the Water Cartel
A Report From Inside the Activist Coalition at the World
By Holly Wren Spaulding
Kyoto - The conveners of the third World Water Forum,
the World Water Council and Global Water Partnership,
tried hard last week to sell the idea that there is a
consensus behind their control, distribution and conservation
of the world's water. But efforts to turn the Forum into
a thinly veiled commercial for corporate solutions to
the global water crisis backfired. Instead, many delegates
were convinced by arguments put forward citizens' groups
framing the water debate as a human rights issue.
The third meeting of the World Water Forum (WWF), held
from March 16th to 22nd in Kyoto, Japan, comes at a time
when there is growing alarm over the scarcity of water
worldwide -- a crisis that is only expected to get worse.
It also comes as there are fierce battles being fought
over who should control this precious resource. One vision,
put forward by major corporations trying to make a buck
on water services, and their governmental allies, is that
water is a valuable commodity to be controlled by the
market. The other, sees water as a basic human and environmental
right, to be protected by communities and people around
The Water Barons Control the Show, or Do They?
The schmooze fest between high-ranking government ministers
from around the world, and the emerging water cartel including
industry giants such as Suez and Vivendi of France, and
the German-British conglomerate RWE-Thames, was also a
preview of what to expect at the upcoming WTO summit in
Cancun, Mexico this September. However, the Water Forum's
primary goal was to promote the privatization of water
resources, especially by endorsing public-private partnerships
in both the north and the south.
The aggressive corporate campaign for control the world's
water has activists concerned. The World Water Forum is
"greenwashing, poor washing, and hope dashing,"
noted Anuradha Mittal of Food First, an Oakland, California-based
policy group. Mittal and other activists were appalled
by workshops like "How Will the Poor Become Customers?"
Mittal was part of a broad coalition of over 30 organizations
from some 27 different countries which came together to
challenge the drumbeat towards privatization at the World
Water Forum. Summit organizers like to portray the WWF
as an international body with a mandate to protect water
resources. But human rights advocates charge that it is
really an exclusive club accountable only to the demands
of the market.
With room for dialogue blocked by the Forum process,
activists decided to speak out at a panel of top executives
from the leading water companies. The grand stage had
been prepared with bamboo arrangements and massive video
screens for the corporate presentation, but the twenty
men on stage received a different kind of attention than
the enthusiastic response they expected.
Grassroots activists took control of the discussion from
the floor. Apart from telling the "suits" to
go to hell, speakers told story after story of the daily
crises caused by water privatization in their countries.
Among them was Briggs Mokolo of South Africa who is fighting
to defend poor families whose water is cut off by private
service providers. A Mexican activist from Cancun brought
a plastic bottle of brackish tap water, which was dark
brown and smelled of gasoline, to pass around the panel
Meanwhile, Indigenous rights activists questioned the
premise of treating water as a profit-making commodity.
For example, Tom Goldtooth, of the Indigenous Environmental
Network said it is up communities around the world to
safeguard water resources for future generations. As one
native woman put it, "I am the Colombia River."
For every power point presentation on the success of
a corporate water concession, there were those at the
World Water Forum, like Maria Selva Ortiz from Uruguay,
who gave testimony on the impacts such contracts have
on people on the ground. In fact, says Ortiz "very
often civil society has to rise up and revolt, "
as has been the experience of rural and urban communities
in Cochabamba, Bolivia.
Among the strategies used by corporations in the global
water grab, is to seize control of groundwater. According
to Ian Johnson of the World Bank, groundwater mining has
"very low or zero social costs in terms of exploitation."
What Johnson didn't know was that that five members of
the audience from were US-Canadian Great Lakes region
where pitched battles are being waged over groundwater.
Representing communities fighting Nestl's water bottling
operations, they brought up the social and environmental
costs that Johnson so sweepingly dismissed.
A Tsunami of Opposition
The corporate agenda became more explicit as the weeklong
summit progressed, catalyzing opposition around report
entitled "Financing Water For All." Chaired
by Michel Camdessus, former Managing Director of the International
Monetary Fund, this document spurred what turned out to
be one of the most heated confrontations of the week.
Trade unionists, members of International Rivers Network,
and the Indigenous Network, joined other grassroots activists
and policy advocates to operate homemade "Lie Meters"
throughout Camdessus' presentation of the report. These
make shift meters indicated the level of deceit on a color-coded
scale, with red being the highest alert. Others held up
large painted clouds with the words "Agua es Vida"
(Water is Life) and "El Agua es del Pueblo"(Water
Belongs to the People) blazoned on them. Speaking from
the floor, Bolivian Human Rights activist Pablo Solon
rejected the report's recommendations.
"We are not against this paragraph or that paragraph
of the Camdessus Report. We are against the heart of the
Camdessus Report, because the heart of the report is that
it does not have a heart," Solon charged. He pointed
out that water privatization policies, like the ones advocated
by the Camdessus Report, have lead to riots and even deaths
"You are not happy with taking us to war over oil.
You want to take us to war over water too," observed
an Argentinian trade unionist. Noted Indian scholar and
activist Vandana Shiva drew applause when she pointed
out that "People do not drink money, we drink water."
Shortly thereafter, two large banners appeared on stage,
one reading "World Water Council Mafia" and
the other, "No Profits from Water." On cue,
about 100 civil society participants walked out by way
of the stage, blocking the presenters behind their expansive
They passed Expo Center with banners, chants and "Water
is Life" headbands finally meeting up with a larger
march outside organized by Japanese activists.
In one final act of resistance, Canadian water activists
and policy analysts Tony Clark and Maude Barlow were among
a group of campaigners who crashed the "members only"
meeting held by the World Water Council. They announced
that more than two hundred organizations had signed on
to the Water is Life Alternative Vision Statement. The
statement is meant to counter the World Water Forum's
vision of water as a commodity and source of profits.
Meanwhile, in the days following the World Water Forum
grassroots activists have returned to their local struggles
from El Salvador to Ghana, Detroit and New Zealand, from
Tanzania, Nicaragua and India to the Netherlands. They
vowed to continue developing alternatives to the models
offered by the Water Barons. As Vandana Shiva noted, "For
every really terrible thing they give us, we must come
up with something really beautiful."
Holly Wren Spaulding is a member of the Sweetwater Alliance,
a group fighting a Nestle water bottling operation in