Privatizing Water, NGOs Tell Developed Countries
By Jim Lobe
WASHINGTON - More than 100 non-governmental organizations
(NGOs) from around the world have issued an "Evian
Water Challenge" to leaders of the Group of Eight (G8)
major industrial nations that will meet next week in Evian,
France, demanding that they stop pressuring developing countries
to privatize their water resources.
The statement, coordinated by Amsterdam-based Corporate
Europe Observatory (CEO), is directed primarily at the
European members of the G8--especially France, Germany,
and Britain--which together dominate the global water
market, a growth industry in many developing countries
that have been urged by the World Bank and financial agencies
to sell off rights to their water resources in order to
replenish depleted treasuries and improve service.
But the NGOs, which hail from Europe, North America,
Indonesia, Ghana, and Bolivia, insist that water privatization
has proved a bad deal for many countries and consumers.
"The record of water liberalization and privatization
around the world has been a disaster," according
to Clare Joy of the London-based World Development Movement
(WMD). "Many developing countries and impoverished
communities have rejected the idea of providing water
for profit, yet the European members of the G8 are pushing
them into a trade agreement, lobbied for by business and
negotiated in secret, that will lock in liberalization
regardless of the cost to the poor and vulnerable."
She was referring to the General Agreement on Trade in
Services (GATS) that is the subject of ongoing negotiations
under the Geneva-based World Trade Organization (WTO).
Launched in 2000, the accord would require countries to
drop all barriers to private investment in a range of
public services and utilities, from water systems to hospitals.
Such a provision would greatly benefit six major multinational
companies, which between them account for virtually all
private investment in water utilities in developing countries.
They include the two largest, France's Suez and Vivendi
Environment corporations; followed by Thames Water, owned
by Germany's RWE AG; Saur, another French company; United
Utilities of Britain, and Bechtel. Altogether private
companies control about five percent of the global water
Active in the water sector of only 12 countries in 1990,
the six companies now operate in 56 countries and two
territories. A World Bank report released at the Third
World Water Forum in Kyoto in March predicted that global
investment in water will have to double over the next
20 years to keep pace with demand, particularly if global
targets for providing safe water supplies and sanitation
to the two billion people living on less than US$2 a day
are to achieved.
The European Union (EU) has been especially aggressive.
They are demanding that 72 countries open their water
sectors to foreign private investment in the GATS negotiations.
The NGOs want the EU to withdraw those demands at the
Evian summit, June 1-3.
In February, the Washington-based Center for Public Integrity
and its Consortium of Investigative Journalists released
a report that concluded that privatization had cut off
millions of people from safe-water supplies, resulting,
for example, in South Africa's worst-ever cholera outbreak,
which killed nearly 300 people and infected more than
The privatization of Bolivia's water system provoked
major unrest in Cochabamba where skyrocketing rates threatened
to cut off tens of thousands of people from their supply
of safe water.
The companies themselves and the EU claim that private
companies can generally supply water and sanitation more
efficiently--and thus at cheaper rates over time--to consumers,
including the poor, but activists insist that the record
"The EU's push for water privatization in developing
countries is covered in a layer of sustainable development
rhetoric," according to CEO. "But the bottom
line is to secure profitable markets for European water
Among the groups supporting the "Evian Challenge"
are Britain's Save the Children and War on Want, Friends
of the Earth Europe; the anti-globalization group Attac;
Public Citizen of the U.S.; and Coordinadora de Defensa
del Agua y de la Vida, a coalition which led a major campaign
against a Bechtel subsidiary in Bolivia.