Big water is starting to look like big oil

| November / December 2005

To privatize or not to privatize? When it comes to water, that is the question. And for many people -- especially those in developing countries -- the answer is a resounding no. As the world's supply of fresh water shrinks, a new class of water barons -- including French-owned Suez and Vivendi and Germany's RWE-AG -- want to treat it as a commodity. Currently a $500 billion industry, the water-for-profit business is projected to increase to $3 trillion in the next few years.

Supporters argue that public utilities in developing countries can't always provide access to clean water. After all, they point out correctly, diarrhea is the most common cause of death among children in the developing world. But opponents of water privatization say that clean water is a basic human right and should not be commodified by money-hungry multinationals. (Canadian water rights activist Maude Barlow crashed a Coca-Cola-sponsored United Nations conference on water a few years ago and recalls seeing DeBeers billboards emblazoned with the words 'Water is forever.')

Privatization, Stephanie Pool observes in the environmental magazine Terrain (Winter 2005), has already gotten off to a rocky start in many countries. Bolivians, she reports, spent a third of their average annual income of about $800 on privatized water. Ten million South Africans had their water turned off because they couldn't afford privately supplied water. Many turned to untreated sources, spawning the country's worst-ever cholera outbreak.

Earlier this year, Pool adds, hundreds of thousands of Bolivians rose up in protest and forced the government to cancel its contract with Bechtel subsidiary Aguas del Tunari. People also have demonstrated in Argentina, Ecuador, Panama, South Africa, and other countries. That's encouraging, but it also lends credence to former World Bank vice president Ismail Serageldin's ominous forecast a decade ago that 'the wars of the 21st century will be fought over water, not oil.'