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Whiskey is for Drinking, Water is for Fighting

by RUSSELL MOKHIBER

Behind every great fortune lies a great crime.

That was Balzac.

Update to Balzac — behind every great political issue lies a corporate crime.

Take water, for example.

For centuries, water was part of the commonwealth.

Then came the corporations.

And they had to control it.

In the United States, more than 1,000 community water systems have been taken over by corporations.

Then you had people fighting the big corporations, trying to wrest control back.

Think Jack Nicholson in Chinatown.

But worldwide, the fight is starting to heat up.

And two activist film maker writers — Deborah Kaufman and Alan Snitow — are now out with a movie — Thirst — and a book — Thirst: Fighting the Corporate Theft of Our Water — documenting the battle. (See thirstthemovie.org)

The movie lays out the fight.

Big corporations — like Thames Water and Bechtel — are seeking to take control of water supplies from Cochabamba, Bolivia to Stockton, California.

And citizens are fighting back.

In Cochabamba and Stockton.

And at places like the World Water Forum in Kyoto, Japan.

The movie and book will make a fine introduction to the issue of corporate theft of water.

But the silver lining of the movie is that it exposes the fault lines in another far more important issue — how to best challenge corporate power.

On the one side — the foundation-funded public interest groups, whose activists travel the world, confront the World Bank and corporate executives.

On the other — ordinary citizens pulling themselves up by their own bootstraps and slugging away.

Big city activists will argue that both are needed.

But the movie unintentionally makes the argument that the local citizen action model wins — hands down.

The movie itself was funded in large part by The John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation.

At the World Water Forum, we see foundation funded activists challenging World Bank and corporate executives.

We see how they disrupt the proceedings with their demonstrations and chanting.

"Water for people, not for profit," they yell. "Water for people, not for profit. Water for people, not for profit. One, two, three, four — millions for water, not for war. One, two, three, four — millions for water, not for war."

And how they take to the microphones to throw mud in the face of corporate executives.

To applause, Wenonah Hauter — then with Public Citizen, now with Food and Water Watch — rips into the corporate representatives on the panel.

"I don’t know whether to laugh or cry at the happy talk we’ve heard today," Hauter says. "What happened in Atlanta is Suez’s affiliate, United Water got the contract, fired half the staff. The water was brown. The repairs hadn’t been made.

So, I’d like a specific answer on Atlanta and how if privatization doesn’t work there, it can work anywhere?"

Holly Wren Spaulding takes to the mike.

"I’m from the Great Lakes," she said. "I’m sure you know where that is because there’s quite a lot of water there and some of you are already exploiting it. I’m very concerned about the mining of groundwater and the…and the fact that it’s being put in small plastic bottles which we see all over this conference. I think it’s a horrible image to present if you’re talking about conservation of water."

Cut to the streets.

All around the world, people are fighting back against the corporate theft of their water.

In Cochabamba, Bolivia, Bechtel privatized the city’s water.

The privatization resulted in civil unrest. The movie highlights dramatic scenes of citizens fighting off Bolivian soldiers in street battles in 2000 — and of at least one death — that of 17-year-old Victor Hugo Daza.

"The only things that hadn’t been privatized in Bolivia were the air and water," says Bolivian activist Oscar Olivera. "At the start of the contract, the company raised the rates. We can show that Bechtel raised rates 30 to 300%. And what was Bechtel’s attitude? To never show its face."

"The government not only called on the police and military but also snipers dressed in civilian clothes, who shot into the crowds during the final days of the conflict," Olivera says. "That’s when 17 year old Victor Hugo Daza was killed."?"After seeing death, injuries, so many days of paralysis of the country’s economic activities, the government decided to do as the people wished. They kicked out the Bechtel consortium."

The other battle highlighted in the movie is that of the people of Stockton against Thames Water.

In 2003, the mayor and a majority of the city council of Stockton cut a deal with Thames to take over the city’s water works.

Citizens demanded a public vote of the citizens.

The city council said no.

Citizens gathered petitions to put the deal on the ballot.

But they didn’t get enough signatures.

At a raucous and emotional meeting, the City Council voted to privatize its public water works.

Thames took control of the water works.

(In July of this year — long after the movie was finalized — the Stockton City Council voted unanimously to roll back the deal. "After four years, the $600 million showcase deal with a multinational consortium, OMI-Thames Water, has been scrapped in favor of a return to public control," Kaufman and Snitow write in USA Today. "The decision came after repeated court rulings determined that the deal violated California’s environmental law, but the legal issue was only the last straw. Noxious odors drifted regularly from the sewage treatment plant. There were sewage spills, fish kills, increased leakage from underground pipes, staff turnover and increases in water rates after years of rate stability.")

Anyone who has ever a local citizens’ fight against corporate power will recognize the familiar scenes from the Stockton organizing battle.

The invisible corporation.

The coalition of citizens from all walks of life.

How differing personalities affect the outcome of the battle.

And you see how citizens at different levels of the battle frame the issue.

Maude Barlow of the Council of Canadians puts it this way:

"The political question really is who owns water and who gets to control water. Here you going to hear or you are hearing two very very different visions of a future for water. On one side, those who see water as an economic good to put water on the open market for sale to the highest bidder. On the other hand, you’re going to hear the voice of a growing civil society movement who has a vision of water as part of the global commons and treat it as a public trust for all time by governments everywhere."

Larry Ruhstaller, a Stockton restaurant owner and member of the city council, voted for the public referendum put it this way: "It’s amazing that Stockton has kind of drawn everyone’s attention here. People do not know or really care about water until they turn on the tap and it goes dry or they flush and it doesn’t go away. That’s the scary thing. Whiskey’s for drinking and water’s for fighting over."

RUSSELL MOKHIBER is the editor of the Corporate Crime Reporter.