Water crisis

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Wed Aug 21 17:49:10 MDT 2002

Village Voice, Aug. 21, 2002

Advocates Warn of Thirst and Turmoil for a Parched Planet
A World Without Water
by Ginger Adams Otis

In 1995 World Bank vice president Ismail Serageldin made a much quoted 
prediction for the new millennium: "If the wars of this century were 
fought over oil, the wars of the next century will be fought over 
water." Serageldin has been proven correct much faster than he or anyone 
else thought. Two years into the 21st century, the global water wars are 
upon us.
The very bleak details about water security may finally seep out during 
the 10-day United Nations World Summit on Sustainable Development (WSSD) 
starting Monday in Johannesburg, South Africa. While heads of state and 
corporate bigwigs converge in Sandton (rumored to be Africa's wealthiest 
suburb), thousands of anti-globalization activists and environmentalists 
will be attending shadow summits just down the street. They'll be trying 
to call attention to the dangers of privatizing the world's water 
supplies, and pointing to places like Nelspruit, 125 miles to the north, 
where residents now buy their drinking water from the Biwater 
corporation, and are all but dying of dehydration. The problem isn't 
water flow but cash flow: Poor residents can't pay privatized rates. 
It's a scenario that's beginning to play out all over South Africa. 
"That's exactly what's wrong with privatization," says Maude Barlow, 
chair of the Council of Canadians, Canada's largest public advocacy 
group. "These companies completely reject the idea that water is a 
common property belonging to all living creatures. Their only goal is to 
commodify the earth's most precious resource."

The concept of privatizing water service has been around since Napoléon 
III, but only 5 percent of the world population currently receives water 
from corporations. Activists want to stop the process before it goes any 
further; the world's water lords want rapid expansion. In 1998, when the 
private sector began angling for the water market in earnest, the World 
Bank predicted the global trade in water would soon generate revenues of 
up to $800 billion a year. Two years later, at a World Water Forum in 
the Hague, a triumvirate of multinational water companies backed by the 
World Trade Organization (WTO) successfully strong-armed the UN into 
defining water as a human need (which can be sold for profit by private 
companies) instead of a human right (which means people are ensured 
equal access on a nonprofit basis).

Faster than you can say Evian, revenue projections jacked into the 
multiple trillions. Private companies had a green light to approach 
cities and states around the globe (usually cash-strapped ones) and 
offer to lease, buy, or enter into a consortium agreement for the 
existing municipal water systems. After privatization is complete, the 
companies make a profit by charging residents every time they turn on a 
tap or flush a toilet. Some also offer wastewater services, such as 
sewage disposal, and implement water treatment plants. Many of these 
companies get profit guarantees written into their contracts. For 
example, if residents use less water than predicted, companies can raise 
rates so profits don't fall below a predetermined number. Once in 
control of a water system, they can also take any surplus and sell it 
off to the highest bidder, usually a neighboring city that's 
experiencing an unexpected shortfall. In some parts of the world, 
reports the trade journal Global Water Intelligence, water commands the 
same price as oil. No wonder Fortune magazine touted the water market as 
a "safe harbor in stocks--a place that promises steady consistent 
returns well into the next century."

The two reigning conglomerates are Vivendi Universal and Suez, both 
based in France, which have amassed 70 percent of the existing world 
water market. Together they deliver water services to more than a 
hundred million people. Suez operates in 130 countries and Vivendi in 
more than 90. Right behind them are Bouygues-SAUR (French), RWE-Thames 
(German), and Bechtel-United Utilities (American). These are the biggest 
multinationals, but there are numerous other companies doing the same 
thing on a smaller scale.

But what of the world's water crisis? Currently the UN identifies 
approximately six "hot stains," places where water is so scarce that 
human life may not be sustainable and conflict over dwindling resources 
is an ever present threat. Water giants like Vivendi insist 
privatization and conservation aren't mutually exclusive. They say it 
can actually improve water service, because for-profit companies are 
wealthy enough to invest in new technology and infrastructure 
improvements to aging systems where poor governments are not. Activists 
like Barlow say for-profit companies are not set up as sustainable 
enterprises or to conserve resources. The more water sold, the better 
their bottom line--so why should they try to halt the world's parching?

Here's the really hard news Barlow says the water lords don't want 
known: Not only is there the same amount of water on the planet as there 
was at its creation, it is almost all the same water. There is no secret 
source to replace the vast quantities that modern humankind consumes, 
and technology hasn't come up with a magic bullet either. Desalination 
of seawater has proven outrageously expensive and leaves behind brackish 
water mostly uninhabitable for marine life. According to the latest 
official calculations, there are only 8.6 million cubic miles of fresh 
water left on earth, a mere 2.6 percent of the 330 million cubic feet of 
total water. The UN predicts that two-thirds of the world's population 
will live in water-scarce regions by 2025, and many of them in regions 
previously considered water-rich, like the United States.

Environmentalists--and even some heads of state--are frantically trying 
to undo the damage. Much of the problem can be traced to river damming 
and the Green Revolution, both of which were embraced by the American 
government during the last century and exported globally. The Green 
Revolution was supposed to solve the world's hunger problem by 
introducing high-yield miracle seeds to developing nations, especially 
India and China. Instead it created an ongoing irrigation crisis by 
replacing drought-resistant indigenous crops with water-guzzling 
varieties. Farmers were forced to forgo traditional and sustainable 
irrigation methods; deep wells became the norm, pulling precious 
groundwater out of already water-scarce areas. Then developers began 
trying to solve the irrigation problem by building big dams. According 
to Sandra Postel of the Global Water Policy Project, a water 
conservation advocacy group, there were 5000 large dams (more than 15 
meters high) worldwide in 1950. There are now 45,000. On average, there 
have been two large dams constructed every day for the past 50 years. 
"They were built with the best of intentions," says Postel, "to supply 
hydroelectric power, irrigation, and public water, and to control 
floods. But we didn't understand the full range of ecological 
consequences that would unfold."

Now four of the world's greatest rivers (the Ganges, Yellow River, Nile, 
and Colorado) routinely dry up before reaching the ocean, and water that 
normally would roll through the earth and feed aquifers runs off 
pavements and rooftops into sewers, eventually ending up (usually 
carrying pesticides and toxins) in the ocean, but without moisturizing 
forests and marshlands on the way. Add relentless human consumption, 
industrial farming, and global warming and you've got the Ogallala 
Aquifer, which stretches from the Texas Panhandle to South Dakota and is 
believed to have once contained 4 trillion tons of pristine water. It's 
now mined continuously by over 200,000 groundwater wells. They pull out 
13 million gallons per minute--which is 14 times faster than nature's 
replenishing rate. Each year since 1991 the aquifer's water table has 
dropped three feet--a huge amount when multiplied by the area. By some 
estimates, more than half its water is gone. And that's not America's 
only problem area: one of the heaviest water-using places on the 
planet--California--is in serious trouble. The state's Department of 
Water Resources says that if more supplies aren't found by 2020, 
residents will face a shortfall of fresh water nearly as great as the 
amount that all of its towns and cities together are consuming today. 
And the U.S. is still considered water-rich; countries with less 
abundance are in even more danger.

That's one note activists will stress at next week's meeting: danger. 
Since they've had no luck convincing governments to stop making quick 
profits off "the commons"--essential resources that historically belong 
to one and all--they're going to invoke public security. "Water scarcity 
is now a serious source of conflict in many places," says Barlow. 
"Almost every country in the Middle East is facing a water crisis of 
historic proportions." Israel has aggressively mined water wherever 
possible throughout the region, severely taxing water systems in Syria 
and Jordan (not to mention Palestinian townships). And Turkey has caused 
serious tension with plans to dam the Euphrates River, thereby diverting 
much of its life-sustaining flow to Syria and Iraq.

Bangladesh, which depends heavily on rivers that originate in India, is 
suffering terribly now because India has diverted and dammed so many of 
its water sources. In Africa, relations between Botswana and Namibia are 
severely strained by Namibian plans to construct a pipeline to divert 
water from the shared Okavango River. Ethiopia plans to take more water 
from the Nile, although Egypt is heavily dependent on those waters for 
irrigation and power. And as water tables fall steadily in the North 
China Plain (which yields more than half of China's wheat and nearly a 
third of its corn) as well as in northwest India's Punjab region, 
experts are bracing for a highly combustible imbalance between available 
water supplies and human needs.

Officials attending the upcoming WSSD meeting are certainly aware of 
these problems. They just can't figure out which way to approach a 
solution. Most of the northern governments (essentially the U.S., 
Canada, and the European Union) want the UN to start adopting trade 
agreements similar to those put forth by the WTO. They're pressuring the 
UN to solve the world's resource crisis by implementing "voluntary 
partnerships" with private companies to take over government-run 
industries devoted to public health, clean air, and water. 
Representatives from the companies will be on hand to reassure officials 
that they can privatize and conserve at the same time.

Delegates from poorer nations, with the possible exception of South 
Africa, aren't buying that idea. They got a taste of WTO justice when 
northern trade partners wanted to export genetically modified seeds. 
Several developing countries declined to buy because they don't want 
modified food in their environments, and they landed in WTO court for 
trade violations. But under previously signed UN accords, nations do 
have the right to refuse products they feel are environmentally unsound. 
One of the questions poorer nations want answered at the WSSD is which 
entity has ultimate power when agreements conflict. They hope it's the 
UN--otherwise they can all too easily envision their natural resources 
being siphoned off to nurture the golf courses and swimming pools of the 
world's elite.

Realistically and unfortunately, says Barlow, the shadow summits planned 
for next week probably won't have much of an impact on the final WSSD 
outcome. The bigger goal, she says, is to flame public outrage and 
derail the privatization trend at the World Water Forum scheduled for 
next March in Japan.

But Barlow and crew had better hurry: The water crisis is growing so 
fast that even developed nations are swigging from each other. Canada's 
abundant fresh water supply has already whetted the appetite of George 
Bush. There's been talk from his administration about using the existing 
oil-pipeline infrastructure in the Northern Provinces to flow Canadian 
water to the American Midwest, which, under existing the North American 
Free Trade Agreement, is perfectly legitimate. And once Canada opens the 
taps, it can't turn them off again without violating NAFTA accords. 
"Isn't it great," says Barlow, "that while much of the developing world 
is grappling with extreme water deprivation, the U.S. is making 
contingency plans to keep desert mirages like Las Vegas up and running?"


Louis Proyect

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