Who Owns Your Drinking Water?
"The Struggle for Latin America's Water"
Should your supply of drinking water be controlled locally, or by absentee landlords? Water is a precious natural resource, part of the common heritage of all humanity. But artificial situations can endanger the rights of individuals.
Here are some excerpts from a long article that appeared at nacla.org
by Maude Barlow and Tony Clarke
Latin Americans take the global lead in demanding water democracyLatin America is blessed with an abundance of fresh water. The region contains four of the world’s 25 largest rivers -- the Amazon, Paraná, Orinoco and Magdalena -- and their combined run-off of 5,470 cubic miles almost equals the combined run-off of the other 21. Some of the world’s large lakes are also located in Latin America, including Maracaibo in Venezuela, Titicaca in Peru and Bolivia, Poopo in Bolivia, and Buenos Aires, shared by Chile and Argentina. Twenty percent of global runoff -- the renewable water source that constitutes our fresh water supply -- comes from the Amazon Basin alone. The region as a whole has one of the highest per capita potential supplies of fresh water in the world -- a little less than 110,500 cubic feet per person per year. Geography, pollution and social inequality, however, badly skew Latin Americans’ access to water.
As a relatively parched country, Mexico has a miniscule potential supply of approximately 13,000 cubic feet per person/year. Natural desert is merging with a spreading human-induced desert over much of the Valley of Mexico, the country’s cradle of pre-conquest civilization and present-day home of the nation’s capital. Once called the “Venice of the New World” due to its being built atop a lake and intersected with canals, Mexico City is now sinking in on itself as it drains the last of its accessible aquifers from the lakebed below.
In South America, human-induced salination is causing desertification in significant parts of Peru, Bolivia and northwestern Argentina. In total -- factoring in the large natural deserts of Patagonia in southern Argentina and the Atacama in northern Chile -- about 25% of Latin America is now arid or semi-arid. Most of the Caribbean is also fresh water deprived, since the islands are too small to have substantial rivers.
Poor farming practices, unregulated industrialization and urban poverty have massively and negatively affected Latin America’s water resources. In most large cities, over 50% of the water supply is lost through infrastructure leakage. Some cities lose almost 90% through leaky pipes. Mexico City now depends on aquifers for 70% of its water and is mining these underground sources up to 80 times faster than they are naturally replenished. Meanwhile, São Paulo is threatening residents with water rationing. The city is relying on sources farther and farther away, hiking the cost of delivery beyond many peoples’ ability to pay for it.
Throughout the region, water basins and aquatic habitats are routine dumpsites for garbage, mining effluent, and industrial and agricultural waste. Pollution in the waterways along the U.S.-Mexico border is so bad that some refer to it as a “2,000-mile Love Canal,” in reference to an upstate New York neighborhood that was declared a federal emergency in 1978 because of chemical contamination. And only parts of Eastern Europe and China exceed Brazil’s levels of waterway contamination. Most of Latin America’s wastewater still flows untreated back into its rivers, lakes and canals.
Rampant poverty is another factor. After years of 'structural adjustment' imposed by the World Bank and International Monetary Fund, as a region, Latin America has the most inequitable income distribution in the world. Mirroring this is a pattern of tremendously unequal access to water. More than 130 million people have no safe drinking water in their homes, and only an estimated one out of every six persons enjoys adequate sanitation service. The situation worsens as policies favoring industrial agriculture drive millions of subsistence farmers into the cities’ overpopulated slums every year.
The destruction of water sources, combined with inequitable access, has left most Latin Americans “water poor.” And millions live without access to clean water at all. While the region’s available resources could provide each person with close to 110,500 cubic feet of water every year, the average resident has access to only 1,010 cubic feet per year. This compares to North America’s annual average of 4,160 cubic feet and Europe’s 2,255.6
An influx of private, for-profit corporations into the region over the last decade has exacerbated the problems of scarcity, urbanization, pollution and inequitable access. Private water companies, determined to take advantage of Latin America’s water crisis, are operating or planning to operate in most countries of the region, including Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Dominican Republic, Ecuador, El Salvador, Honduras, Mexico, Nicaragua, Panama, Peru and Uruguay.
Most of these companies are local subsidiaries of the three largest multinational water service companies—Suez and Vivendi of France, and RWE-Thames Water of Germany (the “Big-3”). A decade ago, the Big-3 serviced only 51 million people in just 12 countries. Together, the three now deliver water and wastewater services to almost 300 million customers in over 130 countries. Suez and Vivendi control over 70% of the existing water service market worldwide. All three are ranked among the wealthiest 100 corporations in the world with combined annual revenues in 2002 of almost $160 billion and an annual growth rate of 10%, outpacing many of the national economies in which they operate.
Often, the World Bank and the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB) facilitate the aggressive entry of these companies into Latin American markets. Both Suez and Vivendi use their considerable clout among multilateral lenders to make private water delivery a “condition” for debt relief or new loans. In fact, some of the largest IDB loans of the last decade went directly to transnational water companies for the operation of private water concessions in countries like Argentina, Bolivia and Honduras.
Meanwhile, the World Bank has decided to triple its annual financing commitments to global private sector water projects. After a decade of lucrative assistance from the World Bank, the Big-3 are now demanding guaranteed financing to insulate themselves from foreign currency fluctuations before making any new investments in developing countries. At the same time, the major water privateers are facing mounting and fierce public opposition to their operations in many parts of Latin America. As in the rest of the world, the damaging effects of water privatization are well-documented: rate hikes, cut-offs, reduced water quality, secret contracts, bribery and corruption.
Arguably, the best-known reaction to water privatization occurred in Cochabamba, Bolivia when the engineering giant Bechtel set up its subsidiary, Aguas del Tunari, in early 2000 and immediately raised the price of water beyond the reach of the vast majority of the population. Its contract even gave the company the right to charge people for the water they took from their own wells and to send collection agents to homes to charge for rainwater collected in cisterns on roofs.
Consumers were hit with up to 200% rate increases as the company planned for annual profits of $58 million.8 Public protests forced the government to reverse this privatization effort, but Bechtel is now suing Bolivia for $25 million in "lost profits." Despite the fiasco in Cochabamba, the Bolivian government is still pursuing several other privatization schemes, including plans to export and sell bulk water to neighboring Chile for use in its mining industry.
In 1992, the Salinas administration in Mexico modified the Constitution to allow foreign-based corporations to obtain water contracts and concessions and introduced a new national water law permitting global corporations to invest in Mexico’s water utilities. Later, as part of its national development agenda, the Zedillo government handed over responsibility for water and sewage services to municipal governments.
Former Coca-Cola executive Vicente Fox, the current Mexican president, has been even more aggressive in pursuing privatization. In the wake of September 11, his administration declared water a matter of national security. That actually meant allowing military operations and anti-terrorism measures to be applied against anyone seen as opposing the government’s plans for restructuring and privatizing the water sector.
Also in 2001, the Mexican government created a special program to advance privatization, and received hundreds of millions of dollars from the World Bank for it.
All across Latin America, citizens are taking to the streets, organizing referenda and petitions, and fighting for access to water. Latin American activists and academics are on the front line of the global "water justice" movement, speaking at international conferences, protesting World Bank policies and organizing for a binding UN Convention on the right to water.
On August 22, 2003, 47 grassroots organizations from 16 countries in the Americas met in San Salvador where they launched a new movement called RED VIDA. This Inter-American network of water activists issued the San Salvador Statement for the Defense of and the Right to Water. Many of the member groups of this new network played pivotal roles at the World Water Forum in Kyoto, Japan in March 2003, where the World Bank and the big water companies tried unsuccessfully to sell their privatization “consensus” to the world.
When the Big-3, the World Bank and their allies tried to convince the Forum participants in Kyoto to adopt “public-private partnerships” as the best model for the delivery of water services, civil society organizations and water activists from around the world formed an alliance to obstruct this agenda. Calling themselves “water warriors,” alliance members went on to effectively challenge the predetermined “consensus” as it applied to nine other theme topics of the Forum. RED VIDA also played a prominent role in launching the Peoples’ World Water Movement, which took place at a summit in New Delhi on the eve of the 2004 World Social Forum in Mumbai, India. RED VIDA members forged strong alliances with Indian groups that are also battling the invasion of private water companies.
For almost 20 years, the people of Latin America have been combating neoliberalism, with varying degrees of success. But the move to commodify their water for the benefit of faraway investors has injected new life into this effort. It is as if a line in the sand has been drawn. Because people cannot live without water, there is a distinctive urgency and tenacity to this struggle. Their demand for water democracy will not be silenced.
Maude Barlow is Chairperson of the Council of Canadians and Tony Clarke is the Director of the Polaris Institute. Their book, Blue Gold: The Fight to Stop Corporate Theft of the World's Water (New Press, 2003) is now available in Spanish.
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