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Global Water

 Global Water Issues
The Globalization of Water
New Partnership to Ward Off Potential Water Wars
Drugs, Chemicals Pollute U.S. Waterways


of Water

Maude Barlow



Entering the new Millennium, the world is poised to make crucial, even irrevocable, decisions about water. There is little disagreement about the urgent nature of the water crisis facing the world. 

We all agree that the human race has taken water for granted and massively misjudged the capacity of the earth’s water systems to sustain our demands upon it. We all know that the supply of available fresh water is finite and represents less than half of one percent of the world’s total water stock. We agree that 31 countries are facing water stress and scarcity and over a billion people lack adequate access to clean drinking water. And by consensus, we acknowledge the terrible reality that by the year 2025, as much as two-thirds of the world’s population will be living with some serious condition of water shortage or in absolute water scarcity. 

I think we even agree that instead of taking great care with the limited water we have, we humans are diverting, polluting and depleting it at an astonishing rate as if there were no reckoning ahead. 

Where there may be profound disagreement among those of us in the "water world," however, concerns the nature of the threat and the solution to it. There is a growing movement of people who believe that the imperatives of economic globalization – unlimited growth, a seamless global consumer market, corporate rule, deregulation, privatization and free trade – are the driving forces behind the destruction of our water systems and must be challenged and rejected if we are to save the world’s water. 

Economic Globalization 

Under the current system of market-driven economic globalization, there are no limits placed on where capital can go to "harvest" nature. Economic globalization integrates the economies of nation-states into a single unified market and unleashes industrial production to new levels, intensifying natural resource exploitation and exacerbating every existing environmental problem. Globalization’s imperative of unlimited growth makes it impossible for participating countries to make preservation a priority. 

Developing countries have restructured their economic systems to pay their debt and export their way to prosperity, destroying both natural ecosystems and environmental regulations. Economic globalization has also resulted in the exponential increase in the use of fossil fuels, dams and diversions, massive transportation systems needed to carry out global trade and roads carved out of wilderness. In the global market, running out of a local resource can be quickly rectified. When the East Coast cod are depleted, we just move on to Chilean sea bass. 

In the new economy, everything is for sale, even those areas of life once considered sacred, like seeds and genes, culture and heritage, food, air and water. As never before in history, the public space, the vital commons of knowledge and our natural heritage, has been hijacked by the forces of private greed. 

As environmental leader Paul Hawken says, "Given current corporate practices, not one wildlife reserve, wilderness, or indigenous culture will survive the global economy. We know that every natural system on the planet is disintegrating. The land, water, air, and sea have been functionally transformed from life-supporting systems into repositories for waste. There is no polite way to say that business is destroying the world."

In the race to compete for foreign direct investment, countries are stripping their environmental laws and natural resource protection regimes, including water protection. In some cases, such as in the world’s 850 free trade zones, they either look the other way as environmental laws are broken and waters are criminally polluted or they actually set lower standards in the zones than for the rest of the country. 

All through Latin America, China and Asia, massive industrialization is affecting the balance between humans and nature in rural communities. Water use is being diverted from agriculture to industry, and huge corporate factories are moving up the rivers of the Third World, drinking them dry as they go. Agribusiness, growing crops for export, is claiming more and more of the water once used by family and peasant farmers for food self sufficiency. The global expansion in mining and manufacturing is increasing the threat of pollution of underground water supplies and contaminating aquifers which provide more than 50 percent of domestic supplies in most Asian countries. 

To feed the voracious global consumer market, China has transformed its entire economy, massively diverting water use from communities and local farming to its burgeoning industrial sector. Already, as big industrial wells probe the water, millions of Chinese farmers have found their local wells pumped dry and 80 percent of China’s major rivers are so degraded, they no longer support fish. To my mind, economic globalization and the policies that drive it are totally unsustainable.

The Water Transnationals 

This leads to the second area of potential disagreement, and that is the role of transnational corporations in determining the future of water. Just as governments are backing away from their regulatory responsibilities, giant transnational water, food, energy and shipping corporations are acquiring control of water through the ownership of dams and waterways, control over the burgeoning bottled water industry, the development of new technologies such as water desalination and purification, the privatization of municipal and regional water services, including sewage and water delivery, the construction of water infrastructure, and water exportation. 

The goal is to render water a private commodity, sold and traded on the open market, and guaranteed to the use of private capital through global trade and investment agreements. These companies do not view water as a social resource necessary for all life, but an economic resource to be managed by market forces like any other commodity.

The transnational water companies will assert that they are in this business for almost altruistic reasons. It is to their benefit to blur the lines between government and the private sector, and they certainly are doing a good job of that. A closer examination of their practices, however, tells a different and documented story: higher customer rates; dramatic corporate profits; corruption and bribery; lower water quality standards; and overuse of the resource for profit. While corporations argue that the privatization of water services is socially beneficial, the consequence of corporate control is that social and environmental concerns come second to the economic imperative of profit maximization for the shareholders. 

Gerard Mestrallet, CEO of Suez Lyonnaise des Eaux, says that, taking a page from his country’s past, he wants to develop in his company the philosophy of "conquest" as Suez moves into new markets around the world. I have talked to Third World workers and community activists who would agree that conquest is exactly what these water companies are about. One of their directors, Mr. During, says honestly, "We are here to make money. Sooner or later the company that invests recoups its investment, which means the customer has to pay for it." I would say that that might be an appropriate comment if one is talking about cars or golf clubs, but that it is a pretty distressing thing to hear when we are talking about the basic unit of life.

In North America, the water companies are even more obvious, their frontier mentality open for all to see on their web-site. Global Water Corp. of Canada, which has a contract to ship 58 billion litres per year of Alaskan glacier water by tanker to be bottled in a free trade zone in China, openly boasts that this venture will "substantially undercut all other imported products" because of China’s cheap labour. Global entices investors to "harvest the accelerating opportunity as traditional sources of water around the world become progressively degraded and depleted" and declares that "water has moved from being an endless commodity that may be taken for granted to a rationed necessity that may be taken by force." 

The President of Wetco, a water-exporting company in Anchorage, Alaska, maintains, "What we’ve found is that it really is possible to sell water, but you have to put your cleats on and get in the game, and, if things don’t go right, you might have to be prepared to get wet." 


These companies argue that privatizing water is the best way to deliver it safely to a thirsty world. This is yet another area of potential disagreement among us. I want to be clear here; I am not opposed to private sector involvement in the building (not owning) of infrastructure. What I am talking about is the private control of water services and delivery.

It is true that governments have done an abysmal job of protecting water within their boundaries. However, the answer is not to hand this precious resource over to transnational corporations who have escaped nation-state law and live by no international law other than business-friendly trade agreements. The answer is to demand that governments begin to take their role seriously and establish full water protection regimes based on watershed management and conservation. 

The privatization of water is wrong on many counts. It ensures that decisions regarding the allocation of water centre almost exclusively on commercial considerations. Corporate shareholders are seeking maximum profit, not sustainability or equal access. Privatization means that the management of water resources is based on the principles of scarcity and profit maximization rather than long-term sustainability. Corporations are dependent on increased consumption to generate profits and are, therefore, much more likely to invest in desalination, diversion or export of water than conservation. 

Further, the global trend to commodify what has been a public service reduces the involvement of citizens in water management decisions. Private water projects brokered by the World Bank, for example, have minimal disclosure requirements. A water corporation executive at the recent World Water Forum in the Hague, said publicly that as long as water was coming out of the tap, the public had no right to any information as to how it got there. The concentration of power in the hands of a single corporation and the inability of governments to reclaim management of water services allows corporations to impose their interests on government, reducing the democratic power of citizens.

As the South African Municipal Workers’ Union explains, "Water privatization is a crucial issue for public debate. Human lives depend on the equitable distribution of water resources; the public should be given a voice in deciding whether an overseas-based transnational corporation whose primary interest is profit maximization should control those critical resources. Water is a life-giving scarce resource which therefore must remain in the hands of the community through public sector delivery. Water must not be provided for profit, but to meet needs." 

In their support for large-scale project financing, the World Bank and others give preference to large multi-utility infrastructure projects that favour the biggest corporations, leading to monopolies. To add insult, the World Bank is underwriting these giant corporations with public money, and often incurs the risk, while the company reaps the profit. And often, governments, supposedly representing their people, have to assure a return to the shareholder. Chile had to guarantee a profit margin of 33 percent to Suez Lyonnaise des Eaux as a World Bank conditionality, regardless of performance. 

Most disturbing, the close alliance between governments, the World Bank, the United Nations and the water companies gives these corporations undue influence over government policy that favour their interests, like deregulation and free trade, and favoured access to upcoming water contracts. The stated goal of the World Bank water loan to Budapest was to "ease political resistance to private sector involvement."

In Ontario, Canada, our government, listening to the exhortations of big business, introduced what it calls a "Common Sense Revolution." Key to this "revolution" were massive cuts to the environment budget, the privatization of water testing labs, the deregulation of water protection infrastructure, and massive lay-offs of trained water testing experts. In fact, just after a federal government study revealed that a third of Ontario’s rural wells were contaminated with E.coli, the Ontario government dropped testing for E.coli from its Drinking Water Surveillance Program and, a year later, closed the program down entirely. 

The results were catastrophic. E.coli outbreaks in a number of communities sent waves of panic through rural Ontario. This past June, as many as 14 people, one of them a baby, died from drinking the water in their little town of Walkerton, which, until that time, was renowned for the wonderful taste of its well water. The town had subcontracted to a branch-plant of a private testing company from Tennessee, A&L Laboratories. The lab discovered E.coli in the water but failed to report the contamination to provincial authorities, an option is has under the new "common sense" rules. In true corporate-speak, a lab spokesman said that the test results were "confidential intellectual property" and, as such, belonged only to the "client," the public officials of Walkerton who were not trained to deal with the tests.


Water pricing exacerbates the existing global inequality of access to water. As we know, the countries that are suffering severe water shortages are home to the poorest people on earth. To charge them for already scarce supplies is to guarantee increase in water disparities. Water pricing was the issue that brought hundreds of thousands of Bolivians onto the streets to protest when Bechtel, backed by the World Bank, doubled water rates. 

The issue of water pricing will also exacerbate the North/South divide. There is a sub-text to much of the hand-wringing over the world’s water shortage. Almost every article on the subject starts with the reminder of the population explosion and where is it occurring. The sub-text is that "these people" are responsible for the looming water crisis. But a mere 12 percent of the world’s population uses 85 percent of its water, and the 12 percent don’t live in the Third World. 

The privatization of this scarce resource will lead to a two-tiered world, those who can afford water and those who cannot. It will force millions to choose between necessities such as water and health care. In England, high water rates forced people to choose whether or not to wash their food, flush their toilets, or bathe. 

Second, water pricing, combined with privatization, will seal water’s fate as a commodity under the terms of international trade agreements like the WTO and NAFTA, both of which consider water to be a tradeable good subject to the same rules as any other good. Only if water is maintained as a public service, delivered and protected by governments, can water be exempted from the onerous enforcement measurements of these trade deals. Claiming environmental exemptions for water will not suffice; every single time the WTO has been used to challenge a domestic environmental rule, the WTO has won and the environmental protection has been ruled illegal. 

The trade agreements are very clear: if water is privatized and put on the open market for sale, it will go to those who can afford it, not to those who need it. As well, once the tap has been turned on, by the terms of trade rules, it cannot be turned off. "Blue gold" will become the hot commdodity of the future and those who can’t afford it will be left behind.

The World Bank says that it will subsidize water for the poor. Anyone familiar with the problems of welfare, particularly in the Third World, know that such charity is punitive at best, more often, non-existent. Water as a fundamental human right is guaranteed in the UN International Covenant on Human Rights. Water welfare is not what the architects of that great declaration had in mind.

Another argument against pricing is that, as it is now envisaged, it won’t have much of an impact on use by corporations. It is generally accepted that water consumption in urban centres breaks down as 70 percent industrial, 20 percent institutional and from 6 to 10 percent domestic. Yet most of the discussions about water pricing centre around individual water use. Large corporate users notoriously evade the cost of their water altogether. 

In California’s Silicon Valley, for instance, the high-tech sector, which uses huge amounts of water, is engaging in mechanisms to capture traditional water rights: water pricing, whereby industry pressures governments for subsidies and circumvents city utility equipment to pump water directly, thus paying much less than residential water users; water mining, whereby companies gain rights to deplete the aquifers while driving up the access costs to smaller users such as family farmers; water ranching, whereby industry buys up water rights of ranches and farmers; and water dumping, whereby industry contaminates the local water sources and then passes the costs on to the community.

Clearly, the focus must be on those who use water most and who then remove the benefits of this common good, this public trust, from the community. Business has no right to deprive people of their inalienable human rights; if that is the price of profit, the price is too high.

Finally, in an open bidding system for water, who will buy it for the environment and the future? In all of this privatization/pricing debate, I hear precious little about other species of the natural world. That is because the environment is not factored into the commercial equation. If we lose public control of our water systems, there will be no one left with the ability to claim this life-giving source for the earth.

Another Way

There is simply no way to overstate the water crisis of the planet today. No piecemeal solution is going to prevent the collapse of whole societies and ecosystems. A radical rethinking of our values, priorities and political systems is urgent and still possible. I do not think it too strong to say that we are called now to rise to the greatest challenge of our time. 

The answers lie within a rejection of economic globalization and the embrace of a whole new water ethic. First, we have to declare that water belongs to the earth and all species and is sacred to all life on the planet. All decisions about water must be based on ecosystem and watershed-based management. We need strong national and international laws to promote conservation, reclaim polluted water systems, develop water supply restrictions, ban toxic dumping and pesticides, control or ban corporate farming, and bring the rule of law to transnational corporations anywhere who pollute water systems. 

Second, water must be declared a basic human right. This might sound elemental, but at the World Water Forum in the Hague, it was the subject of heated debate, with the World Bank and the water companies seeking to have it declared a human need. If water is a human need, it can be serviced by the private sector. You cannot sell a human right.

Third, we must declare that water is a public trust to be guarded at all levels of government. No one has the right to appropriate it at another’s expense for profit. Water must not be privatized, commodified, traded or exported for commercial gain. 

There are many ways to assist the developing world in this crisis. These include cancelling the Third World debt; restoring aid from the developed world to former promised levels; imposing a tax on currency speculation (the Tobin Tax); and taxing and controlling industrial water use.

Above all, humans everywhere must change our behaviors. We must place the emphasis on identifying the capacity of our watersheds and, as communities, simply identify the limits we can place upon them. We must accept that there are very real limits to growth; the world must accept conservation as the only model for survival and we must all teach ourselves to live within our environment’s capacity. The insidious problem with pricing and conservation by commodification is that it actually undermines environmental science and activism as well as governments’ responsibility to protect their citizens and the environment, by buying into the argument that the market will fix everything. 

At stake is the whole notion of "the commons," the idea that through our public institutions we recognize a shared human and natural heritage to be preserved for future generations. Citizens in communities around the world must be the "keepers" of our waterways and must establish community organizations to oversee the wise and conserving use of this precious resource. Never has there been such an urgent need to come to terms with this seminal issue. There is enormous leadership at this Symposium; we must not fail. 

Maude Barlow is the National Chairperson of The Council of Canadians and a Director with the International Forum on Globalization. She is the best-selling author or co-author of 11 books on the effect of economic globalization on the environment and social security as well as the recent IFG publication, Blue Gold: The Global Water Crisis and the Commodification of the World’s Water Supply. This is an excerpt (reprinted with permission) from her Presentation to the 10th Stockholm Water Symposium August 17, 2000. Check her website at or IFG at

PARIS, France, January 8, 2002 (ENS) - To help to avert potential conflicts between nations over the world's scarce freshwater resources, a former Soviet president who is now an environmental leader has pledged to cooperate with with the United Nations Educational Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO).
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WASHINGTON, DC, March 13, 2002 (ENS) - Waterways across the United States are contaminated by a medicine chest of antibiotics, hormones, caffeine, painkillers and other drugs, finds the first nationwide study of pharmaceutical pollution in the nation's rivers and streams. Though the report is intended as a baseline for future research, funding cuts could threaten the future of such studies.
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