Blue Planet targets PRIVATE commodification of world’s water


and Karen Bakker

The July 5-8 "Blue Planet"

conference in Vancouver opened with a call by Maude Barlow to promote "a global

water revolution. This is the first of many international civil society meetings

to take back control of our water." The host Council of Canadians, a

100,000-member citizens’ group, was joined by several hundred representatives of

indigenous peoples, Third World communities, anti-globalization activists,

radical youth, public-sector trade unions, environmentalists, anti-dam

campaigners, World Bank watchers, and consumer groups.

Barlow, the Council

chairperson, was in the news in April for helping turn out "Maude’s Mobs" of

middle-class Canadians to the Quebec City protests against the Free Trade Area

of the Americas. For several years, she and Tony Clarke of Polaris Institute

have fused citizens’-rights respectability with surprisingly radical rhetoric

against the ravaging of Canada by corporations and pocketed politicians. Barlow

and Clarke recently supported local activists in Vancouver as they fought off a

privatised wastewater treatment plant.

In contrast to previous

criticisms that the Council has been excessively nationalist, this conference

recreated the internationalist spirit of the Porto Alegre World Social Forum.

Aiming directly at next year’s tenth anniversary of the UN Conference on

Environment and Development, Blue Planet took on corporate globalization more

generally, posing routes that lead from multi-faceted resistance to alternative

conceptions of water management.

The trends in virtually

all countries are towards the commodification and privatization of water. Blue

Planet promotes a radical manifesto and global treaty as seminal documents in

the international fight-back. The manifesto stresses the essential nature of

water to life and to social and ecosystem integrity, and identifies cultural

resonances and the sense of the sacred associated with water in various

spiritual traditions. Aboriginal communities played a key role in framing the

debate during the conference.

Getting governments to

sign up to the treaty, it is hoped, will be a rallying cry and political tool

for the movement. The documents provide a broad-based way of arguing for water

as a human right, and will have universal applicability in sites of struggle

around the world.

Indeed, five scales of

water struggle are, in the process, being fused: local communities, national

governments, world water policy fora, sites of global rule such as Free Trade

Agreements and the Bretton Woods Institutions, and the more general takeover of

water by multinational corporations.

Solidarity with campaigns

underway in a variety of Third World settings represented at the

conference–Ghana, India, Bolivia, Mexico, South Africa, Guatemala, Colombia,

Tanzania, Slovakia, Honduras, Philippines, Mozambique, Indonesia, as well as

First Nations within North America—received serious attention.

The concerns included

damage from mega-dams and cross-catchment water transfers, despoilation of

groundwater and aquifers, municipal water privatisation, tariff price hikes and

"water poverty," agribusiness abuse of water in the wake of the

irrigation-guzzling green revolution, global warming/drying, worsening droughts

and floods, scarcity and wastage, and the extension of corporate bill-of-rights

protections to water via the General Agreement on Trade in Services (GATS) and

Free Trade Agreement of the Americas.

Canada is a poignant host

for some of these issues. The week before the conference, Mike

Harris–conservative leader of Canada’s main province, Ontario–was a witness at

a judicial hearing on the seven deaths and thousands of poisonings at the town

of Walkerton last year.

He was explicitly asked

whether his "ideology" of privatisation was to blame, given that testing the

town’s water for E.coli was outsourced to a local firm. It failed to do so and

attempted a cover-up. Harris was in full denial mode too, but Canadians got the


Other local struggles

include anti-dam fights in Quebec and British Columbia, resistance to bulk sales

of water to the US, and campaigns to bring services to indigenous peoples who

suffer Third World water poverty in one of the world’s richest countries.

Water can become a locus

of the anti-globalization movement, some speakers contended, for several

reasons. Water struggles tend to bridge traditional red/green divides, link

North and South in solidarity, endorse the notion of a global Commons that

mustn’t be privatised, focus on the public (especially municipal government)

character of service delivery, involve the expansion of the service through

expanded labour and jobs, and offer a way to practice local self-management and

sustainable consumption.

Thus if water becomes a

public good protected from the market, it also serves a progressive political

trend towards an expansive eco-social localism, unlike the establishment’s

faddish "communitarianism" which leads inexorably to gated-community


It is only by confronting

issues of more general concern to the movement against corporate globalization

that the water struggles will come to fruition. Targets thus emerge in the form

of the World Bank/IMF, utilities undergoing commercialization, big government

aid agencies, powerful water multinationals like Suez and Vivendi which dominate

the global market in water supply provision, Free Trade Agreements and

neoliberal advocacy agencies.

Key enemies of Blue Planet

include the pro-privatisation World Water Council (a platform for major water

firms); the Global Water Partnership (initiated by senior World Bank staff);

Business Partners for Development (an industry/World Bank promoter of

privatization); the GATS as a lever for water companies to invade Third World

countries; and other advocates of the Dublin Principles and Hague Declaration,

which advance the proposition that water is mainly an economic good.

These players will be key

targets of protesters at the World Bank/IMF meeting in Washington in early

October and at the Rio+10 conference in Johannesburg in September 2002, as well

as at related meetings in Bonn later this year and follow-ups at Kyoto in 2003

and Montreal in 2006.

In contrast, groups and

events promoting water decommodification include the P-7 Declaration on Water

authored by Vandana Shiva, the Cochabamba Declaration emanating from the

Coordinada struggle of low-income residents against water-privatiser Bechtel in

Bolivia, and the Global Water Contract of the Group of Lisbon social democrats.

But even if the main

contradiction between North and South in this sector, is that the former already

have water infrastructure networks in place, and the latter must still expand

access to more than a billion people without potable water and decent

sanitation, the process of commodification is similar.

Those with the

networks–including residents of most Third World cities’ elite neighbourhoods–will

have to begin addressing overconsumption; those without must address the need

for provision of a free lifeline supply of water for, at minimum, subsistence

purposes. (Not just a matter for households, in which women would benefit most,

this might also include small-scale irrigation in the context of radical land

and agricultural reform.)

Here, perhaps, the only

real cleavage emerged. For most of the world, the human right to a subsistence

water supply must ultimately occur on a free "lifeline" basis.

This demand has led, for

example, South African campaigners in the SA Municipal Workers Union and Rural

Development Services Network to only partially endorse the African National

Congress electoral promise late last year to give a free 6,000 litres a month to

each family–half what campaigners insist upon. (In early July the promise was

meant to come into effect, though it did only for a tiny minority of consumers,

not for the poor rural women who need it most, for example.)

But a free lifeline supply

would not mean the right to lifestyles which in the wealthy North, are

insensitive to real–not just socially-constructed–water scarcity. Such

scarcity comes from pollution-intensive industrial practices, water-wasting

domestic appliances, and more fundamentally from poorly-located urban areas such

as Johannesburg, far from natural bodies of fresh water. But scarcity is also a

reflection of aquifer degradation, which is common in most urban areas.

Commented Barlow, "When we

have a famine somewhere, our response is not, `Oh goody, customers for life!’,

yet that is exactly the way the scarcity argument is playing out when it comes

to water." Or, as Shiva put it on the first night of the conference,

"Sustainable development is capitalism’s way of turning the threat of ecological

crisis into an opportunity."

Capitalism has colonised

the life world so thoroughly that the alleged ability of private companies to

fix system leaks and provide more efficient services has become common sense.

But such conventional

wisdom can be undone. Typical red/green conflicts pit jobs against protection of

resources from extraction. Water does not have this feature, and so transcends

the (usually false) paradox between equity and efficiency that plagues attempts

to bring together social justice and environmental justice concerns.

The conference was

dedicated to the struggle of the Colombian anti-dam activist Kimy Pernia Domico,

who was abducted two days before departing for Canada for his keynote speech.

The conference closed with a vibrant demonstration organised by youth activists

at the Colombian consulate in downtown Vancouver.


(See http://www.canadians.org

for Blue Planet information. Patrick Bond is based in Johannesburg at Wits

University’s Municipal Services Project–[email protected]–and Karen Bakker is

doing a post-doctoral study of water privatisation at the University of Oxford’s

School of Geography and the Environment–[email protected])

Leave a comment