Last week, the Fourth World Water Forum concluded in Mexico City, where over the centuries the older buildings on the central plaza have acquired an alarming tilt.
Architects agree that this has occurred because the city is subsiding as it pumps the underlying aquifer dry. Given this setting, you might think that the Water Forum would assume a certain urgency in addressing problems of water scarcity and contamination, but you would be wrong.
The business-dominated Forum, ostensibly convened to resolve these issues, is a gathering of government reps, private corporations, certain non-governmental organizations, and UN water “experts.” It was cosponsored by the World Bank and Coca-Cola, among others; René Coulomb, President of Suez, one of the world’s major water companies, chaired the World Water Council. One of the other cosponsors was CONAGUA, the water ministry of Mexico, which has been widely criticized for corruption and misuse of funds.
The UN hacks are regularly included in this triennial meeting because they provide cover and camouflage for the real dealings here: to lay the PR groundwork for extending the General Agreement on Trade in Services (GATS) to the water sector, which, fortunately for us, is taking quite a long time.
According to the social movements fighting this, the water companies may well be losing the battle of the GATS. Nonetheless, they are working hard—on both the GATS and the PR. If they’re successful, then water will become just another product to be bought and sold on a global market, kind of like Hondas or Little Debbie Snack Cakes®. If you can’t pay for it, you can’t have it. Trade unions and NGOs, such as Food and Water Watch in the United States and Red VIDA in the Americas, object to treating water this way because people die when deprived of it, whereas they can live long and healthy lives without access to a single snack cake. Or a Honda.
At the Forum, the hacks had done their PR best, though: They released the UN World Water Development Report (WWDR), entitled Water, A Shared Responsibility. Somewhat optimistically, the authors of the WWDR stated in their preface, “We trust you will find this and future Reports informative and stimulating.”
Zzzzzzzzzzzz. At the outset, the Report demonstrates its irrelevance by informing us that problems of access to clean water and sanitation are the result of changing demographics, shifts in geopolitics (new boundaries), new technology, climate change, extreme weather conditions, poverty, warfare and crowded urban conditions. Notice the lack of human engagement here. If we follow this logic, then somehow a billion poor people simply popped up without clean water because the climate changed and the borders moved. And another billion or so people materialized without sanitation because of bad storms, war, and generalized misery that involved no one in particular.
No one is implicated, no one is to blame and, therefore, we shall all work together to clear this up. The Report tells us what we need to do. Ready? First, we need better governance. This means better equipped and more efficient water companies, better planning, better training, an end to corruption and blah, blah, blah.
Second, says the Report, we need to set some targets and develop better indicators. “We need robust and reliable indicators,” the authors declare, taking a brave and principled stand. And better indicators and targets are necessary because, “Water is difficult to measure in time and space.”
Is that right? Well, guess what? We can measure people both ways quite readily. According to the World Health Organization, 1.1 billion people around the world currently lack access to clean water and 2.6 billion, nearly half the world’s population, lack sanitation. The public health implications of this deficit are inestimable, but the most immediate and obvious consequence is the deaths of hundreds of thousands of babies annually from gastrointestinal disease. To complicate matters, it appears that neither the babies nor their mothers can pay the going rate for Evian.
This is a big problem, which successive World Water Forums and 24 UN agencies have been working on for some years. During the last few decades, we have already enjoyed the UN Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED), Agenda 21, the Millennium Declaration—which articulated the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs)—the World Summit on Sustainable Development (WSSD), the Johannesburg Plan of Implementation (JPOI) and national Integrated Water Resource Management (IWRM) plans. Presently, we are one year down the road into the International Decade for Action: Water for Life 2005–2015. I’ll bet you didn’t know that, did you?
Me either. Despite the kickoff of the Action Decade, the scribes behind the Report and the Forum have noticed—with dismay—that many countries “did not meet the goals of the 2002 WSSD and develop plans for IWRM.” And although some countries did do their IWRM homework, they did not Devote Any Money To Implementing Their Integrated Water Resource Management Plan (DAMTITIWRMP). While the UN successfully collected a number of signatures on its various declarations, it did not, unfortunately, collect any cash. In clever, “liquid-y” language, observers of this process report that commitments are “diluted” and funding has “stagnated.”
So who is responsible for the funds we’ll have to spend to get water to people who need it? Well, if we are going to have an Integrated Water Resource Management plan, then everyone must cooperate, right? The government, NGOs, private companies such as Suez, the EDF Group, and others. Get it? The World Water Forum said that water is a shared responsibility, and everyone must help. So if the UN is boldly stepping up to supply the targets and the measures, then the people with the capital—for example the World Bank, multinational corporations, and governments—should cough up the funds. (Let’s ignore for the moment the uncomfortable fact that these institutions have money because they collected it from us.)
Despite our shared responsibility, it seems that the World Bank and the water multinationals have cut back their investments in water infrastructure and services, while waiting for their preferred international trade rules to, shall we say, fall into place at the World Trade Organization. Private companies, in particular, are not investing until they can be sure that their investments can be recovered, no matter what. In other words, until they can get the GATS to privilege them appropriately, they are not sharing. Suez, Bechtel, the EDF Group, and the like want taxpayers around the world to guarantee that they can make money on water concessions, contracts, and leases before they’ll invest. If they have their way, public water services will become private water markets where, for example, water quality may vary according to ability to pay, just like gasoline. I’m not kidding. We could get, for example, different concentrations of fecal matter in our water, according to whether we can afford regular, plus, or premium. And if the companies don’t get the returns they expect, they can sue the government for the difference.
While these companies tolerate the blah, blah, transparency, blah, governance, blah, targets of the UN, they are actually working hard as hell over at the Word Trade Organization, where the real game is played. And once you get behind the closed doors at the World Water Forum and into the hospitality suites, you find the Action Decade in full swing on this front here too. Countries around the world (including our own) are altering their judicial systems to resolve claims involving international investors more quickly and guarantee investor profits more securely. Governments are changing their laws to ensure that national legal systems conform to the terms of the developing trade agreements that cover public/private services, including water.
The multinationals point to the hardship suffered by Suez in Argentina as an illustration of what can happen when the rules aren’t right for them. In 2002, after the Argentine economy collapsed, pitching half the population into poverty, Aguas Argentinas, a consortium of private water companies led by Suez, wanted to dramatically raise rates in the province of Buenos Aires. Under tremendous political pressure, the government held the line on water rates, and the consortium is now suing the government of Argentina for money it could have made, if it had raised the rates.
In Bolivia, Bechtel ran aground in a similar dispute and virtually lost its suit against the government when its concession was yanked for exorbitant rate increases in Cochabamba.
It seems, then, that despite the UN Report, water is not really a shared responsibility. It is a costly responsibility that water corporations want the public to assume in order to allow them to suck up profits.
Fortunately for us, there is another side to this debate. Parallel to the World Water Forum last week, the social movements of Mexico hosted the International Forum in Defense of Water. The alternative Forum was kept far away from the official Forum, which was heavily guarded by hundreds of police in riot gear. According to Sara Grusky of the Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit Food and Water Watch, who attended both the official and parallel Forums, the police seemed to expect the Defenders of Water to attack at any moment and maintained a tight perimeter with shields and weapons.
The alternative Forum, meanwhile, drew over one thousand participants who used it to promote democratic, community-controlled water access and to demand that the World Trade Organization stay out of the water sector. The meeting drew up its own “Joint Declaration,” emphasizing that water is not merchandise.
Explicitly, the alternative Forum declared “Water is a Human Right,” and pressured the UN to draw up an international convention reflecting this. Speakers pointed out that, without water, people die speedily, and governments therefore have a responsibility to provide water. This responsibility is not to be “shared” with private interests.
The point is hard to contest. Few politicians want to go on record in favor of letting people die of thirst and disease for lack of water and sanitation. The visuals alone can be very bad. So the suits and hacks at the official Forum came up with compromise language. Take note: “Water is a guarantee of life for all of the world’s people.”
Personally, I don’t know what this means, but I suspect it means nothing. The World Water Forum has proven adept at mealymouthing publicly while privately pursuing a corporate-friendly agenda that you wouldn’t like much if you knew about it. While shoving new trade rules into place over at the WTO to favor the few large corporations that wish to monopolize an element of the Earth humans cannot live without, the World Water Forum produces World Water Day and the International Decade for Action: Water for Life 2005–2015, as political cover.
When asked why the official Forum could not declare water a human right, Diego Cevallos, the Mexico City correspondent for the Inter Press Service (IPS) news agency, reported that delegates said they favored the principle but “argued that it was not feasible to include it in the final declaration, because it could generate legal problems at the national and international level.”
Funny. The delegates and the suits work tirelessly to amend the national and international legal systems, such as the GATS, to protect Suez and EDF and make sure they get a steady flow of funds, but changing the rules to ensure that everyone gets a steady flow of water is too long a legal stretch.
The eagle-eyed Gabriela Bocagrande has been watching and writing about water privatization schemes for many years. Her article about Bolivia, “The Difference Between God and Bechtel,” was published in the June 23, 2000 issue of the Observer.