fired for refusing to cut supplies to 1,000 families in Avignon, France.
As in the Global South, the trend of privatizing water services has placed an added burden on the poor of the North. Food and Water Watch and other organizations have clearly documented that the rates for water and sewer services rise dramatically with privatization. Unlike government water agencies, corporate-run water services must make a profit for their involvement.
And, as in the Global South, aging pipes and leaking water systems are not being repaired or upgraded by Northern municipalities, which have become increasingly cash-strapped as public funds dry up. It is estimated that the United States needs to spend $1 trillion over the next twenty-five years for water infrastructure. To pay for this in a time of tax-cutting hysteria, it is likely that the burden will fall on families and small businesses, pushing water rates even higher.
Climate change is another equalizing phenomenon. Melting glaciers, warming watersheds, and chaotic weather patterns are upsetting the water cycle everywhere. Higher temperatures increase the amount of moisture that evaporates from land and water; a warmer atmosphere then releases more precipitation in areas already prone to flooding and less in areas prone to drought. Indeed, drought is intensifying in many parts of the world, and deserts are growing in more than 100 countries.
Additionally, the relentless over-extraction of groundwater and water from rivers has caused great damage in the Global South and is now doing the same in the North. A June 2015 NASA study found that 21 of the world’s 37 largest aquifers—in locations from India and China to the United States and France—have passed their sustainability tipping points, putting hundreds of millions at risk. Stunningly, more than half the rivers in China have disappeared since 1990. Asia’s Aral Sea and Africa’s Lake Chad—once the fourth- and sixth-largest lakes in the world, respectively—have all but dried up due to unremitting use for export-oriented crop irrigation.
In Brazil, almost 2 trillion gallons of water are extracted every year to produce sugarcane ethanol. Cutting down the Amazon rain forests has dramatically reduced the amount of rain in the hydrologic cycle. Healthy rain forests produce massive amounts of moisture that are carried on air currents called “flying rivers” and supply rain to SÃ£o Paulo thousands of miles away. The destruction of the rain forests and groundwater mining for biofuels has created a killing drought in a country once considered the most water-rich in the world. Not surprisingly, large-scale cutoffs and water rationing are taking a toll on millions of poor Brazilians.
The story repeats itself in the North. According to the US Department of Agriculture, the Ogallala Aquifer is so overburdened that it “is going to run out…beyond reasonable argument.” The use of bore-well technology to draw precious groundwater for the production of water-intensive corn ethanol is a large part of this story. For decades, California has massively engineered its water systems through pipelines, canals, and aqueducts so that a small number of powerful farmers in places like the Central Valley can produce water-intensive crops for export. Over-extraction is also putting huge pressure on the Great Lakes, whose receding shorelines tell the story.
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There is some good news along with these distressing reports. An organized international movement has come together to fight for water justice, both globally and at the grassroots level. It has fought fiercely against privatization, with extraordinary results: Europe’s Transnational Institute reports that in the last 15 years, 235 municipalities in 37 countries have brought their water services back under public control after having tried various forms of privatization. In the United States alone, activists have reversed 58 water-privatization schemes.
This movement has also successfully fought for UN recognition that water and sanitation are human rights. The General Assembly adopted a resolution recognizing these rights on July 28, 2010, and the Human Rights Council adopted a further resolution outlining the obligations of governments two months later.
Working with communities in the Global South, where water tables are being destroyed to provide boutique water for export, North American water-justice activists have set up bottled-water-free campuses across the United States and Canada. They have also joined hands to fight water-destructive industries such as fracking here and open-pit mining in Latin America and Africa.
The most important defining feature of this movement is that it is based on solidarity. The same mix of issues confronts the Global North and South alike, and it’s only through respect and the sharing of resources, tactics, and information that we will bring water justice to communities around the world. Water activists increasingly understand that many of the assaults target indigenous lands, and that indigenous leadership and solidarity are key to the success of this movement.
It has now become time for governments around the world to step up and take serious action. It is utterly astonishing to me that, with the many (and growing) water crises across the United States, the issue of water does not come up in presidential campaigns. Energy, yes—water, no.
We humans have used the planet’s fresh water for our pleasure and profit, and created an industrial model of development based on conquering nature. It is time to see water as the essential element of an ecosystem that gives life to us all, and that we must protect with vigor and determination. We need to change our relationship to water, and do it quickly. We must do everything in our power to heal and restore the planet’s watersheds and waterways.
In practice, this means we need a new ethic that puts water and its protection at the center of all of the laws and policies we enact. The world would be a very different place if we always asked how our water practices—everything from trading across borders to growing food and producing energy—affect our most valuable resource.
Water must be much more equitably shared, and governments must guarantee access by making it a public service provided on a not-for-profit basis. The human right to water must become a reality everywhere. Likewise, water plunder must end: Governments need to stand up to the powerful industries, private interests, and bad practices destroying water all over the world. Water everywhere must be declared a public trust, to be protected and managed for the public good. This includes placing priorities on access to limited supplies, especially groundwater, and banning private industry from owning or controlling it. Water, in short, must be recognized as the common heritage of humanity and of future generations.
The global water crisis now unites us in a common struggle. Will its scarcity lead to conflict, violence, and war? Or it is possible that water will become a negotiating tool for cooperation and peace? Can it be nature’s gift to teach us how to better live with one another and tread more lightly on Mother Earth?
I surely hope so.
Have you heard? The world is running out of accessible clean water.
Humanity is polluting, mismanaging, and displacing our finite freshwater sources at an alarming rate. Since 1990, half the rivers in China have disappeared. The Ogallala Aquifer that supplies the U.S. breadbasket will be gone “in our lifetime,” the U.S. Department of Agriculture says.
By 2030, global demand for water will outstrip supply by 40 percent, a surefire recipe for great suffering. Five hundred scientists recently told UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon that our collective abuse of water has caused the planet to enter “a new geologic age” and that the majority of the planet’s population lives within 31 miles of an endangered water source.
Yet in election after election the world over, no one’s paying attention to this urgent issue.
That’s why I’m calling for a new water ethic that places water and its protection at the heart of all policy and practice. This may strike you as far-fetched, but we must do it now. The future of the planet and the human race both depend on it.
And taking our water crisis seriously will change everything.
What would farm policy look like if we understood that the global food system is depleting local watersheds through the export of a torrent of “virtual water”? Vast quantities of water are embedded in apples, corn, and other crops.
How would trade policy change if we understood that global trade deals give global firms the right to claim “ownership” of the water they use in other countries?
Would our energy policies change if we realized that water-guzzling biofuels may be more environmentally dangerous than the fossil fuels they’re supposed to replace?
This new water ethic should honor four principles.
First, water is a human right and must be more equitably shared. The United Nations has recognized that drinking water and sanitation are fundamental rights and that governments have obligations not only to supply these services to their people but also to prevent harm to source water. This provides an important tool to local communities as they confront dangerous mines, dams, and fossil-fuel extraction operations around the world.
Second, water is a common heritage of humanity and of future generations and must be protected as a public trust in law and practice. Water must never be bought, hoarded, sold, or traded as a commodity on the open market and governments must maintain the water commons for the public good, not private gain. While private businesses have a role in helping find solutions to our water crisis, they shouldn’t be allowed to determine access to this basic public service. The public good trumps the corporate drive to make profits when it comes to water.
Third, water has rights too, outside its usefulness to humans. Water belongs to the Earth and other species. Our belief in “unlimited growth” and our treatment of water as a tool for industrial development have put the earth’s watersheds in jeopardy. Water isn’t merely a resource for our convenience, pleasure, and profit. It’s the essential element in a living ecosystem. We need to adapt our laws and practices to ensure the protection of water and the restoration of watersheds — a crucial antidote to global warming.
Finally, I deeply believe that water can teach us how to live together if only we will let it. There is enormous potential for water conflict in a world of rising demand and diminishing supply. But just as water can be a source of disputes, conflict, and violence, water can bring people, communities, and nations together in the shared search for solutions.
Preserving water supplies will require more collaborative and sustainable ways of growing food, producing energy, and trading across borders. It will demand robust democratic governance.
It is my deepest hope that water can become nature’s gift to humanity and teach us how to tread more lightly on the earth — in peace and respect with one another.
Through our co-creative fieldwork, On the Commons seeks to transform society’s decisionmaking about water toward participatory, democratic, community-centered systems that value equity and sustainability as core values. Our work is based on the following ten water commons principles.
1.) Affirm water as a commons. It belongs to everyone and to no one exclusively, and must be passed on to future generations in sufficient volume and quality.
2.) Ensure that the earth and all of its ecosystems enjoy rights to water for their survival. Indeed, those ecosystems make human life possible.
3.) Conserve water as a social priority (enforced by law), including advocacy of drastic changes to industrial and agricultural practices.
4.) Treat watersheds, the source of our water, as a commons, as well as the water itself.
5.) Encourage local, community management of water while legally requiring users to respect upstream and downstream neighbors’ rights.
6.) Create or reaffirm trans-boundary agreements that respect water sovereignty for all communities and nations.
7.) Provide everyone with water as a basic principle of justice, not as an act of charity.
8.) Ensure public delivery and fair pricing of water.
9.) Promote the right to water as a principle in national constitutions, laws, and a UN covenant.
10.) Employ innovative legal tools to protect water and manage water as a commons, including public and community trusts.
It's a colossal failure of political foresight that water has not emerged as an important issue in the U.S. Presidential campaign. The links between oil, war, and U.S. foreign policy are well known. But water -- whether we treat it as a public good or as a commodity that can be bought and sold -- will in large part determine whether our future is peaceful or perilous.
Americans use water even more wastefully than oil. The U.S relies on non-renewable groundwater for 50 percent of its daily use, and 36 states now face serious water shortages, some verging on crisis.
Meanwhile, dwindling freshwater supplies around the world, inequitable access to water, and corporate control of water, together with impending climate change from fossil fuel emissions, have created a life-or-death situation across the planet. Both Democrats and Republicans have emphasized loosening U.S. dependence on nonrenewable energy resources in their platforms, but neither party gives significant air time to the threats posed by water shortages.
This is not to say that no one is paying attention. In fact, water has become a key strategic security and foreign policy priority for the United States government.
Cut Deals, Carry Water
Corporate interests have pursued schemes to privatize, commodify, and export water for decades. We have seen how this plays out in Canada. For instance, in the late 1990s, Sun Belt Water, Inc., sued the Canadian government under NAFTA because British Columbia banned water exports, preventing a deal that would have sent B.C. water to California.
Corporations have also made attempts to ship Canadian water as far as Asia and the Middle East, proposals that fizzled after fierce opposition from public citizens who were beginning to understand the dangers of permanently removing water from local ecosystems and placing it under corporate control.
Now the Pentagon, as well as various U.S. security think tanks, have decided that water supplies, like energy supplies, must be secured if the United States is to maintain its current economic and military power in the world. And the United States is exerting pressure to access Canadian water, despite Canada's own shortages.
Under the name, "North American Future 2025 Project," the U.S. Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) brought together high level government officials and business executives from Canada, the United States, and Mexico for a series of six meetings to discuss a wide range of issues related to the Security and Prosperity Partnership, a controversial and tightly guarded set of negotiations to expand NAFTA. [See related story .]
"As ... globalization continues and the balance of power potentially shifts, and risks to global security evolve, it is only prudent for Canadian, Mexican, and U.S. policymakers to contemplate a North American security architecture that could effectively deal with security threats that can be foreseen in 2025," said a leaked copy of a CSIS backgrounder. On the agenda for one of two meetings in Calgary were, "water consumption, water transfers, and artificial diversions of bulk water" with the aim of achieving "joint optimum utilization of the available water."
The water and security connection deepens with the fact that Sandia National Laboratories, a vital partner with CSIS in its Global Water Futures Project, also plays a major role in military security in the United States. While Sandia is technically owned by the U.S. government, and reports to the Department of Energy's National Nuclear Security Administration, its management is contracted out to Lockheed Martin, the world's biggest weapons manufacturer. Ralph Pentland, water consultant and primary author of the Canadian government's Federal Water Policy in 1987, believes that the purpose of these cross-border discussions is to secure sufficient water for Alberta tar sands production in order to ensure uninterrupted oil supplies to the United States.
Energy extraction would be far more attractive if a new source of water -- potentially from northern Canada -- could be brought to the tar sands through pipelines or other diversions. As long as the water doesn't cross the international border, it is within Alberta's power to do this.These schemes to displace water from one ecosystem to another in the service of corporate profit are an environmental problem for the entire planet, which is another reason why water must form a crucial part of any progressive discussion around U.S. dependence on foreign energy resources.
Corporate interests understand the connection and are using it to make their case for private solutions to the water crisis. In language that will be familiar to critics who argued that the United States invaded Iraq not for democracy but for access to oil and profits for corporations, a 2005 report from CSIS's Global Water Futures project had this to say about water: "Water issues are critical to U.S. national security and integral to upholding American values of humanitarianism and democratic development. Moreover, engagement with international water issues guarantees business opportunity for the U.S. private sector, which is well positioned to contribute to development and reap economic reward."
Water for All
Clearly, the powers that be in the United States have decided that water is not a public good but a private resource that must be secured by whatever means. But there are alternatives. North Americans must learn to live within our means, by conserving water in agriculture and in the home. We could learn from the many examples here and beyond our borders -- from the New Mexican "Acequia" system that uses an ancient natural ditch irrigation tradition to distribute water in arid lands to the International Rainwater Harvesting Alliance in Geneva, that works globally to promote sustainable rainwater harvesting programs.
Conservation strategies would undermine the massive investment now going into corporate technological and infrastructure solutions, such as desalination, wastewater reuse, and water transfer projects. And conservation would be many times cheaper, a boon to the public but not to the corporate interests that are currently driving international water agreements.
At the grassroots, a global water justice movement is demanding a change in international law to settle once and for all the question of who controls water, and whether responses to the water crisis will ensure water for the public or profits for corporations.
Ricardo Petrella has led a movement in Italy to recognize access to water as a basic human right, which has support among politicians at every level. The Coalition in Defense of Public Water in Ecuador is demanding that the government amend the constitution to recognize the right to water. The Coalition Against Water Privatization in South Africa is challenging the practice of water metering before the Johannesburg High Court on the basis that it violates the human rights of Soweto's citizens. Dozens of groups in Mexico have joined COMDA, the Coalition of Mexican Organizations for the Right to Water, a national campaign for a constitutional guarantee of water for the public.
The U.S. and Canada are the only two countries actively blocking international attempts to recognize water as a human right. But movements in both countries are working to change that. A large network of human rights, faith-based, labor, and environmental groups in Canada has formed Canadian Friends of the Right to Water to get the Canadian government to support a U.N. right-to-water covenant. And a network in the United States led by Food and Water Watch is calling for a national water trust to ensure safekeeping of the nation's water assets and a change of government policy on the right to water.
Such campaigns may have a fight ahead of them, but the vision is within reach: a United Nations covenant that recognizes the right of the Earth and other species to clean water, pledges to protect and conserve the world's water supplies, and forms an agreement between those countries who have water and those who don't to work toward local -- not corporate -- control of water. We must acknowledge water as a fundamental human right for all.
So here, then, is the answer to the question, Can we run out of freshwater? Yes, there is a fixed amount of water on Earth. Yes, it is still here somewhere. But we humans have depleted, polluted and diverted it to such an extent that we can now actually say the planet is running out of accessible, clean water. Fast. The freshwater crisis is easily as great a threat to the Earth and humans as climate change (to which it is deeply linked) but has had very little attention paid to it in comparison.
The world is running out of available, clean freshwater at an exponentially dangerous rate just as the population of the world is set to increase again. It is like a comet poised to hit the Earth. If a comet really did threaten the entire world, it is likely that our politicians would suddenly find that religious and ethnic differences had lost much of their meaning. Political leaders would quickly come together to find a solution to this common threat.
However, with rare exceptions, average people do not know that the world is facing a comet called the global water crisis. And they are not being served by their political leaders, who are in some kind of inexplicable denial. The crisis is not reported enough in the mainstream media, and when it is, it is usually reported as a regional or local problem, not an international one. Water policy is raised as a major issue in very few national elections, even in water-stressed countries. In fact, in many countries, denial is the political response to the global water crisis.
In November 2006, former Australian prime minister John Howard hosted a high-level summit in Sydney to deal with what one scientist called "the worst drought in Australia in 1,000 years." Howard's answer? Allow farmers to "trade" country water to the city, thereby draining already thirsty rivers of yet more water; drain the wetlands to supply the cities; ship in tankers full of water from Tasmania; and look to technology such as desalination plants. The government uttered not a word about conservation, protecting watersheds and replenishing water systems, cleaning up toxic dumps or stopping the massive export of Australia's water stock-in-trade with China.
Under two terms of the Bush administration, environmental stewardship has been dealt a terrible blow. In his passionate book Crimes Against Nature, Robert F. Kennedy Jr. reports that the Bush White House has rolled back more than four hundred pieces of environmental legislation and taken the United States back to a time before environmental consciousness. Not only has George W. Bush not taken his country's water crisis seriously, he has cut funding for clean water and safe drinking programs and allowed once-banned chemicals and toxins back into circulation, gutting the Clean Water Act. He has allowed logging and mining in national parks, resulting in the destruction of pristine rivers and lakes. Funding for water research in the United States has been stagnant for thirty years, and the portion dedicated to water quality has actually been reduced in the last decade.
Canada has no national water act and no inventory of its groundwater resources. A 2005 report from Environment Canada said that a national water crisis was looming and that no one in government seemed to be listening. The report gave a blunt assessment of pollution and overextraction of Canada's water systems and noted a total lack of leadership on the issue by both federal and provincial governments. Canada is allowing the destruction of huge amounts of water in the Alberta tar sands, where water is actually being lost to the hydrologic cycle in order to mine the heavy oil from the ground.
To its credit, Europe has taken some more serious action. In 2000, the European Commission launched the Water Framework Initiative, a European Union-wide plan for water conservation, clean up and administration based on the joint management of river basins. All European waters must achieve "Good Status" by 2015.
All people in the European region must have access to clean drinking water (there are currently 120 million without), and the environment must be protected as well. The initiative requires cross-border cooperation on all areas of watershed protection. While this program is among the most progressive in the world, the powerful countries of Europe have been responsible for practices in the Third World that have denied clean water to millions. Europe's record must include this fuller picture.
In the developing world, all that most governments can do is desperately try to provide water for their citizens. There is little attempt to address the environmental crisis that has polluted water in the first place. Most have bought into the tenets of the World Bank and the World Trade Organization and are attempting to export their way to prosperity, creating more environmental damage in the process. And most are helpless to police the big transnational oil, forestry and mining corporations fouling their water systems; some are in collusion with these companies to repress their own people. Most First World governments refuse to even consider legislation that would hold their corporations accountable for polluting the water systems of poor countries.
The United Nations, the European Union and the World Bank have devised a water rescue plan for the developing world totally devoid of plans to deal with the growing rivers of sewage killing whole watersheds and coastlines. Ninety percent of the raw sewage in poor (and some not so poor) countries is still discharged untreated. Most of the megacities in the Third World also lose massive amounts of water from leaky infrastructure. In the global South, more than 50 percent of municipal water is lost because of faulty systems.
Nor are most rich countries prepared to cancel or at least renegotiate the debt owed by the global South to the global North to allow governments in poor countries to address these issues themselves. Every year, more money flows to the global North to pay the debt than flows to the global South in aid and trade together. No serious plan to alleviate the water crisis can ignore the poverty of the global South and the role of debt repayment in that cycle.
In addition, few countries in the world are confronting the pervasive and harmful agricultural practices that are dramatically exacerbating the crisis. Large-scale factory farms create a staggering amount of manure and depend on intensive use of antibiotics, nitrogen fertilizers and pesticides, all of which eventually end up in the water supply. Flood irrigation, used in many parts of the world, wastes enormous amounts of water. (In China, close to 80 percent of water used in flood irrigation -- the main form of irrigation in that country -- is lost to evaporation.) Flood irrigation also leads to desertification, as it overtills the soil, which then is carried away by the wind. Yet not only are wealthy countries wedded to industrial agriculture, the World Bank and the World Trade Organization promote this model in the developing world.
Nor have these international institutions and the powerful countries behind them, blinded by their unquestioning faith in market economics, begun seriously to question the abuse and overuse of water by industry. While it is commonly understood that agriculture is the biggest user of water in the world, this is changing. In industrialized countries, industry now accounts for 59 percent of total water withdrawals, and industry is fast gaining as a water abuser in developing countries as well. India, for instance, will triple its use of water for industry in the next decade. As countries such as China, India, Malaysia and Brazil undergo industrialization at an unprecedented rate, water use and misuse is growing exponentially. Yet few political leaders have the courage or foresight to question this model of development.
Every day, the failure of our political leaders to address the global water crisis becomes more evident. Every day, the need for a comprehensive water crisis plan becomes more urgent. If ever there was a moment for all governments and international institutions to come together to find a collective solution to this emergency, now is that moment. If ever there was a time for a plan of conservation and water justice to deal with the twin water crises of scarcity and inequity, now is that time. The world does not lack the knowledge about how to build a water-secure future; it lacks the political will.
But not only are our political leaders following the false promises of a quick technological fix, they are abdicating the real decision-making about the future of the world's depleting water supplies to a group of private interests and transnational corporations that view the crisis as an opportunity to make money and gain power. As we'll see, these big players know where the water is. They simply follow the money.
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 year.
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 century.
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 it.
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 United States.
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. Subscriptions: 800/937-4451 Web: www.yesmagazine.org
We would like to believe that there is an infinite supply of fresh water on the planet, but that assumption is tragically false. Available fresh water amounts to less than half of one percent of all the water on Earth. The rest is seawater or polar ice. Fresh water is renewable only by rainfall.
Global consumption of water is doubling every 20 years - more than twice the rate of human population growth. According to the United Nations, more than one billion people on Earth already lack access to fresh drinking water. If current trends persist, by 2025 the demand for fresh water will rise by 56 percent and as many as two-thirds of the world's population will be living with serious water shortages or absolute water scarcity.
Around the world, the most common tactic to meet increased water demand has been to divert rivers and to build environmentally destructive dams. The number of large dams worldwide has climbed from just over 5,000 in 1950 to 38,000 today. Only 2 percent of US rivers and wetlands remain free-flowing and undeveloped, while the country has lost more than half of its original wetlands.
In the US, 37 percent of freshwater fish are at risk of extinction, 40 percent of amphibians are imperiled and 67 percent of freshwater mussels are extinct or vulnerable to extinction.
More than 30 countries already face water stress and scarcity. The Earth's water system can support, at most, only one more doubling of demand, estimated to occur in less than 30 years. The US National Intelligence Council, a group that reports to the CIA, warns that water will become the main resource-scarcity problem by 2015 and that the instability created by water shortages "will increasingly affect the national security of the United States."
Fortune Magazine notes that "water will be to the 21st century what oil was to the 20th." Who owns water and how much they are able to charge for it will become the question of the century. The privatization of water is already a $400-billion-a-year business. Multinational corporations hope to increase profits from water commodification even further by using international trade and investment agreements to control its flow and supply. One Canadian water company, Global Water Corp., puts it best: "Water has moved from being an endless commodity that may be taken for granted to a rationed necessity that may be taken by force."
Over the last few decades, multinational corporations have profited from the provision of water through the Structural Adjustment Programs (SAPs) of the World Bank and International Monetary Fund (IMF), which used these economic restructuring programs to give corporations access to the water systems of developing countries. Today, corporations are using a new generation of trade and investment agreements to gain ownership over the world's ever-dwindling water supplies so that they will become the suppliers of last resort.
The FTAA: At Your Service In the past, governments unanimously believed that access to basic human services such as water, healthcare and education should not be included in trade agreements because these were essential components of citizenship. However, the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) and the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT) began the process of eroding these basic human rights. Today, the Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA) is poised to take this process to a whole new level.
The Free Trade Area of the Americas is the formal name given to the massive expansion of NAFTA ["NAFTA for the Americas," Summer 2001]. The FTAA would impose NAFTA's failed model of privatization and deregulation on 34 nations in North, Central and South America and the Caribbean, creating the world's largest free-trade zone with a population of 800 million and a combined GDP of $11 trillion.
The FTAA's "services agreement" grants private corporations sweeping new authority to overrule government regulations. Under the FTAA, all public services - schools, hospitals, prisons - would be forced to open up for competition from foreign for-profit service corporations. This agreement would forbid any federal government or local government from giving preferential funding to domestic providers of sewer or water services.
The FTAA would increase the number of towns and cities forced into privatizing their water systems and would reduce the ability of governments to ensure that the privatized systems work to protect the environment, consumers and workers.
As the water crisis intensifies, governments worldwide - under pressure from multinational corporations - are advocating the commodification and mass transport of water. Proponents of water privatization say that a market system is the only way to distribute water to the world's thirsty. But experience shows that selling water on the open market does not address the needs of poor, underserved people.
On the contrary, privatized water is delivered to those who can pay for it, such as wealthy cities and individuals, agriculture and industries. As one resident of New Mexico's high desert observed after his community's water was diverted for use by the high-tech industry: "Water flows uphill to money."
In cities and towns across the Western Hemisphere, results of water privatization have been almost universal: increased prices and a concurrent loss of access to water, failed promises of infrastructure improvement, loss of indigenous peoples' rights to water, worker layoffs, lack of information on water quality and big profits for the privatizing corporations.
In India, some households pay a staggering 25 percent of their income for water. Poor residents of Lima, Peru, pay private vendors as much as $3 per cubic meter for buckets of often-contaminated water while the affluent pay only 30 cents per cubic meter for treated municipal tap water.
Water-Related Conflicts The push to commodify water comes at a time when the social, political and economic impacts of water scarcity are rapidly becoming a destabilizing force around the globe. In 1997, Malaysia, which supplies about half of Singapore's water, threatened to cut off its supply after Singapore criticized Malaysia's policies. In Africa, relations between Botswana and Namibia have been severely strained by Namibian plans to construct a pipeline to divert water from the shared Okavango River. In the water-starved Middle East, the late King Hussein of Jordan once said that the only thing he would go to war with Israel over was water because Israel controls Jordan's water supply.
More than 5 million people, most of them children, die every year from illnesses caused by drinking poor-quality water. In the industrial maquiladoras along the Mexico-US border, water is so scarce that Mexican babies and children are compelled to drink Coca-Cola and Pepsi instead.
Eighty percent of China's major rivers are so degraded they no longer support fish. China is facing the likelihood of severe grain shortages because of water depletion and the shift of water resources from agriculture to industry and cities. The resulting demand for grain in China soon could exceed the entire world's available exportable supply.
Today, the future of one of Earth's most vital resources is being determined by those who profit from its overuse. At the annual World Economic Development Congress, corporations and financial institutions met with government representatives from more than 84 countries to attend panels on such subjects as "Overcoming Obstacles to Water Investment." The agenda was clear: water should be treated like any other commodity, with its use determined by market principles.
The Global Water Power Play The World Water Forum (WWF) held in The Hague in March 2000 was chaired by World Bank Vice President Ismail Serageldin. The WWF is part of the continuing activities of the World Water Council (WWC), a coalition of governments, international agencies and private-sector interests. The WWC has formed close working partnerships with private corporations, the Global Water Partnership and Business Partners for Development. The websites and reports of these organizations and corporations make clear that some of the world's largest water privateers are taking the lead in developing global water policies.
With the support of international trade agreements, these companies are setting their sights on the mass transport of water by pipeline and supertanker. Several companies are developing technology to pump fresh water into huge sealed bags to be towed across the oceans for sale.
The US Global Water Corp., a Canadian company, has signed an agreement with Sitka, Alaska, to export 18 billion gallons of glacier water per year to China. It would then be bottled for export in one of China's "free trade" zones to take advantage of cheap labor. The company brochure entices investors "to harvest the accelerating opportunity... as traditional sources of water around the world become progressively depleted and degraded."
The National Post called Canada's water "blue gold" and Post business columnist Terence Corcoran predicts that "The issue will not be whether to export, but how much money the federal government and provinces will be able to extract from massive water shipments.... Using the OPEC model, they will attempt to cartelize the world supply of water to drive the price up."
Based on negotiating documents that have been released, we can begin to paint a picture of the threats to water that are likely to be included in the FTAA.
Under the agreement, the goods that are subject to the agreement's obligations include "waters, including natural or artificial waters, and aerated waters." In 1993, then-US Trade Representative Mickey Kantor said in a letter to a US environmental group, "When water is traded as a good, all provisions of [NAFTA] governing trade in goods apply."
"National Treatment" is a standard trade provision guaranteeing that countries do not "discriminate" by favoring domestic producers over foreign producers. This means that if a locality provides any portion of its water supply through a private company, it cannot favor a locally owned service provider that may have a greater commitment to the area and may be easier for the local community to oversee. Furthermore, once a permit is granted to a domestic company to export water, the corporations of all the other FTAA countries would have the same access rights to the commercial use of that water. For example, if a Bolivian company were granted the right to export Bolivian water, US multinationals would then have the right to help themselves to as much Bolivian water as they wished.
NAFTA's "Investor State" provision (which the US, among others, would like to see included in the FTAA) gives investors, usually corporations, the right to sue a foreign government directly.
Under this provision, if any FTAA country, state or province permits only domestic companies to export water, corporations in the other countries would have the right to financial compensation for "discrimination."
NAFTA's Chapter 11 allows foreign corporations to sue a country if a government implements legislation that "expropriates" the company's future profits. For example, if a country privatized its water services, hired a foreign provider and then passed laws requiring improved environmental protections or worker safety, the client corporation could argue that the laws were an expropriation of its profits and therefore illegal under the FTAA.
Suing for the Access to Water Corporations already have begun suing governments to gain access to domestic water sources. The first such NAFTA Chapter 11 case (Sun Belt Water Inc. vs. Canada) was filed in the fall of 1998. Sun Belt Water Inc. of Santa Barbara, Calif., filed suit after losing a contract to deliver Canadian water to California when British Columbia banned the export of bulk water in 1991. Sun Belt is seeking $220 million in damages. However, Sunbelt appears more interested in access to BC's water than the $220 million. As Sun Belt's CEO Jack Lindsay explained, "Because of NAFTA, we are now stakeholders in the national water policy in Canada."
Chapter 11 was also used successfully by the Virginia-based Ethyl Corp. to force Canada to reverse its ban on MMT, a toxic chemical gasoline additive. In June 1997, Canada banned the cross-border sale of MMT because it is, in the words of Canadian Prime Minister Jean Chretien, an "insidious neurotoxin." Under NAFTA, Ethyl sued Canada for $250 million in damages for lost future profits and for damaging the company's "good name." Rather than allow the case to go to a NAFTA tribunal where it feared losing, the Canadian government reversed its ban in July 1998 and paid Ethyl $13 million in compensation for its "trouble."
In July 1999, Canadian-owned Methanex Corp. sued the US for $970 million after California Gov. Gray Davis mandated the removal of methyl tertiary butyl ether (MTBE) from gasoline sold in the state by December 31, 2002. The chemical has been associated with human neurotoxicological effects and may cause cancer. Methanex claims that California's ban violates NAFTA by limiting the corporation's ability to sell MTBE.
Water as a Human Right In January 2000, thousands of citizens of Cochabamba, Bolivia took to the streets to oppose the takeover of their water systems by a company jointly owned by the US-based multinational Bechtel and the Italian utility Edison ["Bolivia's Water War Victory," Autumn 2000]. The rebellion, which shut the city down for four days, was sparked after the foreign-owned water corporation raised Cochabamba's water rates 35 percent.
Bolivian President Hugo Banzer was eventually forced to lift martial law and Bechtel was compelled to abandon its Bolivian water-privatization scheme.
An international "civil summit" of farmers, workers, indigenous people, students, professionals, environmentalists, educators and nongovernmental organizations from Bolivia, Canada, India, Brazil and the US subsequently gathered in Cochabamba to combine forces in the defense of the vital right to water. At the conclusion of the summit, they issued "The Cochabamba Declaration" which reads, in part:
Water belongs to the Earth and all species and is sacred to life. Therefore, the world's water must be conserved, reclaimed and protected for all future generations and its natural patterns respected. Water is a fundamental human right and a public trust to be guarded by all levels of governments. Therefore it should not be commodified, privatized or traded for commercial purposes. These rights must be enshrined at all levels of government. An international treaty must ensure these principles are noncontrovertable.
For additional information on the FTAA, contact Antonia Ajuhasz at the International Forum on Globalization [162 Ft. Cronkhite, Sausalito, CA 94965, (415) 561-3490, www.ifg.org].