`Act before it is too late'

Print edition : April 21, 2006

Anil Naidoo, who runs the Council of Canadians' Blue Planet Project. -

Interview with Anil Naidoo, Director of the Blue Planet Project, which is fighting against the commercialisation of water.

Anil Naidoo was a key organiser of the alternative forum as a counter to the World Water Forum in Mexico City recently. He is Director of the Blue Planet Project, an international coalition of organisations that are fighting against the commercialisation of water and working to protect the right to water. In this email interview he highlighted the reasons why water should remain a common resource.

Recently, you were leading the protests outside the World Water Forum in Mexico, of which Coca-Cola was a big sponsor. Can you tell us more about the forces that control the Forum, what they aim to achieve and why you are against it?

You only need to look at the make-up of the World Water Council, which controls the World Water Forum, to know the agenda of the Forum. While there are over 300 organisations in the Council, many are consulting companies and small players internationally. The real force behind the Council lies with the likes of Suez, Vivendi and RWE Thames, the world's largest water transnationals. The Council's president, Loic Fauchon, is also the head of a private water company in France.

Other powerful players include the World Bank and the regional development banks. There are also many large construction companies that make a lot of money from water projects. Overall, what has been created has been termed a global `high command' for water. At best it can be called a global think tank; at worst it sets an agenda in favour of privatisation and in the interests of its most powerful members. At the third World Water Forum, the Forum did not acknowledge the right to water and ignored pressure from civil society groups. The right to water was again absent from the final declaration except in the complementary declaration submitted by Uruguay, Cuba, Venezuela and Bolivia.

The reality is that the World Water Council and the World Water Forum are both completely unaccountable and are private entities. There is no mandate to report to, nor is it part of any multinational process. This means that while the organisers pay for international Ministers to join, this event has no legitimacy to hold a ministerial, nor is the text struggled over and voted upon as it is done in the United Nations. International civil-society groups have called upon the U.N. to take on this very important issue and to dissolve the WWC. It should not be left to private entities like the WWC to be leading these very important discussions.

Why are the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund so keen to push water privatisation?

With the recent rash of water privatisation failures, these organisations may not currently admit to pushing water privatisation, but the reality is that next to the private water companies that make large profits from privatised water, the World Bank and the IMF have vigorously pressed this failed model for years. They continue to push countries to `liberalise' their economies as a condition for loans and assistance.

For us it is quite obvious that the World Bank and the IMF are ideological institutions, which work counter to the best interests of many countries. With the vast majority of the World Bank's money coming from Northern donors, it is no wonder that these institutions are pushing programmes that benefit Northern companies. Our hope is that the WB and the IMF finally see that this is a failed model and use the billions of tax payer dollars to invest in improving public water systems around the world. We will continue to press for this goal.

Many believe that in the near future, water could be more precious than oil, and countries like Canada that have large fresh water sources could form a cartel similar to OPEC [Organisation of Petroleum Exporting Countries]. How far away from that reality are we today? Is there really such a grave scarcity of water? What is the reason for this scarcity? How much of it is man-made and could be controlled?

There is clearly a water scarcity with billions facing water deprivation already. As populations increase and we continue to divert and pollute the world's water, we can expect this to increase exponentially. The reason for the scarcity is that water is finite and that only a fraction of a per cent of the world's water is available to us to use. This small amount of freshwater is being diminished, particularly by pollution and by water-mining of groundwater resources. This myopic strategy of building cities in the desert or using fossil-aquifer water to sustain unsustainable human habitation is very dangerous and will lead to great strife in the near future.

There is no substitute for water, so we must learn to respect it and use what we have in a sustainable manner. Already a few companies control an increasing amount of the world's water and others are buying up water-rich areas for their own personal use. Others, like Coca-Cola, are mining water in areas they have identified as having rich water resources and when the water is depleted, the local residents are left with ongoing water problems. Plachimada in India is a good example of how this is happening around the world.

Most of the water crisis is man-made, either because we have allowed the water to be polluted or [because] we have not invested properly in distribution systems or in strengthening and improving public water systems around the world.

The forces pushing for the privatisation of drinking water supply and irrigation argue that corrupt local governments do not deliver services efficiently to the public and that private companies are more efficient and would augment investment. The other argument is that only when people are charged the true value of water will they learn to conserve it. How far is this true?

We believe that anything that can be done in the private sector can also be done in the public sector, so there is no inherent advantage to private water management. What does happen in water privatisation is that the democratic mechanisms that may have existed for management and community participation are no longer relevant. This is very dangerous because we believe that the goal must be enforcing the human right to water and ensuring that water remains a public trust.

Of course, there are things that can be done and should be done to improve public water management. This does include dealing with any corruption, but it should be noted that the public sector does not have a monopoly on corruption and private companies also have been proven to be corrupt.

Charging for water, we believe, is also contentious and we do not agree that the market should control water resources. The market would control water through pricing and this means that those who cannot afford to buy water would not have access to water. This is a violation of the human right to water.

Of course, raising the price of water would result in some reduction in consumption, but this would occur disproportionately in the poor. Normal market systems reward increased consumption by charging large users lower per unit costs. Applying the market to water could then have the absurd result of charging the poorest, who need water to survive, more than the richest, who are using the water for other, more frivolous, purposes. This is the paradox of the market. Water is a natural monopoly and must not be controlled by private interestsbecause it belongs to people and nature and even future generations.

What should be done to make water for all a human right? How should this common resource be managed more sustainably and equitably?

We are advocating an international treaty with binding enforcement mechanisms on the right to water. We believe that both states and non-state actors such as corporations must be held accountable for violations of the right to water.

We believe there needs to be added investment in public water systems to improve efficiencies and we think that framing solutions within the right to water will produce sustainable water management. We all have a stake in protecting our water systems and we must do this now before it is too late. Sustainability and equity must be the cornerstones of our common water future. Democratic participation and social control are other keys to a positive water future and we must develop these mechanisms more fully in the future as essential parts of well-functioning water systems.

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