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
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.
for Blue Planet information. Patrick Bond is based in Johannesburg at Wits
University’s Municipal Services Project–firstname.lastname@example.org–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@example.com)