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Ban Sale of Water for Profit, Health Activist Says

Chelsea Lane-Miller
National Geographic News
November 5, 2004
 
"Blue gold." "The essence of life." The phrases reveal the importance many attach to water, the natural resource most fundamental to human survival.

The debate continues over who owns, or should own, water. But few dispute that the abundance of fresh water resources on Earth is decreasing. And no one can deny the deep dependence of all life-forms on the vital liquid.

Maude Barlow, an activist and chairperson of the Council of Canadians, a consumer nonprofit, is one of the most outspoken opponents of the privatization of world water resources. Campaigning to have water declared as a human right, Barlow has written the book Blue Gold: The Fight to Stop the Corporate Theft of the World's Water, and has contributed to the essay collection Whose Water Is It? published by National Geographic Books.

National Geographic News recently spoke with Barlow by telephone from her home in Ottawa, Ontario.





Where are problems of water distribution greatest?

Twenty-two countries in Africa are without [safe drinking] water. People just have no access. South Africa is in very, very serious trouble.

[In] many parts of Latin America, although there is water, the ordinary people have no access to water unless they're wealthy. Mexico City is running out of water. The whole Mexican Valley is in serious trouble.

China is paying for its economic miracle, becoming the economic superpower of the world, so-called, by destroying its water tables. Two-thirds of the cities in northern China are now in severe water scarcity situations. Seventy-five percent of all of India's rivers and waterways are polluted beyond use, as are 80 percent of China's. You just can't overstate it.

There are two [reasons] water doesn't reach people. One is that the actual geographic area is running out of water. The other is that there's no delivery, no ability for people who can't pay to get it.

Latin America is a good example of a place that has an abundant water supply, generally. There are desert areas, but by and large in Latin America there is water. But it doesn't get to the people. That's more political than about scarcity.

In the Middle East the lack of water is because there's not enough water. Some places, like South Africa, it's a little bit of both. There's not enough water there. But the rich have enormous access to as much water as they want, and it's very, very cheap. The poor don't have any. So, sometimes it's a combination of both.

You state this quite plainly as a building water crisis.

To me, it's like those comet movies with the comet [heading toward] Earth. All of a sudden everyone has more in common than they did yesterday. It doesn't matter what your religion, or how much you've hated each other—you're all just about to die. So they send Tom Cruise or Bruce Willis to shoot the comet out.

To me, this water crisis is the comet. It's here. … The human family, the Earth is about to experience a water crisis of monumental proportions. It is, in my opinion, the worst, most frightening environmental threat that exists, more than climate change, more than the oceans, more than anything. This is the one.

You work against what you describe as the commodification of water? What does that mean and why does it concern you?

There are several ways in which commodification of water is taking place. The first is the big service companies. There are three of them. They're all European: Suez, Vivendi, and RW Thames. These companies are moving to the areas of water service, supply, and treatment on a for-profit basis.

Now, we don't have any problem with the private sector building infrastructure. But it's crazy, frankly, to take something that is needed for life, like fresh water, and have private companies delivering it on a for-profit basis.

There is also the growing bottled-water industry, which brought in about 46 billion dollars [U.S.] last year in profits, and that's growing. The estimates are around 15 to 20 percent a year.

The third area where the commodification of water is occurring is the commercial export of water, bulk commercial export. Now this is a much slower kind of thing. I don't think this is going to happen quickly. But there are parts of the world that are [in need of] massive amounts of water.

We're opposed deeply because water is necessary for life, and there is no substitute for it. We're not opposed to the private sector making and selling cars and other things, so long as they practice fair trade and treat their employees fairly. But I think there are some areas of life that should be off limits to commodification. Water is probably the best example of something that should be kept outside the marketplace, a guaranteed right for all people.

[Private companies] have to somewhere, somehow make a profit, and it's now really well documented that they either cut back on the number of public-sector workers or testing authorities for inspection, or they pay the workers less, or they decrease the standard of safety, or they raise the prices of water, or all of them. … Sometimes they raise the price of water to the point where the local communities simply can't pay, and there's an uprising, or there are huge demonstrations, and people get cut off. … [I]t can be a matter of life and death.

There are many cases where public provision of these water services is inadequate. In fact, the large inefficiencies associated with governments are a main reason proponents favor private-sector participation.

You're right, and that's their best argument. But my argument back would be that the alternative to inadequate, poor, or corrupt governments is not a faceless transnational corporation making money from people in poverty for their investors.

The answer to poor, corrupt, or inadequate government is good government. And in the World Bank, they are giving millions and millions of dollars to help water privatization. That money could be going to train public officials to set up not-for-profit water delivery programs, a public service that would not be operated on a for-profit basis.

I think we have to remember [one reason] why those countries can't provide water or health or education for their people and that is because they have a huge debt . There are very complicated reasons for why governments are not able to distribute water to their people. But privatizing it, and giving control over it to a private transnational corporation, whose interest is to make money, and not just to provide water, is not the answer.

Do you see any benefits in private-sector participation? Is there a role for these companies?

Infrastructure is important. If a country isn't able to [build] it, doesn't have the expertise or ability, I think that's fine [for the private sector to be involved]. As long as [the companies] come in and establish the infrastructure and leave.

I also think there's a role for the private sector with consultants and experts that can be hired to transfer that knowledge and expertise. I'm not saying there's no place.

But what happens is they get these 30-, 40-, sometimes 60-year concessions. Once you set up the system, it doesn't take a level of expertise that you couldn't transfer with relative ease to local communities to run a water system for years and years. So … from their initial investments, they're getting incredible amounts of money, because they profit from every drop of water they deliver.

How can people and governments be more efficient in their use of water?

Well, we all need to commit to the concept of conservation. That needs to be built into legislation. For instance, we need to put money back into rebuilding infrastructure.

Even in the so-called developed world, we lose a great deal of water through faulty public pipes and really old antiquated systems. But we're told nobody wants to pay their taxes, which I don't believe … We can only afford to [fix this] if we do it collectively.

We all as individuals need to take much more responsibility over the way we use water with abandon in North America. We are water savages. We are so profligate in our use and abuse of water, in everything from washing our cars [to] watering lawns. …

We are just profligate in our use of water, and that would include [agricultural] flood irrigation. Flood irrigation has got to be replaced by drip irrigation, because close to 70 percent of the water in the world is going to this mass agricultural production. That's the worst industry. Far more than individual use, that's the area where we really could make a huge difference.

We really are hoping, and this has been a dream for a long time, but we would like to see a United Nations of Water, or the United Nations take on water. A number of our groups are calling for a convention to have water declared as a human right, a right of the Earth and other species. But with rights come responsibilities.

Humans have a responsibility to leave water for all the next generations that are going to need it. And, we have to change our relationship to water in a really profound way, and we have to do it really quickly.

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