By Tara Lohan, AlterNet. Posted April 25, 2007.
The Bush administration is helping multinationals buy U.S. municipal water systems, putting our most important resource in the hands of corporations with no public accountability.
All across the United States, municipal water systems are being bought up by multinational corporations, turning one of our last remaining public commons and our most vital resource into a commodity.
The road to privatization is being paved by our own government. The Bush administration is actively working to loosen the hold that cities and towns have over public water, enabling corporations to own the very thing we depend on for survival.
The effects of the federal government's actions are being felt all the way down to Conference of Mayors, which has become a "feeding frenzy" for corporations looking to make sure that nothing is left in the public's hands, including clean, affordable water.
Documentary filmmakers Alan Snitow and Deborah Kaufman recently teamed up with author Michael Fox to write "Thirst: Fighting the Corporate Theft of Our Water" (Wiley, 2007). The three followed water privatization battles across the United States -- from California to Massachusetts and from Georgia to Wisconsin, documenting the rise of public opposition to corporate control of water resources.
They found that the issue of privatization ran deep.
"We came to see that the conflicts over water are really about fundamental questions of democracy itself: Who will make the decisions that affect our future, and who will be excluded?" they wrote in the book's preface. "And if citizens no longer control their most basic resource, their water, do they really control anything at all?"
As the effects of climate change are being felt around the world, including decreasing snowpacks and rainfall, water is quickly becoming the market's new holy grail.
Mayor Gary Podesto, in his State of the City address to his constituents in 2003, sang the praises of privatization to his community, located in California's Central Valley. "It's time that Stockton enter the 21st century in its delivery of services and think of our citizens as customers," he said.
And there is the crux of the issue -- privatization means transforming citizens into customers. Or, in other words, making people engaged in a democratic process into consumers looking to get the best deal.
It is also means taking our most important resource and putting it at the whims of the market.
Currently, water systems are controlled publicly in 90 percent of communities across the world and 85 percent in the United States, but that number is changing rapidly, the authors report in "Thirst." In 1990, 50 million people worldwide got their water services from private companies, but by 2002 it was 300 million and growing.
There are a number of reasons to be concerned.
"Globally, corporations are promoting water privatization under the guise of efficiency, but the fact is that they are not paying the full cost of public infrastructure, environmental damage, or healthcare for those they hurt," said Ashley Schaeffer of Corporate Accountability International. "Water is a human right and not a privilege."
There are also significant environmental considerations -- with private corporations, sustainability can be tossed out the window. "Climate change is a warning that uncontrolled abuse of the earth's natural resources is leading toward planetary catastrophe," the authors write in "Thirst." "Who is to set the necessary limits to the abuse of the environment? Private companies fighting for market share are incapable of doing so."
Privatization has been pushed aggressively at the federal level for decades, but especially so in the last six years. "There is a kind of fire sale of everything in the public sector right now," said Alan Snitow. "Water, we think, is the line in the sand -- when your water is actually a profit mechanism, people really react negatively to that."
"Thirst" beautifully documents the coalitions that are forming in communities that are fighting back. But the battles are not easy: They must confront massive political muscle and unlimited financial resources of multinational corporations, not to mention our society's religious belief in the power of the marketplace.
Privatizing municipal water systems is globalization come home, said Deborah Kaufman. In 2000 Bechtel privatized water in Cochabamba, Bolivia, with such miserable consequences that it was shortly driven out of the country in an incredible feat of cross-class organizing. But just a few years later, it was awarded a $680 million contract to "fix" Iraq's ruined water systems.
"What's happened in Iraq is really emblematic of what the Bush administration is doing," said Kaufman. "We view the privatization of water in the United States as the World Bank come home -- the third-worldization of America and American communities."
It turns out the United States is an attractive place for multinationals looking to make inroads in the water business. The three main players are the French companies Suez and Veolia (formerly Vivendi), and the German group RWE.
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