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Great Lakes Article:

Perils of Capitalism? Think Water Distribution
Molly Ivins
Chicago Tribune
Posted 10/04/2002

AUSTIN, Texas -- I realize it's early for this sort of thing, but I already have a nomination for dumbest sentence of the decade. You have a mere eight years to top this one, so you'd better get cracking.

I found it in the midst of a nasty little ad hominem attack on journalist Bill Moyers in The Weekly Standard. The writer, Stephen F. Hayes, is laboring under the delusion that Moyers is "dedicated to promoting the views of most extreme elements of the far left in America." One can only conclude that Hayes has never met anyone on the far left: Billy Don Moyers from Marshall, Texas, is actually a Baptist, albeit of the Jimmy Carter school.

Hayes worked himself up into a fine lather of indignation because "Moyers spends much of his time pointing out the conflicts-of-interest of those in government and corporate America." Some would call that journalism, but it was not the inanity of the attack on Moyers that stopped me. It was this sentence, which Hayes stuck in to show how far-left he thinks Moyers is: "Moyers used water rights in Bolivia as an illustration of the perils of capitalism."

Gasp! Gosh, how awful! I happened to see that piece, and indeed it was pretty much about the perils of capitalism in relation to the distribution of water. The perils are here, now, and affect every human being on the planet. The situation in Cochabamba, Bolivia, where the American firm Bechtel bought the public water utility and then doubled prices, led to a general strike and transportation stoppage, mass arrests, violence and several deaths. You don't have to assume that a corporation like Enron Corp. might get into the water business: Enron was in the water business.

In the United States, foreign corporations, mostly French, are grabbing up water rights as fast as they can. The major U.S. players include Bechtel, T. Boone Pickens of Texas and Monsanto. All or part of the water delivery systems in Atlanta; Chattanooga, Tenn.; Houston; Jacksonville; Jersey City; Lexington, Ky.; Peoria and San Francisco have already been privatized. The International Monetary Fund and the World Bank are both actively promoting privatization.

The reason Cochabamba got into trouble in the first place was because the World Bank refused to guarantee a $25 million loan to refinance the water system unless the local government sold its public water utility to the private sector.

The situation is deadly serious, and serious journalists have been paying attention to it for years. Anyone who has ever covered the American West knows about the tangle of water claims and water rights that becomes worse every year, as the scarcity of water increases.

For a good overview of the situation, Maude Barlow and Tony Clarke have an excellent report in the Sept. 2 issue of The Nation. The Texas Observer has a detailed report in the Sept. 13 issue on what has happened to the water supply in Jasper, Texas. The Earth's fresh water is finite, less than 0.5 percent of the total water on the planet, according to Barlow and Clarke. Water reserves are disappearing in the Middle East, Northern China, Mexico, California and much of Africa.

Desalinization is expensive and extremely energy intensive. Were we to become dependent upon it, global warming would be greatly aggravated. The French companies --Vivendi, Perrier and Suez--are pulling water grabs around the United States right now. Those of us who live in arid areas and have been through droughts already know how grave and concrete the consequences of running short of water are. The West is about to suck the great Ogallala Aquifer dry. Barlow and Clarke report, "A legacy of factory farming, flood irrigation, the construction of massive dams, toxic dumping, wetlands and forest destruction, and urban and industrial pollution has damaged the Earth's surface water so badly that we are now mining the underground water reserves far faster than nature can replace them."

There are solutions--including drip rather than flood irrigation--but what is needed is swift international action. Only 5 percent of the water supply is now in corporate hands, but this administration, along with the IMF and World Bank, is pushing for privatization. The House version of a bill currently moving through Congress, the Water Investment Act, would provide funds for cities to upgrade or expand their water systems and also has a nasty little provision that would provide public subsidies to private water companies.

Perils of capitalism? Try telling Californians that corporations don't rig prices. Try telling Enron's shareholders and employees there are no perils of capitalism. Not to mention Tyco, WorldCom, Arthur Andersen, Adelphia, Dynegy, El Paso, Global Crossing, Halliburton, Reliant Energy, Qwest, Xerox, AOL-Time Warner, Bristol Myers Squibb, CMS Energy, Duke energy, et al.

The perils of capitalism are staring us in the face. I'd just as soon not have the water supply subject to them, thank you. Congratulations to Moyers on a fine piece of journalism on a staggeringly important and timely topic.

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