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WORLD: Water Privatization Under Fire

Inter Press News Service
March 10th, 2003

Privatization of water services has had negative consequences in many countries, says the environmental network Friends of the Earth International, which urges global resistance to the commercialization of this essential resource.

Friends of the Earth, with offices in 68 countries and some million members, presented its report Monday in which it outlines the precedents and outlook for the 3rd World Water Forum, to meet in the southwestern Japanese city of Kyoto, March 16-23.

The water question is centered on its scarcity in many parts of the world, a situation aggravated by human activities that contaminate or degrade the water sources.

Degradation is attributed to the effects of big hydroelectric dams, urban and industrial pollution, deforestation, widespread use of farm chemicals, waste disposal and mining.

Other factors limiting water availability are the transformations of the global ecosystem caused by climate change and desertification, says Friends of the Earth International(FOEI) in "Water Justice For All: Global and local resistance to the control and commodification of water".

The average human needs some 50 litres of water each day to drink, to grow and cook food, to wash and for sanitation.

A person living in the United States uses an average of 250 to 300 litres a day, while the average Somali makes do with less than nine litres of water per day, says FOEI, highlighting the dramatic inequalities in water consumption.

In 2000, there were 1.1 billion people on earth who did not have regular access to potable water, and 2.4 billion without sanitation services, according to United Nations estimates.

The Friends of the Earth study stresses that a major problem today is the privatization of water sources and distribution.

The UN Commission on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights issued a declaration in November 2002 that water should be considered a "social and cultural good, not primarily as an economic commodity."

But international financial institutions, along with multinational water corporations, "are paving the way" towards privatization by making it a condition for granting loans to poor countries, says FOEI.

Michel Camdessus, former managing director of the International Monetary Fund (IMF), led a group entrusted with studying the financing of the global water infrastructure, which will present a report at the Kyoto meeting next week.

The group's mandate was to produce a plan for achieving one of the Millennium Development Goals established by the UN: by 2015 halve the proportion of people who did not have access to safe drinking water in the year 2000.

Camdessus says in the report that the dream of clean water for all is within humanity's reach -- if the efforts pledged for 2015 are extended another 10 years.

To achieve this, the flow of finances towards the water sector should at least be doubled, with resources coming from financial markets, user fees, multilateral financial institutions, governments and official development aid, says the former IMF executive.

But his working group on water financing states that to achieve those objectives, certain conditions must be met, including good governance, responsibility, citizen participation, decentralization and transparency.

The future of water hinges on a more participatory approach, one in which women play a key role, says Camdessus.

The year 2015 will mark an important point in the route towards total water security in 2025, which will have greater financial requisites, he says.

In emerging and developing economies, current expenditures for new water infrastructure is approximately $80 billion per year, but in the next 20 to 25 years, the total will need to more than double - to some $180 billion , according to the study.

A large portion of those new resources should be earmarked for household sanitation, treatment of sewerage and industrial waste, and irrigation, among other ends, adds the water financing text.

FOEI says the draft documents that have been put together for the World Water Forum, aimed at producing a final World Water Action Report, contain "some very impressive rhetoric."

"But, as always, the bottom line is increased market access for private water companies," says the environmental group. Executives from water companies will be showing up in force at the Kyoto meet to ensure their interests are protected.

The second World Water Forum, co-sponsored by the World Bank and the UN at The Hague in 2000, "was dominated by water and food transnationals," says FOEI.

The World Bank is conscious of the fact that the notion of water as a commodity "is still unpopular and politically unacceptable."

As such, the World Bank has fomented the creation of "a bewildering array of front organizations on water," which allow water companies "to disguise their economic motives as public interest objectives," says the FOEI report.

Multilateral financial institutions like the World Bank and IMF support the expansion of these firms and press countries to privatize their water supply and distribution systems as a precondition to obtain loans or reprogram their foreign debt, according to the environmental network.

Friends of the Earth is developing a global campaign for justice in access to water.

Many of the local actions under this initiative aim to protect water from privatization and propose new models for ownership and management, based on collective or community systems that respond to the specific needs of the population.

Other campaigns are focused on reducing consumption and expanding the reutilization of water, or on restoring rivers and wetlands.





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