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Corporate Europe Observer - Issue 7
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...And Not a Drop to Drink!
World Water Forum promotes privatisation and deregulation of world's water

"Today, companies like France's Suez are rushing to privatize water, already a $400 billion global business. They are betting that H2O will be to the 21st century what oil was to the 20th." - Fortune Magazine[1]

he privatisation of water has a long and complicated history, even going back as early as the mid-nineteenth century when Napoleon III privatised water services in France. While many municipalities and communities have or are currently experimenting with different policies regarding water services, privatised water still accounts for only 10% of the world's water utilities.[2] However, water privatisation recently got a big boost at a meeting of government ministers, representatives from the World Bank, the United Nations, and CEOs from some of the world's largest water and water-related corporations. The 2nd World Water Forum held on March 17-22, 2000 in Den Haag, the Netherlands provided just the political impetus these institutions needed to accelerate the process of global water deregulation and privatisation further into the corporate sphere.

Making water everybody's 'business'

The World Water Forums are the triennial meetings of the World Water Council - an international think-tank with considerable influence in the world of international water politics. After the 1st World Water Forum in Marrakech, Morocco in 1997, the World Water Council initiated its 'vision exercise' known as the "Long Term Vision for Water, Life and Environment in the 21st Century" - or "World Water Vision." The vision exercise, according to World Bank Vice-President and Chair of the World Water Council, Ismail Serageldin, was intended to "contribute to changing our world water future." The title of the vision document perhaps alludes to the changes Serageldin is referring to - "World Water Vision: Making Water Everybody's Business."

To "guide the World Water Vision exercise," in 1998 the Council created yet another entity called the World Water Commission.[3] This Commission includes some high profile corporate and neo-liberal personalities including: Suez Lyonnaise des Eaux Chair Jerôme Monod; founder of the greenwash body, Business Council on Sustainable Development (now known as the WBCSD) Maurice Strong; former World Bank President Robert S. McNamara; President of the Inter-American Development Bank Enrique Iglesias; CEO of the World Bank/UN Global Environment Facility Mohamed T. El-Ashry; and Ismail Serageldin as Chair.

Skewed vision

The World Water Commission claims that the vision document is the result of 18 months of an "extraordinary participatory exercise," involving "thousands of men and women."[4] However, close examination of the Commission's methodology reveals a different picture. The bulk of input into the vision exercise came from participants and groups attending the myriad of water-related conferences over the last one and a half years. While these conferences took place in various parts of the world, the majority of the participants to such events were mostly technical advisors, academics, water 'experts' and members of large development agencies and NGOs. People most directly affected by water crises around the world were often marginalised in such events. Urban slum dwellers, rural villagers, people afflicted by waterborne diseases, victims of World Bank-funded hydroelectric dam projects or those suffering from floods and droughts, have had almost no input into the 'vision exercise'. Yet despite, this, Serageldin refers to the vision as being reflective of "all stakeholders."[5]

A look at "all the stakeholders"

Despite Serageldin's claims of being inclusive of "all stakeholders," A handful of organisations controlled and dominated the vision process. Chief among these were the World Water Council (WWC), World Commission on Water for the 21st Century (WCW), Global Water Partnership (GWP), World Bank, and the French water giant Suez Lyonnaise des Eaux. Key positions in these organisations were also dominated by only a few key individuals, such as Ismail Serageldin who chaired all three water groups and served as Vice President of the World Bank.[6] No less than four people from top positions in Suez Lyonnaise des Eaux held influential positions in the different groups.[7] Of the 85 individuals and organisations who have contributed to the December 1999 draft of the World Water Vision document, only 19 did not have any direct links to one of the groups driving the vision process.[8]

A free market 'Framework for Action'

While the Council and it's offspring, the World Commission on Water for the 21st Century, provided the 'vision' for the Water Forum, it was left to their sister entity, the Global Water Partnership to develop and guide the Framework for Action. This document, suggests actions that governments should take to implement the Vision. The report includes some very controversial recommendations familiar to many who have been following trends in international trade and investment negotiations.

These include calls for: full liberalisation and deregulation of the water sector; 'national treatment' whereby transnational corporations should be given the same treatment as local enterprises and/or public authorities; transparency in government procurement of water contracts; trade facilitation - where governments should be more service-oriented to the private sector; and privatisation as much as feasible with mixed public-private partnership agreements being the next best thing. Other recommendations include the removal of all price and trade distorting subsidies; dispute settlement over water issues; promotion of agricultural biotechnologies; protection of property rights over water resources; and alarmingly reminiscent of the infamous Multilateral Agreement on Investment (MAI), a demand for a "stable and predictable investment climate" which would reinforce "investor rights."[9]

All of the above recommendations and more are detailed in the Framework for Action, though coloured in terminology all too similar to the rhetoric traditionally used by many NGOs. Children's crayon drawings and the many references to gender, community empowerment, and land reform, help to paint what are far-reaching proposals to expand and reinforce corporate power over the world's water supplies in a more positive and acceptable light. While some of the proposals outlined in the report, could potentially be helpful in mitigating global water problems, they are largely undermined by what Ismail Serageldin describes as a future with the "private sector acting as engines of transformation on the ground."[10]

While the Vision and Action documents provided the core analysis to the delegates at the Forum, and to the concluding official Ministerial Conference attended by over 100 of the world's environment and development ministers, some other well choreographed initiatives helped to cement corporate concerns firmly into the Water Forum agenda.

CEOs take a stand

In the showroom area of the conference (the World Water Fair), corporations such as Nestlé, Suez Lyonnaise des Eaux, Unilever, and Heineken showcased their efforts to promote sustainability and water efficiency, while their CEOs addressed the assembly demanding that water be recognised as an economic good rather than as a human right.[11] In fact, all the Forum rhetoric focused on human 'needs' as opposed to a concept of human 'rights', consistent with the World Water Vision in which the concept of water as a human right does not appear.[12] This emphasis away from discussion of human rights complimented with the following Ministerial Meeting declaration's recognition of water as an economic good proved to be a major ideological victory for the corporations seeking inroads into the water market.

Another ideological victory that was won by the private sector and neo-liberal minded government officials at the Forum, was official recognition of the importance of public-private partnerships (PPPs) in the water sector. Public-Private Partnerships, whereby government and industry cooperate on a project (usually a public service), constitute a small percentage of the makeup of the world's water management systems. However, in light of the outcomes of the conference, this may very well increase in the next few years. Numerous documents and workshops and individual speeches throughout the Forum all spoke of the successes of existing Public-Private Partnership models and the promises they bring. The rationale offered for these partnerships was that 'cash-strapped' governments, mostly in the South, cannot afford the necessary infrastructure and services necessary to provide water services to their populations.

Not once was it suggested that governments cannot afford to invest in their water services, because they are recovering from financial crises, asphyxiated by IMF-imposed structural adjustment programmes, and 'cash-strapped' because they are forced to spend a huge percentage of their annual budgets on servicing debts to donor countries and multilateral financial institutions.

Activists challenge the water forum consensus

However, not all was rosy for the conference organisers. Many groups did their best to raise a critical voice to the whole process. In one session on Public-Private Partnerships, a Filipino member of a public sector union in Manila, stood up in the audience and displayed a sample of Manila tap water after one such partnership was implemented with Lyonnaise des Eaux. The yellow-brown water held aloft in a small bottle proved to be quite an embarrassment for Jack Moss, marketing director of Lyonnaise des Eaux, who had just completed a dry presentation on the success of the Manila project - one of the largest water privatisation projects to date.

Some members of Los Solidarios con Itoiz, a group seeking to stop the construction of the Itoiz dam in the Basque country, managed to interrupt the opening ceremony with a well organised action including a banner drop inside the main hall, a chorus of protest from the audience, and a 'naked truth' action on stage demanding "No Profits from Water" and "Stop Itoiz Dam". The protesters were jailed for three days, most likely because of the embarrassment it caused the Dutch government and particularly Prince Willem Alexander who served as convenor for the Forum. Members of Public Services International, the Council of Canadians, the Nepal-based International Institute for Human Rights, Environment and Development, and others also made numerous interventions throughout the conference, yet much of what they said fell on deaf ears. It didn't take long to figure out that the conclusions of the Forum were not the product of open discussion at the conference, but were worked out long ago. In that respect, the Forum itself served more as a high-profile PR event to highlight those foregone conclusions rather than the forum for open debate it was promoted to be.

To the casual observer, the event would have been indistinguishable from any of hundreds of similar high-level international meetings whether it be a World Bank annual meeting, a corporate AGM, or an arms fair. Yet, the grey suited mostly male delegates were not besieged by thousands of protesters this time 'round. According to public sector trade union federation, Public Services International, the Water Forum was very much "business as usual."[13]

Water, a resource essential to human survival, has long proven difficult and controversial for corporations, as recent mass protests in Cochabamba, Bolivia illustrated. There, people suffering from a dramatic rate hike in water services after a controversial privatisation agreement was made between the local municipality and San Francisco-based Bechtel Corp., refused to accept it. Soon after it emerged that the privatisation was a condition placed upon the Bolivian government by the World Bank.[14] The protests forced the government to reduce the water rates and re-evaluate the contract with Bechtel, and sparked off a massive public debate about democratic decision-making and accountability. The uprising sent a chill down the spine of Bechtel Corp., and other water giants keen on penetrating new markets.
However, with the ideological and political backing of the world's governments, politicians, and institutions such as the World Bank and the UN behind them, corporations may now find things have just become easier.

Some Water Facts:

·The underground aquifer that supplies one-third of the water for the continental US is being depleted 8 times faster than it is being replenished.

·Saudi Arabia is a net exporter of wheat using non-renewable water reserves. It is expected to have completely depleted all of its reserves within 50 years.

·The manufacture of computer wafers, used in the production of computer chips, uses up to 18 million litres of water per day. Globally, the industry uses 1.5 trillion litres of water and produces 300 billion litres of wastewater every year.

·Available fresh water amounts to less than one half of one percent of all the water on Earth. The rest is sea water, or is frozen in the polar ice. Fresh water is naturally renewable only by rainfall, at the rate of 40-50,000 cubic km per year.

·In India, some households pay a staggering 25 percent of their income on water.

·Poor residents of Lima, Peru, pay private vendors as much as $3 for a cubic meter for buckets of often-contaminated water while the more affluent pay 30 cents per cubic meter for treated municipal tap water.

·More than five million people, most of them children, die every year from illnesses caused by drinking poor-quality water.

·More than one billion people live in arid regions that will face absolute water scarcity by 2025.

Sources: Barlow, Maude, "Blue Gold". Yaron, Gil, "The Final Frontier". Public Services International: http://www.world-psi.org, Fortune magazine, World Water Vision.

World Water Vision
Framework for Action

Recommended Reading

Barlow, Maude, "Blue Gold: The Global Water Crisis and the Commodification of the World's Water Supply," International Forum on Globalization, June 1999.

Banicevic, Anita and Milos Barutciski, "Water, the WTO and NAFTA: Conservation, Exports and the International Trading System," Canadian Bar Association National Symposium on Water Law, April 9-10, 1999.

Yaron, Gil, "The Final Frontier: A Working Paper on the Big 10 Global Water Corporations and the Privatization and Corporatization of the World's Last Public Resource," Polaris Institute and the Council of Canadians, March 15, 2000.

Web resources

Public Services International

Canadian Union of Public Employees

Council of Canadians

World Water Forum

World Water Council

Global Water Partnership


1. Tully, Shawn, "Water, Water Everywhere," Fortune Magazine, May 15, 2000. Page 55.| Back to Text |

2. Blokland, Maarten. Opening statement at the "Special Subject Session on Water and Public-Private Partnerships," 21 March 2000.| Back to Text |

3. World Water Forum website, http://www.worldwaterforum.net | Back to Text |

4. Serageldin, Ismail. "Word from the Chairman of the World Water Commission," foreword of World Water Vision: Making Water Everybody's Business. Earthscan Publications Ltd. Page vi. | Back to Text |

5. Serageldin, Ismail. Address to the World Water Forum, March 19, 2000.| Back to Text |

6. Serageldin served as Chair for the World Water Council, Global Water Partnership, and the World Commission on Water for the 21st Century. He is also Vice President of the World Bank. | Back to Text |

7. Ivan Chéret, Senior Advisor to the Chair of Suez Lyonnaise des Eaux, is member of the Global Water Partnership. Margaret Catley-Carlson, Chair of the Suez-Lyonnaise-sponsored Water Resources Advisory Committee, is a member of the World Commission on Water for the 21st Century. René Coulomb, former director of Suez-Lyonnaise des Eaux, is Vice President of the World Water Council, and is a member of the Global Water Partnership Steering Committee. Jerôme Monod, Chair of the Supervisory Board of Suez Lyonnaise des Eaux, and former Transatlantic Business Dialogue (TABD) European chair, is also a member Source: Public Services International (PSI). PSI Briefing: Critique of the Vision. Research by PSIRU.| Back to Text |

8. Ibid.| Back to Text |

9. Global Water Partnership. Towards Water Security: A Framework for Action.| Back to Text |

10. Ibid, Page 4.| Back to Text |

11. "Water is an economic good and its economic value should be recognised in the allocation of scarce water resources to competing uses." Joint statement to the Ministerial Conference on Water Security issued by the World Water Forum CEO Panel on business and industry.| Back to Text |

12. However a paragraph on the importance of "pricing water services to reflect the cost of their provision" did.| Back to Text |

13. Boys, David, "No Profits from Water," Focus Magazine, Public Services International, Edition 2-2000.| Back to Text |

14. Shultz, Jim, "World Bank Forced Water Privatization On Cochabamba," Minneapolis Star-Tribune July 15, 2000.| Back to Text |

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