The Water Wars

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We were often told that ‘water’ is a human right. But, in these modern times of corporate hegemony, it is stated that water is not a ‘right’; it’s only a human need. And, when you hear World Bank or other major globalization players use the word ‘need’, you can be certain that they are going to abstract every dollar from that need.

In 1997, in Bolivia, the government privatized its water system in Cochabamba (Bolivia’s third largest city). The decision was taken under the pressure given by World Bank, which announced that it would not renew the country’s annual $25 million economic assistance, unless the government makes some infrastructural adjustments to the water systems. The authorities conceded and gave the water to a multinational syndicate named ‘Aguas del Tunari.’ Within few months, the residents of the city saw the water prices increasing as high as 100 percent. The citizens took to the streets and demanded that their water system be returned to public hands. The city was shut down. Military was called upon and martial law was implemented. However, the intervention of military couldn’t restore any order. Few days later, the president of Bolivia issued a decree, cancelling the private contract.

Protests in Cochabamba

Protests in Cochabamba

In Africa, the water situation looks ominous. In 1955, African National Congress’ manifesto is said to have cited that “the national wealth and heritage of South Africa will be restored back to the people.” The South Africans not only fought for freedom against apartheid, but also yearned for socio-economic freedom and for the re-distribution of national wealth. But, later, when ANC basked in its political victory (during the 90’s), only the opposite happened. It abandoned its mandate and unilaterally decided to pursue a malefic water policy. Taking World Bank’s advice, the city council across the country started cutting off water services to people who could not afford the increased prices. When multinationals started taking over Johannesburg’s water supply, an outbreak of cholera occurred affecting thousands of families, killing more than 300 people. The multinationals put up a method called ‘prepaid water meter.’ When people can’t afford the meter fees they seek and draw waters from polluted rivers and canals, which resulted in these abominable diseases outbreaks.

A prepaid water meter in johannesburg

A prepaid water meter in Johannesburg

The conditions are worse in other African countries like Nigeria, Somalia, Sudan and Ethipoia. In Nigeria, the 2010 drought has wreaked havoc on the country’s people. Water privatization would only lead to more disastrous consequences. But, many African countries collect their debts from World Bank on a condition that their basic utilities, including water are privatized.  The G8 leaders seeking debt relief are mainly proposing water privatization in these countries. The privatization is not the sole evil thing, the multinationals try to do. In most of the improving countries, they commercialize natural spring water by selling it to people in bottles. Nestle (which attractively advertises itself in the TV) is the best example of this kind of exploitation. The company’s chairman, last year suggested an idea, which indirectly said that water is being taken for granted, since it is seen as a basic human right.

Nestle sells bottled water in more than 130 countries (has nearly 67 bottling factories). It has also invented a ‘blue-print factory’ that serves as a portable industry. It was first introduced in Pakistan – one of the countries with an unregulated groundwater sector. It means that these ‘blue-print’ factories can dig a hole in any place and extract water without paying a dollar.

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On March 2013, Justice Rajinder Sachar in New Delhi criticized the Delhi government’s movie to privatization projects. He said that, “A social republic like India cannot have water in private ownership and deny the citizens their right to quality water.” But, giant multinationals like Suez and Veolia are trying to paint a blissful picture to sign contract with various states in India. But, there has been strong resistance to water privatization both from civil society and within the bureaucracy.

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The officials of World Bank claim good intentions behind the privatization, arguing that the corrupt governments in some of the Third World countries are too ill equipped to run public water systems efficiently. So, opening doors to skilled foreign corporations might provide a relief. However, in reality, this excellent plan by World Bank only works in paper (as seen in Bolivia), because the Multinationals are equally sinister like the corrupt government. The result is sudden price hikes, needed in part to finance the percent annual profit demanded by the companies. If the privatization of water is carried out with transparency, the water service access might actually improve, especially in rural areas. But, as of now, from what we have seen, water privatizations only seem like a synonym for ‘survival of the richest.’ In the future, after many global water wars, ‘water’ will surely become a costly commodity, and at that time, we might worry over Multinational Corporations’ new idea of privatizing ‘air.’

“Water must be free for sustenance needs. Since nature gives water to us free of cost, buying and selling it for profit violates our inherent right to nature’s gift and denies the poor of their human rights.”
                                                                                                                                     — Vandana Shiva, Indian environmental scientist