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The Privatization of Water and the Impoverishment of the Global South

Photo by woodleywonderworks | CC BY 2.0

Argentina just experienced its worse drought in thirty years; California recently suffered its worse drought since the 1400s according to ring tree research carried out by the University of Arizona; Oregon Governor Kate Brown just signed an executive order over the dire conditions of drought in the Klamath Basin, agriculture disaster was recently declared by the U.S. Department of Agriculture in four states (Louisiana, Mississippi, Arkansas and Texas) due to drought, concentrated in to a total of 25 parishes and 124 counties; last week Iranian farmers in Isfahan protested the government’s failure to act on a drought that has plagued the region for over a decade; farmers in Maharashtra, India protested over loan waivers, prices, and land rights with state ministers due to the growing problem of drought in the region; on Tuesday, Kansas Governor, Jeff Colyer, signed a drought declaration for all 105 counties in the state of Kansas; and also on Tuesday the South African government declared that the drought afflicting Cape Town and other parts of the country is a national disaster.

These are just a few facts regarding the mounting problems of water supply around the world with Cape Town being one of the more serious cases.  Aside from the obvious problems of climate change where drought poses a threat to green spaces and wildlife, to the local economy, and tourism, the more obvious danger is to agriculture as well as to health and sanitation.  In its third year of consecutive drought, Cape Town residents are limited to 50 liters of water per day and “Day Zero,” said to arrive on 9 July of this year, is that moment when the water supply is so low that three-quarters of the population will have its water shut off.

While droughts are a natural phenomenon in the Western Cape, climate change has exacerbated the conditions for inhabitants of this region and it is widely believed that climate change is playing a principle role in the devastation.  While global warming has already resulted in extreme conditions in this region and beyond, scientists underscore the need for humans to adapt to this new reality where, for instance, in the Western Cape, the weather is expected to warm by around 0.25C over the next decade. This fact alone means that the likelihood of drought will increase sevenfold and affect the state of health, hygiene, and food insecurity in the region.

One strange player that has come to the “rescue” in the Western Cape is Coca-Cola Peninsula Beverages, in partnership with the Coca-Cola Foundation and suppliers. Attempting to provide millions of liters of water to the Western Cape and the City of Cape Town during the water crisis, providing free “prepared water” in 2-liter recyclable PET bottles marked “Not for resale.”  South Africa is the only country in the world which has a Constitution that guarantees the right to water in the Bill of Rights but this right is not only being denied to millions of residents of the country.   In the Western Cape and other provinces, over 1 million people have been affected by water shortages and water restrictions with many having to walk tens of kilometers to source drinking water.  So the protection of South Africa’s constitutional guarantee of water has become especially dear to many.

Back in the early 2000s, townships surrounding the cities of Johannesburg and Durban became politically mobilized in protesting water privatization given the fact that at the time over 10 million residents had their water cut off by the government’s implementation of a World Bank-inspired “cost recovery” program.  This program made water availability dependent on a company’s ability to recover its costs plus a profit and more than 100,000 people in Kwazulu-Natal province became ill with cholera after water and sanitation services to local communities were cut off for nonpayment.

In their brilliant exposé of this situation in South Africa and beyond, “Who Owns Water?”, Maude Barlow and Tony Clarke give a scathing explanation of what was at stake back in 2002, the situation far more aggravated today.  They identify the ten major corporations making a profit from freshwater beginning with France’s Vivendi Universal and Suez whom they label the “General Motors and Ford of the global water industry.” Barlow and Clare go on to characterize how these two and other companies:

deliver private water and wastewater services to more than 200 million customers in 150 countries and are in a race, along with others such as Bouygues Saur, RWE-Thames Water and Bechtel-United Utilities, to expand to every corner of the globe.” In the United States, Vivendi operates through its subsidiary, USFilter; Suez via its subsidiary, United Water; and RWE by way of American Water Works.

But what about the World Bank and its’ “cost recovery” programs?  Aren’t they working?  The short answer is yes: they are working to help increase the coffers of theWorld Bank and the IMF as poor countries continue to become poorer and Barlow and Claire elaborate:

They are aided by the World Bank and the IMF, which are increasingly forcing Third World countries to abandon their public water delivery systems and contract with the water giants in order to be eligible for debt relief. The performance of these companies in Europe and the developing world has been well documented: huge profits, higher prices for water, cutoffs to customers who cannot pay, no transparency in their dealings, reduced water quality, bribery and corruption.

In a country where the minority of white farmers (six hundred thousand) consume 60 percent of the country’s water supplies for irrigation, it is no surprise that the country’s 15 million black citizens have no direct access to water. Labor unions like the South African Municipal Workers Union have collaborated with township activists to organize neighborhood actions where citizens are connecting water up themselves and ripping out water meters.  The injustices of foreign-owned companies coming into South Africa are being addressed but all too slowly as residents’ water is cut off, rarely is it the water of white South Africans.

Such is life in the twenty-first century when older trade deals such as NAFTA (North American Free Trade Agreement) saw governments signing away their control over domestic water supplies and the later failed attempt to create the Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA), and also the the World Trade Organization.  It is increasingly clear given the current state of drought which bodies have access to water, which ones do not.  And despite our desire to “fix” these problems thought hackathons in the Nevada Desert or by adjusting the Computerized Maintenance Management System (CMMS) which can be used to address drought structurally, the reality is that there is a lot of neo-colonial control over those areas of the world in conditions of severe draught, and a load of white, western institutions making money over the death and hardships of dark-skinned bodies. So of course, it is not surprising to see white South Africans asking that Coca-Cola be put in charge of its water supplies!

Skip over the Indian Ocean to the Indian state of Tamil Nadu and a similar story has erupted in recent years. Indians have been protesting the condition of drought that has been pushed to the hilt by Pepsi-Cola and Coca-Cola depleting local water resources.  Amit Srivastava, director of India Resource Centre, an ecological NGO, estimates that it takes 1.9 liters of water to make one small bottle of Coca-Cola only if you don’t factor in the use of sugar. Sugarcane uses a lot of water to cultivate for which Coca-Cola is the number one purchaser of sugarcane and Pepsi-Cola number three.  If you account for the water used to create all ingredients in Pepsi-Cola or Coca-Cola, then it actually takes 400 liters of water to make a bottle of cola.

The move against fizzy drinks in Tamil Nadu gained momentum in March, 2017 when the High Court rejected rejected the request by petition to ban the use of water from the Thamirabarani River used to produced Coca-Cola and Pepsi-Cola.  This effectively has nullified a previous injunction passed by a court in November, 2016.  Petitioners have argued that thousands of farmers in Tamil Nadu have been suffering from water shortage and drought while both companies freely used the river water for their commercial gains. Coincidental to the Supreme Court’s decision in the Spring of 2017 was another ban on jallikattu, a local form of bullfighting, pronounced in January 2017.  The momentum from these two court decisions resulted in a reinvigorated mass protest against both Coca-Cola and Pepsi-Cola.  And in the state of Kerala in March 2017, retailers voted to ban the sale of sodas.

In 1999, Coca-Cola established a bottling plant in the village of Kaladera in Rajasthan, a desert state where farmers rely on groundwater for the cultivation of their crops.  Since this time, these farmers have been confronted with a steep decline in water levels whereby the irrigation of land and the sustenance of crops is nearly impossible.  Official documents from the government’s water ministry show that water levels remained stable from 1995 until 2000:  “According to data compiled by the Rajasthan Groundwater department, in the 16 years from 1984 the groundwater levels at Kaladera dropped from 13 to 42 feet, at an average annual rate of 1.81 feet. But from 2000 to 2011, the drop was sharp from 42 to 131 feet at the rate of 8.9 feet a year.”

India and South Africa are not alone in this usurpation of public resources for the private sector. In San Felipe Ecatepec in the state of Chiapas, a Coca-Cola factory run by FEMSA is draining wells which forces local residents to buy bottled water.  It is reported that this bottling plant “consumes more than a million liters of water a day.” FEMSA  claims to be  “committed to the sustainable development of its associates, communities and the environment,” but little action is seen to demonstrate this.  And in Brazil, Guatemala, Colombia, and Mexico, PepsiCo faces similar problems with criticism for depleting water resources in these areas.  Both Pepsi-Cola and Coca-Cola seek out the clean image it needs to win over public opinion, much most of their claims are theatre.  While Coca-Cola claims to replenish the water it removes from the ground, the fact is that the water is never replaced at the source of its original removal. And as much as these companies try to rebrand and “green up” their image, you will never win over a population whose water you steal while selling the public their own water back to them.  For instance, Ethiopia’s East African Bottling Company has introduced Dasani to its market which is more rinse and repeat of the same old for Africans:  Coca Cola owns Dasani.

In 2017, 81 million people in the world experienced severe food insecurity or shortage. Approximately 80 percent of those affected live in Africa.  The reality of food and water shortage is one that can be addressed and rectified, but we can do neither if our societies do not recognize the need to understand how the privatization and abuse by corporations of public resources is adding to or creating conditions of drought. The human contributions leading to the credible risk of famine and thirst experienced in countries such as Ethiopia, Somalia, Yemen, Nigeria, and South Sudan, though more pronounced, are emblematic as to what is happening in South Africa, India, Mexico and beyond.

There is a corporate takeover of public resources and we need to support a Global Water Convention now such as the proposed model, The Treaty Initiative: To Share and Protect the Global Water Commons, penned by Maude Barlow and Jeremy Rifkin that lays out what we must do to secure the right of access to water.  There are also others proposals for a Global Water Convention similar to the model suggested by Barlow and Clarke in their 2002 Nation article.  Still, so many people around the planet have not mobilized towards a legal decree obligating the sharing of water resources and the end to corporate encroachment upon public resources. As water is the 21st century’s most precious commodity, we need to act quickly to ensure that the limited resource of water does not translate to the limited resource of life.

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Julian Vigo is a scholar, film-maker and human rights consultant. Her latest book is Earthquake in Haiti: The Pornography of Poverty and the Politics of Development (2015). She can be reached at: julian.vigo@gmail.com

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