Water Activists Turn On The Taps And Turn Up The Pressure

On March 16 in Mexico City, thousands of grassroots water warriors marched against an equivalent number of establishment delegates from governments, corporations and international agencies at the World Water Forum.

The activists, opposed to what they term the ‘commodification’ of water, were stopped a kilometer away from their establishment opponents. But as the Washington Post reported, ‘Youths in ski masks attacked journalists and fought with police, smashing a patrol car and hurling rocks during largely peaceful Water Forum protests involving about 10,000 marchers.’

The Post continued, ‘Many of the battles over water in Mexico don’t involve people who would otherwise be considered radicals. Those on the front lines are residents of low-income neighbourhoods in Mexico City who get in fistfights over water-truck deliveries, or housewives who can no longer stand the stink of untreated sewage flowing beside their homes. And then there are the Indian families whose crops are ruined by the diversion of water to feed a nearby city, while their children go without safe drinking water.’

Here in South Africa, there are millions who can tell stories of water ‘delivery drought’. Rural areas are underserviced due to lack of operating subsidies which mean that a large percentage of taps installed in the post-apartheid era are now dry. And for those lucky to be on municipal water grids, mass disconnections due to unaffordability affect more than 1.5 million South Africans each year, even the government admits.

According to Desmond D’Sa of the South Durban Community Environmental Alliance, ‘Across the metro, low-income people and even whole blocks of flats are having trouble paying their rates, and quite a few have had their water cut off recently. I’ve negotiated for some reconnections, but the amounts outstanding are vast. People simply can’t afford the rates. Council is even reneging on a pre-election promise to write off arrears.’

Water warriors here also decry the new ‘pre-paid meter’ technology that leads to self-disconnection. Conlog, a firm directed by the late ANC leader Joe Modise once he retired as minister of defense in 1999, is manufacturing these devices, which Johannesburg activists backed by the Freedom of Expression Institute will argue in court next month are unconstitutional.

Meanwhile, Conlog is installing them across the African continent. Soweto Electricity Crisis Committee activists have taken the lead in ripping out pre-paid meters – both water and electricity – and periodically marching to municipal offices to trash the hated technology.

And as part of the New Partnership for Africa’s Development, with its focus on public-private infrastructure partnerships, state-owned Rand Water – which supplies bulk water to Johannesburg – is helping a Dutch company and the World Bank privatise water in Accra, Ghana. That country’s National Coalition Against the Privatisation of Water is already in close contact with the Johannesburg Anti-Privatisation Forum, helping coordinate protests.

The highest profile citizens’ campaign against commodified water was in Bolivia six years ago, when the people of the third-largest city, Cochabamba, fought the US firm Bechtel, backed by the World Bank. As of two months ago, the new Bolivian water minister in Evo Morales’ indigenous-led government is Abel Mamani, a neighbourhood activist veteran of another water war, in El Alto, who cut his teeth battling the French water company Suez.

Mamani made five points in a speech last week:

* Water is a fundamental human right and a pre-requisite to the realization of other human rights;

* Water belongs to the earth and all living beings including human beings and it is the duty of everyone to protect access to water for all forms of life and for the earth itself;

* Water is a public good and therefore its management needs to be in a sphere that is public, social, community-based, participative and not based on profit;

* Water should not be privatised and should be withdrawn from all free trade and investment agreements; and

* There should be profound change in the organization of the World Water Forum to allow majority and decisive participation in the negotiations by the poorest and those who most need water.

Bolivia is just one of the sites where the balance of forces has shifted left; other major battles – not always victorious – have been fought in Manila, Jakarta and Detroit. Biwater was kicked out of Dar es Salaam last year, to the regret of its advisor, the Adam Smith Institute, funded by British taxpayers.

Civil society movements and governments have forced Suez to retreat from major cities ranging from Atlanta to Buenos Aires to Montevideo in recent months. The firm’s bid to retain the Johannesburg Water contract for another 25 years will be considered by council in June, but after mass protests in Soweto, Orange Farm and other townships, is by no means secure.

The goals of progressive civil society activists, generally, are ‘decommodification’ of water, improved access by poor people, better conditions for water workers, and more appropriate eco-management of water. The latter should include penalties for hedonistic consumption.

Additional campaigns are waged against megadams, inappropriate irrigation, fish destocking, water pollution, bulk water diversions, bottled water, abuse of water by golf courses and extractive firms like Coca Cola and Nestle, and looming water scarcity. On one crucial battleground, control of water by the World Trade Organisation, activists appear to have just won, by exempting water from the WTO’s General Agreement on Trade in Services.

As the Mexico confrontation shows, protesters are linking up with vigour. Back in 1992, after the Rio Earth Summit and a Dublin water conference both advanced the principle that water is ‘an economic good’, privatisation began in earnest. Within a few years, a broad-based international front of community, consumer, environmental and labour organisations emerged to fight back.

The formal privatisation of water slowed during the late 1990s, in part because it became so difficult for the big British, French, German, Spanish and US firms to realise profits across the Third World, not least thanks to rising social resistance. Nevertheless, municipalities and water supply agencies are still being pressured by the World Bank to adopt commercial principles, including pricing water high enough to at least to cover operating/maintenance costs, at a time of declining subsidies.

No one disputes that with at least 2.6 billion people lacking adequate sanitation and 1.1 billion lacking access to improved water sources, there is an urgent need for dramatic improvements in investment, management and affordability. Third World states shrunk during the past quarter-century of sustained structural adjustment, addled by debt payment outflows, capital flight and foreign aid cutbacks. So the resources required for water and sanitation can not often be found.

Still, the primary strategy adopted by water advocates has been to defend the state as the key institution for delivering water. There are vast problems with relying on state agencies (whether national or municipal), yet in most societies it remains the institution which can best redistribute and organise resources.

Some water-delivery NGOs such as WaterAid, members of Freshwater Action Network or South Africa’s Mvula Trust do find themselves occasionally accused of betraying mass popular movement sentiments over water prices, standards and institutional delivery systems. While expanded community control is generally an objective of progressive activists, a primary concern is that decentralization should not replace a serious state commitment to subsidizing poor people’s water. Unlike what most NGOs can provide, an operative state’s grid service is more likely to offer purified, high-pressure water in sufficient quantities to serve gender equity, public health and other broader eco-social goals.

Critics argue that some NGO interventions lubricate neoliberalism, because installing inadequate collective tap systems – usually without sufficient sanitation – contributes to further state shrinkage. The general trend towards private outsourcing, including some examples of NGO delivery, has been destructive, because standards are lower, prices are higher, disconnections are more common, maintenance is worse and accountability is harder to establish.

The struggles against commodified water often erupt on global platforms, such as the triannual World Water Forum – at The Hague in 2000, Kyoto in 2003 and Mexico City in 2006 – and related meetings of the water establishment such as WTO summits. There, activists have battled a series of enemies:

* the Global Water Partnership (created by the World Bank, UN Development Programme and Swedish aid);

* the Marseilles-based World Water Council (founded by Suez, Canadian aid and the Egyptian government and joined by 300 private companies, government ministries, and international organisations);

* the International Private Water Association (privatisation firms plus the World Bank, US Credit Export Agency and Overseas Private Investment Corporation and the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development);

* the World Bank itself (which in $20 billion worth of 1990s water projects imposed privatisation as a loan condition in a third of the transactions);

* Mikhael Gorbachev’s Green Cross (in ongoing dispute with Council of Canadians over global-scale water rights and property rights in the UN);

* Aquafed (a federation set up by a former Suez managing director); and

* the World Panel on Financing Infrastructure.

The latter was chaired by former IMF managing director Michel Camdessus during 2002-03, with major multilateral development banks, Citibank, Lazard Freres, the US Ex-Im Bank, private water companies (Suez, Thames Water), state elites (from Egypt, France, Ivory Coast, Mexico, and Pakistan) and two NGOs (Transparency International and WaterAid). It proposed much greater amounts of public subsidies for privatisers, via a risk insurance mechanism to safeguard companies like Suez against currency crises which devastated the firm’s Argentina operations after 2001.

Some of the strongest critics of neoliberal water policies are citizens’/consumers’ organisations (especially the Council of Canadians in Ottawa and Public Citizen in Washington); trade unions (Public Services International and their affiliates); indigenous people’s movements; environmental groups (led by the International Rivers Network and Friends of the Earth); and think-tanks (e.g., the PSI Research Unit at Greenwich University, Polaris in Ottawa, the TransNational Institute in Amsterdam, the Agriculture and Trade Policy Center in Minneapolis, the Municipal Services Project in South African and Canadian universities, Parivartan and the Centre for Science and the Environment in New Delhi, Food and Water Watch in Washington, and the International Forum on Globalization in San Francisco).

From the struggles have emerged inspiring leaders, intellectuals and politicians, including Accra campaigners Rudolf Amenga-Etego (who was awarded the 2004 Goldman environmental prize) and Alhassan Adam, Canadians Maude Barlow and Tony Clarke (who won the 2005 Right Livelihood Award) and writer Varda Burstein, Paris-based Danielle Mitterrand, Cochabamba movement leader Oscar Olivera, Washington-based water watchdogs Maj Fiil-Flynn and Sara Grusky, Olivier Hoedeman and Satoko Kishimoto of ‘Reclaiming Public Water’ at the Transnational Institute, filmmakers Alan Snitow and Deborah Kaufman, European campaigner Ricardo Petrello, anti-dam strategists Paddy McCully and Lori Pottinger, and extraordinary Indian women like Sunita Narrain, Medha Patkar, Arundhati Roy, Vandana Shiva and Shiney Varghese. South Africans who are well-known internationally include Bryan Ashe and Lianne Greef of the SA Water Caucus, Dale McKinley of the national Campaign Against Water Privatisation, Wits sociology researcher Ebrahim Harvey, Anil Naidoo (based in Ottawa), trade unionist Roger Ronnie, and Sowetans Trevor Ngwane and Virginia Setshedi.

The World Social Forum in Porto Alegre, as well as regional Social Fora, have provided spaces for water activist assemblies during the early 2000s. Email listserves such as ‘water warriors’, ‘reclaiming public water’ and ‘right to water’ permit information exchange and coordination. A People’s World Water Forum was held in Delhi two years ago, preceded by the 2001 ‘Blue Planet’ conference in Vancouver, as well as periodic European gatherings.

Because the water movements have generated superb examples of cooperation across borders, campaigns against commodified services will continue to serve as a model for global civil society. If in the short-term here in South Africa activists can reconnect water to Durban’s poor and working people and disconnect Suez from Johannesburg and Rand Water from Accra, over the longer-term, the world desperately needs to link their visions, programmes and projects to similar processes, in the next set of 21st century water wars.





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