Water belongs to everyone, and to no one

Without water, we would be without life. In 2002, the United Nations adopted water as a basic human right. However, on a daily basis, the right to water is violated. It is estimated that 1.7 billion people lack access to safe drinking water across the globe. This is easy to imagine, when less than 1 per cent of the world’s fresh water is readily accessible for direct human use. The consequences of the uneven distribution of the world’s water resources are horrific. The staggering statistics speak for themselves — it is estimated that every eight seconds, a child dies from a water-borne disease. Every day, thousands of people die from lack of access to clean water. Annually, 3.575 million people die due to a water-related disease.

The problem of water-borne diseases has only been amplified by the push for the privatization of water and the constant rise in prices. While supporters of privatization say that this increases efficiency and reliability of services to a population, there is no denying the fact that the control of water provides greater benefits to rich corporations than to the people themselves.

Water, like air, is a necessity of human life and a fundamental resource, not an article of trade to be sold for profit. However, many institutions, corporations and eager entrepreneurs refuse to recognize this critical fact. The World Bank is an obvious culprit, stating on their website, “effective water resource management requires that water be treated as an economic good.” The institution’s most recent scheme has been its privatization of water services around the world, over the past few years.

Numerous countries, such as Argentina, Honduras, Indonesia, Philippines and South Africa, have been pressured by the World Bank’s initiative, and are now dealing with the results. The governments of such countries were persuaded to lease their country’s water services to multinational water companies when the loans they were seeking came attached with water privatization as a condition. Ultimately, privatization distanced the governments from responsibility, as they lost the obligation to provide for the social and health related needs of their country, thus increasing the people’s vulnerability to human rights violations.

Over the last decade, the World Bank lent about US$20 million to water delivering projects. A study released in 2003 by the Washington-based Center for Public Integrity, followed the performance of these privatization projects and concluded that huge profits were made, but at a high price to human welfare. The study documented “higher prices for water, cut-offs to customers who cannot pay, little transparency in their dealings, reduced water quality, bribery and corruption”.

If the people with money happen to have little reason to care for their local waters and waste management systems, any existing water resources will soon perish. With water continuously becoming more expensive, to meet the World Bank’s cost recovery, vulnerable families are forced to make trade-offs between water, food, education and healthcare. For example, in the last two years, the government of South Africa has cut off water deliveries to over 10 million people, as they could no longer afford privatized services. It is beyond me how such a situation can ever be deemed acceptable.

The Canadian Environmental Law Association (CELA) had it right when they stated in a 1999 paper that: “Water is a public trust, not a commodity. It belongs to everyone and to no one.” The World Bank asserts that its framework “recognizes the needs of the poor” — however, this statement is deceitful. Rudolf Amenga-Etego, founder of the National Coalition Against the Privatization of Water in Ghana, said in a report, “As water becomes less affordable, it is highly likely that there will be a corresponding increase in disease stemming from reduced access to clean water.”

Canada’s waters are also under the looming threat of privatization. Many entrepreneurs feel that, by not engaging in the sales of Canadian waters, we are missing major economic opportunities. Mayor Fizzard of Grand Le Pierre, Newfoundland told the Toronto Star in May 2001, “The water is just running into the Atlantic Ocean, no one is getting one nickel out of it. [ . . . ] Why shouldn’t it help us”? The truth is that, in the long run, it won’t.

CELA commented on the proposal of selling Canada’s waters and stated “Changing water levels and flows will have unpredictable and harmful consequences to basin habitat, biodiversity, shorelines, jobs and cultures [ . . . ]. Lower water levels will mean less dilution of polluted waters.”

The water crisis is simply too urgent to be left in the hands of corrupt governments and foreign creditors. Countries should be allowed to keep water provisions in the public sector, through community partnerships and innovative financial methods. If communities recognize the benefits of keeping their services operated in the public sphere and reorganize management under local control, this could save them money, reward employees and, most importantly, keep money in the community. Partnerships between private and public sectors could also play an important role in achieving these objectives. Whether one is for or against the water privatization, what can be agreed upon is the urgency of the need for new improvements and solutions — solutions that answer people’s needs for clean, affordable water, rather than those of money-hungry corporations.

Talia Joundi is a first-year student at the University of Manitoba.