One of History’s Great Atrocities: The Corporate Theft of the Public’s Natural Right to Water

The Growing Debate on who will Control the World’s Water Supply

by Ashley Powdar
Published on Thursday, May 1, 2008 by The Council on Hemispheric Affairs

The current 1.1 billion people worldwide without access to potable water only opens one of the smaller windows on the injustices and the multiple casualties being wrought by private water-related industries. In fact, many are clueless to the magnitude of the victims — present and projected — of the growing water crisis as well as to the inhumane implications of the role of the private sector in regards to treating water as a commodity that can be owned and sold for profit. As of now, 2.6 billion people are at high risk for not having access to potable and an additional 1.8 million children die each year from water-related diseases.

In the mix of chaos, despair, and confusion, which most affects the poorer elements of society, it is important to note the private corporations’ role, which some critics have identified as being among the major culprits in causing the crisis. Within recent decades, water privatization firms such as Suez, Vivendi, and RWE have bought control of a number of communities’ municipal water services, and then drastically increased the price of water; with some of them failing to effectively purify the water resources they had come to monopolize.

An Innate Right

The heightened trend towards water privatization has gone almost undetected by the general public for well over a decade, despite the huge ramifications it is having on many lives. Public water advocates argue that it is a necessity of life and no individual or corporation has the right to seize ownership and place a value on the resource. Water is for life, not for profit. Author Vadana Shiva resolutely states that “water is a commons because it is the basis of all life. Water rights are natural rights and thus usufructuary rights, meaning that water can be used, but not owned.” Water privatization has caused considerable strife around the world, specifically in less industrialized nations. Major water companies, with the help of the World Bank and International Monetary Fund (IMF), continue to divest communities of their natural right to water, thus undermining the essence of democracy as well as contributing to an insidious form of global deprivation.

Water is a Means to Life

At a 2 percent water loss from the body, one is thirsty. At 5 percent, one is dehydrated, and at 11 percent, one is immobilized. It is estimated by WaterAid that in less industrialized countries, one child dies every 15 seconds from the lack of water. This disturbing figure has the potential to grow into an even harsher reality with much greater numbers at risk in the next 20 years, given that the global water supply is predicted to be depleted by 30 - 40 percent.

In addition to the necessity of water for survival, water acts as a principle force behind some of the most important socio-cultural, religious, and political aspects of society. Since the establishment of waterways as a major means of international transportation in the 15th century, water has also been a facilitator in communication as well as a mainstream factor in the exchange of goods and services. Water has both brought nations together and diversified economies for centuries. During this period, water has been the primary, most vital vehicle for communication among countries, societies and cultures. Thus it is reasonable to say that water has been the fundamental, initiating actor in technological innovation, cultural awareness and economic diversification.

Water also plays a central role in religious practices. For many faiths, water represents purity and rebirth. In Christianity, water is used for baptism, a sacred practice in which the individual is immersed in water to symbolize the rebirth as a follower of Christ. In Islam, the five daily prayers of the latter cannot be performed without the cleansing of body parts in water. In fact, water is a sufficiently sacred substance as it is mentioned in the New International Version of the Bible 442 times.

Water also has shaped the economic prosperity of many nations. If a nation has a coastline, there is abundant opportunity for viable trade and markets — as water can introduce a variety of new foods, expand agricultural production, and increase the prospects of tourism. Furthermore, water acts as a strategic resource for countries because it allows for geopolitical control over adjoining regions, as well as has the potential to enhance and make visible a state’s infrastructure. Due to the political connectivity of water, this scarce resource has caused numerous border wars between neighbors as well as countless water-related fatalities. There have been numerous instances where conflict has resulted from countries, organizations, and/or communities threatening to take control of a region’s main water resources and severely impeding the bulk of the local population’s access to the resource. These incidents have ranged from Israel’s partial ex parte control Jordan River running through the Middle East, to South Africa’s withholding of water resources from its black population during the Apartheid period (1948 - 1994), to Washington’s interest in the Guaraní Aquifer in the Triple Frontier region in South America.

The “Blue Gold” of the 21st Century

The World Bank and IMF are among the principle factors behind the implementation of water privatization. The commodification of water began in earnest in the 1990’s in various developing regions of the world in an effort to address a number of water-related issues varying from its scarcity to a woeful mismanagement of the resource. To begin, the World Bank and IMF, along with multinational enterprises, argued that by placing a value on water, the general public was less likely to abuse, waste, and indiscriminately consume large amounts of the increasingly scant product. It has been found by a vast array of non-profit organizations that the average European uses 200 liters of water every day whereas North Americans use 400 liters of water a day. This can be compared to the average person in the developing world who uses 10 liters of water every day for drinking, washing, and cooking purposes. Independent environmental journalist Carmelo Ruiz Marrero explains the role played by pro-privatization international lending agencies by stating that “water is wasted because people get it for free or for artificially low prices. Therefore, if its price reflected its true ecological and economic cost, people would avoid its abuse and overuse.”

Pro-privatization defenders maintain that in addition to poor water management by the general population, there is a serious lack of good management practices on a national level, which introduces the next argument. Critics of the status quo contend that the state has ill-served its citizens by not providing a clean, efficient water supply. Marrero explains that “the state has failed as administrator of the resource, not only because of its corruption, incapacity, and lack of investment in the infrastructure, but also through its promotion of paternalistic cheap water for all cultures that has resulted in waste and overexploitation.” Supporters of privatization argue that the government’s inability to comprehend and properly execute the methods needed to widely and effectively distribute water to the community inexorably results in an inadequate water supply for the general public. Their argument is that by inviting experienced international corporations into the country, water allocation, purity, and affordability will be made more efficient.

The third argument is that population growth will soon outweigh the ecosystem’s ability to provide abundant water supply for every individual, thus resulting in a very unsettling conditions of water scarcity. Because of this, social conflicts are likely to arise among communities, nations, and regions. Although this argument already has begun to prove to be self-fulfilling, private water companies can be seen as exacerbating social tensions by failing to properly assess the many different factors of water consumption. Marrero maintains that “this argument tends to grossly simplify complex social dynamics surrounding use of natural resources by assuming that extreme economic inequalities and differences in consumption patterns do not exist, and if they do, they are of no consequence.”

Water Privatization in the Western Hemisphere


Less industrialized countries have borne the brunt of the most severe effects of water commodification. In Latin America and the Caribbean, the corporate ownership of water has only aggravated an already dire situation-both in terms of compromising the democratic, innate rights of citizens and endangering the environment. For example, during the Fox Administration in Mexico, water privatization often left Mexican citizens — specifically the poorest sector of the population — deprived of water resources as well as a deteriorating infrastructure. By 2002, precisely a decade after the Mexican government constitutionalized the jurisdiction of foreign-based corporations over what formally had been municipal water services, 28 of the country’s 30 states had been affected by privatization practices; this represented roughly 70 percent of the nation’s water supply. Once President Fox had created the Program for the Modernization of Water Management Companies (PROMAGUA), an agenda geared towards the commodification of the nation’s water supplies, Mexican citizens began to feel the harsh consequences of private ownership of water — and at an exceedingly expensive price. During the 2004 World Water Forum in Kyoto, Japan, Maude Barlow, a highly regarded Canadian field expert in the subject of water privatization, described the actions of one very irate Mexican citizen in the midst of confronting a panel of executives and specialists in water policy:

“Representatives of an international civil society network appeared at a meeting of chief executive officers at the World Water Forum in Kyoto, Japan, in March. The group took over the microphones and offered a series of testimonials about the impact of water privatization around the world. Toward the end of the event, a water activist from Cancun, Mexico, stepped to the microphone and held up a glass of pitch-black, putrid-smelling water. He explained that he had taken the water from his home tap in Cancun, where French company Suez runs the municipal water system. He then requested that the moderator pass the glass of black, smelly water up on stage to the CEO of Suez, inviting him to drink it.”

Water decentralization critics maintain that once these foreign companies, such as Vivendi and Suez, came into Mexico, they increased water prices by at least 60 percent and those who could not pay were cut off from services altogether. Furthermore, as the price of water escalated, its quality continued to deteriorate. The technology and filtration practices used to purify water reservoirs often cause serious damage to the environment while contaminating the surrounding air and soil, and displacing local wild life.


Since the decentralization of water became a trend throughout Latin America in the early 1990’s, local communities in the United States and Canada have succumbed to it. But many other locals were prepared to fight for what they felt was rightfully theirs. In 2003, the city council of Stockton, California signed an agreement with water companies Thames and OWI to privatize the municipal water services for a period of 20 years, with the value of the contract approaching $600 million dollars. Similar to the citizens of Mexico, Stockton residents resisted once they discovered what was being signed away in their name. Despite the residents’ plea to be involved in the decision-making process, the city government continued to ignore the general consensus to oppose the privatization of the city’s water services. One resident attempted to reason with city council members, insisting that “I’m ashamed that we’ve followed this path and have gone down the road at making something happen that was not consensus building, not citizen-involved. It was basically handed down as a dictate. This is not the principle of an All-America City.” Despite an overwhelming opposition by the Stockton’s citizens, the city government overrode the group’s dogged opposition and its water resources were privatized. However, the persistence of the residents soon proved successful. In March of 2007, an overwhelming vote granted the residents their long-standing wish to keep water a free, equally accessible resource. The major reversal could turn out to be a pivotal moment in the history of water privatization in the United States. Not only did it prove that private firms failed to purify and deliver water any better than the previous public services, but it was the second time that the largest commodification project in the region was defeated by the electorate.


Similar to the lack of popular participation in the decision to privatize Stockton, California’s water systems was the experience of Walkerton, Canada, which was subjected to a comparable lack of transparency in the management of the community’s water resources. In May of 2000, the lack of proper water management techniques resulted in the death of seven Walkerton residents and left at least 2,000 ill (half of the population). The culprit behind this tragedy?-the city’s private water sector. It had failed to report indications of contamination, not only because it would hinder the corporation’s revenue, but more alarmingly, it was not required to report such details. Canada continues to remain a lucrative location in the eyes of privatization companies, as the country contains approximately 408 publicly owned water systems. The tragedy of Walkerton only reflects the greater global struggle for water democracy-a struggle that has resulted in many casualties ranging from the elderly to the youth, and from the healthy to the disabled.


Perhaps the most infamous water privatization case involved the residents of Cochabamba, Bolivia, where the community overwhelmingly spoke out against Betchel. The giant U.S. multinational had gained responsibility over the region’s water resources. In October of 1999, the Drinking Water and Sanitation Law was passed, which permitted foreign water corporations to privatize Bolivia’s municipal water systems. Water prices in the Cochabamba region soon reached a disturbingly high level-the average Bolivian, who hardly earned a $100 a month, had to pay $20 alone for water services; the choice for many residents soon became whether to feed and house their families or purchase water. Through protest and perseverance, the local community rose up and soon won the battle, but not without dire costs. Seventeen year-old Victor Hugo Daza was killed by the police during the uprisings, not to mention hundreds injured. After the uprisings, Oliver Olivera, a Bolivian water activist, stated to the supporters of water privatization that “you have blood on your hands.” These six simple words that were heard throughout the world further attested to the severity of the situation and the distance people were willing to travel to obtain their innate rights to an essence of life.

The Price of a Bottle

The next time a consumer purchases a bottle of water, think of its true cost. There are several patterns of water privatization, but none are as offensive as the bottling of water. In fact, most people are unaware of the veritable scandals existing behind the bottled water industry. Characteristically, these multinational water companies go into less industrialized countries, where they monopolize water reservoirs (most often, these public reservoirs are the only available water resources that a given community might have), and sell the water back to the community at a price that invariably is far too expensive for its residents to pay. Water commodification is a global movement. In Africa, where privatization and lack of access to water is most prevalent, over half of the population earns less than one dollar a day; one can imagine the burden of trying to afford a bottle of water that is often priced a little higher than a dollar. Furthermore, women and female children are most affected, as they are forced to travel an average of five miles a day to fetch available water — often times this water is not even potable. The time-consuming task of searching for water impedes women from obtaining jobs to help feed their families and hinders female children from attending school on a regular basis. It is stated that 40 billion working hours are spent carrying water each year and 26 percent of women’s time around the world is spent on physically obtaining the water. In addition, it is estimated that 443 million school days are lost each year due to water privatization and the consequences it has on individual lives.

Water Democracy

Once the attendant injustices of water privatization became evident to the international community, activists, environmentalists, and average citizens alike have been arguing for a greater local presence in the decision-making process affecting water use. Also, advocates have been urging the World Bank, IMF, WTO, as well as national governments to discard their privatization scenarios, as, due to their high cost, they more often than not cause dissension among communities. There are alternatives. Advocates for democratizing water, Maude Barlow and Tony Clarke, assert that there are three essentials the public must control in order to secure their water from any conglomerate monopolization. First, they stress the need for conservation. The population is predicted to exponentially increase while the ecosystem’s water supply is likely to decrease by at least 30 percent. Therefore, preservation is a vital measure to take in order to safeguard this precious resource. Second, they emphasize the importance of equity in regards to water allocation.

Although some nations are blessed with abundant access to fresh water, others are burdened with an egregious lack of this fundamental source of life. Third, in order to institutionalize conservation and equity, water democracy must be obtained at all costs. Water management, its proponents maintain, should be in the hands of the people, not under control of corporations whose principle desire is to generate revenue. It is also notable that accountability, transparency, and consensus are vital in the management of water. Water is for life, not for profit. If the commodification of water continues — thus possibly undermining the basic right to life, it is not absurd to conclude that other vital resources might only become available on a for-pay basis. The coming water crisis must be dealt within a transparent, democratic process or else the globe will fall victim to a series of potentially violent and life threatening consequences. Barlow and Clark state that “In the 21st century, our water is becoming a commodity. Some want to profit from it and others are ready to go to war over it, but every form of life must have it.” The overarching question will be, “who will control this source of life?”

This analysis was prepared by COHA Research Associate Ashley Powdar.

The Council on Hemispheric Affairs, founded in 1975, is an independent, non-profit, non-partisan, tax-exempt research and information organization.

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