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Water denied: A crime against humanity

In many poor countries, as well as rich ones, the distribution of water has been privatised -- sold to multinational corporations. Does this matter?

Control of water-distribution in a water-stressed country is effectively control of a populace, and denying water rights to the poor is a crime against humanity. Any child can work out that `the market' prefers the rich to the poor. If the devotees of free-trade fundamentalism cannot admit to this simple principle they should look at what is actually happening. The examples below are just a drop in the ocean.

  • The World Bank pressurised the Bolivian government to privatise water companies, and a subsidiary of the US giant Bechtel gained a 40-year concession. The poor faced water-rate increases of $20 a month (the minimum wage is $100 a month). Even collecting rainwater in rooftop tanks became illegal without a permit. In la Cochabamba, streets were barricaded, 30,000 protestors seized the central square, police fired on the crowd, the crowds swelled to 80,000, and Bechtel left the country. A coalition of people's activists has taken over the water company (this would not have been possible if the GATS rules had already been in force). A few days later, Wolfensohn, director of the World Bank, had learnt nothing from the experience, claiming that Bolivia still needed "a proper system of charging", and that there was no option but to pay international prices for a valuable resource. But the fight is not over. Bechtel is suing the Bolivian government and the government is harassing the coalition of activists.

  • In India, a local tribe had always used water from an artificial `tank' in the forest but they could not prove ownership. The government sold the tank to Pepsi who fenced it and kept the tribe out. Pepsi even tried to prevent the tribe storing rainwater from their roofs.

  • The World Bank withheld debt relief and funds from Ghana until water services were privatised. The Ghana National Coalition Against the Privatisation of Water was formed. Britain's Department for International Development (DfID) withheld aid for water supplies until bids for the leases of Ghana's urban distribution had been received. Aid was thus a lever to open up Ghana's water sector to multinational companies -- and Britain's ethical foreign policy lay in tatters.

  • The British taxpayer (through DfID) is helping the state of Orissa in India to privatise water distribution. Already water rates have increased tenfold. Millions will be forced to migrate into city slums. But thousands of small farmers are taking direct action to control the water services themselves.

  • A subsidiary of the French company Generale des Eaux was granted a 30-year contract to deliver water in a rural province of Argentina. Water rates doubled and the water turned brown. Customers forced the company out of the province by refusing to pay their bills.

  • In another incident, a water company behaved properly. It subsidised poor areas by charging wealthier customers a `solidarity tax'. The wealthier customers used the courts to get the surcharge ruled illegal. Under the GATS, it is impossible for a company to pursue socially desirable policies.

  • In 1995, water privatisation in Puerto Rico left poor people without water while US military bases and tourist resorts remained well supplied.

  • In 2001, the World Bank put pressure on India to initiate "bold action on user charges" to recover the cost of irrigation projects. India is facing increasingly acute water stress and this policy will destroy many small farmers.

  • South Korea is using virtually all its available water. A detailed World Bank study predicted that withdrawals for industry and housing will increase and water for agriculture will decline from 13 to 7 billion tonnes by 2025.

Other essential services fare as badly:

  • After privatisation of the railway between Cote d'Ivoire and Burkina Faso the new company closed all the small town stations, keeping only the city express and freight lines running. The villages and towns along the line needed the service to get to work and to get produce to market, but they are not sufficiently lucrative customers for the company. It is the same story in many Latin American countries.

  • In Chile, privatisation of power services has resulted in power cuts, rationing and price hikes.

  • The privatisation of energy in the Indian state of Maharahstra, a deal perpetrated by the US company Enron, has been an unmitigated disaster for the state. It has provoked violent anger throughout the country and seriously harmed the nation's economy. After the demise of Enron the US government is trying to uphold the iniquitous deal.

  • In 1996, Massachusetts passed a law prohibiting the state government doing business with Myanmar because of its abuse of human rights. Their freedom to do this will be removed under the GATS.

When money takes precedence over civilised values, abhorrent policies result. Lawrence Summers, when chief economist to the World Bank, noted that health-impairing and death-inducing pollution costs are lower in developing countries. "I think," he wrote "the economic logic behind dumping a load of toxic waste in the lowest-wage country is impeccable and we should face up to that."

  • 80% of US electronic waste is currently sent to Asia. 100,000 Chinese villagers are paid $1.50 a day to salvage valuable parts and dump the rest, unaware of the chemical hazards, much of it into irrigation canals.

Excerpted from The Little Earth Book by James Bruges, published by Alastair Sawday. To order a copy or for further details visit www.littleearth.co.uk

  Free trade: Comparative advantage for the corporations
  Intuition: Common sense, imagination and morality
  Patenting life: Wait a minute! Who made it?
  The Terminator: Corporate control of food for profit
  Population: More or less
  Pests and weeds: Biotechnology for profit, a nightmare
  A citizens' jury: The locals know what aid they need
  Imperial tribute: Why the rich are rich and the majority poor
  The WTO: Power in a moral vacuum
  Biomimicry: Science's exciting new frontier
  Water denied: A crime against humanity
  The first MNC: Little has changed
  Feeding the world: There is no shortage of money or food
  Ecological footprints: The rich wear big boots