The World Bank must realize water is a basic human right


 Tuesday, May 9, 2000

Several years ago, Ismail Serageldin, vice-president of the World
Bank, said that the wars of the 21st century will be about water. He
was referring to the fact that the world is running out of fresh
water sources at an alarming rate and that conflict over what remains
will be invevitable.

To respond to the crisis, the World Bank has recently adopted a
policy of water privatization and full-cost water pricing. This policy
is causing great distress in many Third World countries, which fear
that their citizens will not be able to afford for-profit water.
Ironically, this policy has also created the first of the "water
wars" Mr. Serageldin predicted, the bloody civil unrest that plagued
Bolivia in recent weeks.

Two years ago, the World Bank (whose official attends Bolivian
government cabinet meetings as a full participant) refused to
guarantee a $25-million (U.S.) loan to refinance water services in
Cochabamba, Bolivia's third-largest city, unless the government sold
the public water system to the private sector and passed the costs on
to consumers. Only one bid was considered, and the utility was turned
over to a subsidiary of a conglomerate led by Bechtel, the giant
engineering company implicated in the infamous Three Gorges Dam in
China, which has caused the forced relocation of 1.3 million people.

In January, 1999, before the company had even hung up its shingle, it
announced the doubling of water prices. For most Bolivians, this meant
that water would now cost more than food; for those on minimum wage
or unemployed, water bills suddenly accounted for close to half their
monthly budgets. To add insult, the World Bank granted absolute
monopolies to private water concessionaires, announced its support
for full-cost water pricing, pegged the cost of water to the American
dollar and declared that none of its loan could be used to subsidize
the poor for water services. All water, even from community wells,
required permits to access, and peasants and small farmers even had
to buy permits to gather rainwater on their property.

The selling off of public enterprises such as transportation,
electrical utilities and education to foreign corporations has caused
a heated economic debate in Bolivia. But suddenly, debate turned to
protest, and thousands took to the streets. A general strike and
transportation stoppage brought the city to a standstill. Polls
showed that 90 per cent of the public wanted Bechtel turfed out.
Police reacted to peaceful demonstrations with violence and arrests.

In early April, President Hugo Banzer, a Pinochet-type dictator
during much of the 1970s, declared martial law. Activists were
arrested in the night; radio and television programs were shut down
in mid-program. A 17-year-old-boy was killed by police with a gunshot
to the face during a demonstration.

This is a story unfolding in many parts of the world. Just as the
human race is beginning to come to terms with the awesome dimensions
of the looming freshwater crisis, a handful of transnational
corporations, backed by the World Bank, are moving in on Third World
countries and, in the name of human charity, commodifying their water
for profit.

The partnership between the World Bank and transnational corporations
is not at all subtle. In March, almost 5,000 people gathered in The
Hague for the second World Water Forum. Officially sponsored by the
United Nations and the World Bank, the forum was openly dominated by a
handful of huge water and food corporations.

The Forum was dedicated from the beginning to using the growing world
water crisis to promote acceptance of the corporate control of water.
A key dispute was whether water should be considered a "human right"
or a "human need." This was not a semantic exercise. If water is a
human need, it can be supplied by corporations. It is hard to make a
profit on a human right. Distressingly, the governments attending,
including Canada, sided with the World Bank and declared water a human
need. Distressingly as well, the Canadian International Development
Agency (CIDA) gave close to $600,000 and full support.

The privatization of municipal water services has a terrible record
that is well documented. Customer rates are doubled or tripled;
corporate profits rise as much as 700 per cent; corruption and
bribery are rampant; water quality standards drop, sometimes
dramatically; overuse is promoted to make money; customers who can't
pay are cut off. In France, both water giants Vivendi and
Suez-Lyonnaise des Eaux have been repeatedly cited for corruption.
When water was privatized in Great Britain, water meters were
installed in homes and company employees shut off service to many
thousands of customers who could not pay their full water bills. When
privatization hits the Third World, those who can't pay will die.

The Bolivia story has a happy ending (for now). By the hundreds of
thousands, Bolivians marched to Cochabamba in a showdown with the
government. On April 10, they won. The Bolivian government kicked
Bechtel out of the country and revoked its water-privatization

Oscar Olivera, the humble Bolivian shoe maker who led the fight,
brought his message to a Washington rally during the recent IMF/World
Bank meetings. He said that if water is privatized and commodified
for profit, it will never reach the people who need it but serve only
to make a handful of water corporations very rich.

There is no way to overstate the crisis of fresh water facing the
world today. No piecemeal solution will prevent the collapse of whole
societies and ecosystems. A radical rethinking of our values,
priorities and political systems is urgent and still possible. Water
belongs to the Earth and all species; no one must be allowed to
expropriate it for profit. Where will Canada stand?


Maude Barlow is the national chairwoman of The Council of Canadians
and the author of Blue Gold, The Global Water Crisis and the
Commodification of the World's Water Supply.

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