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

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.’

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