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Blue Gold : The Global Water
Crisis and the Commodification
of the Worlds Water Supply

World Bank and Multinational
Corporations Seek to Privatize Water

by Maude Barlow

© Karin Bauer

Maude Barlow is the National

Chairperson, Council of Canadians

Chair, IFG Committee on the

Globalization of Water


This is an excerpt of the revised edition

of this article published Spring, 2001


"The wars of the next century will

be about water."


Ismail Serageldin, Vice-President of the World Bank




We'd like to believe there's an infinite supply of water on the planet. But the assumption is tragically false. Available fresh water amounts to less than one-half of one percent of all the water on earth. The rest is sea water, or is frozen in the polar ice. Fresh water is renewable only by rainfall, at the rate of 40,000 to 50,000 cubic kilometres per year. Due to intensive urbanization, deforestation, water diversion and industrial farming, however, even this small finite source of fresh water is disappearing with the drying of the earth's surface; if present trends persist, the water in all river basins on every continent could steadily be depleted. 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 is expected to rise to 56 percent more than the amount that is currently available. As the water crisis intensifies, governments around the world - under pressure from transnational corporations - are advocating a radical solution: the privatization, commodification and mass diversion of water.

Proponents say that such a system is the only way to distribute water to the world's thirsty. But, in fact, experience shows that selling water on the open market does not address the needs of poor, thirsty people. On the contrary, privatized water is delivered to those who can pay for it, such as wealthy cities and individuals and water-intensive industries, like agriculture and high-tech. As one resident of the high desert in New Mexico observed after his community's water had been diverted for use by the high-tech industry: "Water flows uphill to money." 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, with water-related conflicts springing up around the globe. For example, Malaysia, which supplies about half of Singapore's water, threatened to cut off that supply in 1997 after Singapore criticized its government 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 to eastern Namibia.

The Mayor of Mexico city has predicted a war in the Mexican Valley in the foreseeable future if a solution to his city's water crisis is not found soon. Much has been written about the potential for water wars in the Middle East, where water resources are severely limited. The late King Hussein of Jordan once said the only thing he would go to war with Israel over was water because Israel controls Jordan's water supply. Meanwhile, the future of one of the earth's most vital resources is being determined by those who profit from its overuse and abuse. A handful of transnational corporations, backed by the World Bank, are aggressively taking over the management of public water services in developing countries, dramatically raising the price of water to the local residents and profiting from the Third World's desperate search for solutions to the water crisis. The agenda is clear: water should be treated like any other tradable good, with its use determined by market principles. At the same time, governments are signing away their control over domestic water supplies by participating in trade agreements such as the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA); its successor, the Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA); and the World Trade Organization (WTO). These global trade institutions effectively give transnational corporations unprecedented access to the water of signatory countries.

Already, corporations have started to sue governments in order to gain access to domestic water sources. For example, Sun Belt, a California company, is suing the government of Canada under NAFTA because British Columbia (B.C.) banned water exports several years ago. The company claims that B.C.'s law violates several NAFTA-based investor rights and therefore is claiming US$10 billion in compensation for lost profits.

With the protection of these international trade agreements, companies are setting their sights on the mass transport of bulk water by diversion and by supertanker. Several companies are developing technology whereby large quantities of fresh water would be loaded into huge sealed bags and towed across the ocean for sale. Selling water to the highest bidder will only exacerbate the worst impacts of the world water crisis.

A number of key research and environmental organizations such as Worldwatch Institute, World Resources Institute and the United Nations Environment Program have been sounding the alarm for well over a decade: If water usage continues to increase at current rates, the results will be devastating for the earth and its inhabitants. Groups such as the International Rivers Network, Greenpeace, Clean Waters Network, Sierra Club and Friends of the Earth International, along with thousands of community groups around the world, are fighting the construction of new dams, reclaiming damaged rivers and wetlands, confronting industry over contamination of water systems, and protecting whales and other aquatic species from hunting and over fishing. In a number of countries, experts have come up with some exciting and creative solutions to these problems.

This work is crucial, yet such efforts need to be coordinated and understood in the broader context of economic globalization and its role in promoting privatization and commodification. Who owns water? Should anyone? Should it be privatized? What rights do transnational corporations have to buy water systems? Should it be traded as a commodity in the open market? What laws do we need to protect water? What is the role of government? How do those in water-rich countries share with those in water-poor countries? Who is the custodian for nature's lifeblood? How do ordinary citizens become involved in this process?

The analysis and the recommendations in this report are based on the principle that water is part of the earth's heritage and must be preserved in the public domain for all time and protected by strong local, national and international law. At stake is the whole notion of "the commons," the idea that through our public institutions we recognize a shared human and natural heritage to be preserved for future generations. Local communities must be the watchdogs of our waterways and must establish principles that oversee the use of this precious resource. Instead of allowing this vital resource to become a commodity sold to the highest bidder, we believe that access to clean water for basic needs is a fundamental human right. Each generation must ensure that the abundance and quality of water is not diminished as a result of its activities. Great efforts must be made to restore the health of aquatic ecosystems that have already been degraded as well as to protect others from harm.

Above all, we need to radically restructure our societies and lifestyles in order to reverse the drying of the earth's surface and learn to live within the watershed ecosystems that were created to sustain life. And we must abandon the specious notion that we can carelessly abuse the world's precious water sources because, somehow, technology will come to the rescue. There is no technological "fix" for a planet depleted of water.

This is an excerpt of the entire version of Blue Gold which is available in its entirety in three languages ( English, French, and Spanish ) from the publisher: (under the Publications section of the Water Campaign.)  

Reprinted by permission



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© - 2001 Maude Barlow. All World Wide Rights Reserved


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