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Great Lakes Article:

Clauses Put Forth at the Last Minute in Qatar Could Jeopardize the World's Clean, Safe Water

By Maude Barlow
Article courtesy of the Globe and Mail
November 30, 2001

In a world preoccupied with terrorism and war, there was little coverage of the World Trade Organization ministerial meeting earlier this month in Doha, Qatar. What coverage there was, often in newspaper business pages, recounted that after tense negotiations around such issues as antidumping and agriculture subsidies, the now 144 member countries of the WTO had agreed to a new round of trade talks.

What didn't get reported is that in the last-minute wrangling over other issues, the European Union inserted a clause into the final text that puts our fresh water at risk, promotes the privatization of the world's water resources and endangers international environmental treaties.

Going into the meeting, there was a deep divide between the United States, Europe, Japan and Canada -- and everyone else. The North's wealthy countries were pushing an ambitious agenda almost universally opposed by the countries of the South. Well into every night, negotiators struggled with this divide.

The final draft text appeared on the morning of Nov. 14, and delegates, most of whom had not slept the night before, saved their energy for the final fight about the timing of the start of new issues. Only a handful of NGOs -- the few who had been able to travel to remote Qatar -- noticed that, overnight, a new section called Trade and Environment had been added to the text. When the assembly adopted the text later that day, the frantic NGOs couldn't find one delegate who'd noticed this addition. Too bad, because it may have terrible ramifications for the world.

Article 31, iii, calls for "the reduction, or, as appropriate, elimination of tariff and non-tariff barriers to environmental goods and services." This poses an immediate threat to shrinking freshwater resources, as a "service" and as a "good."

While water has not yet been listed under the WTO General Agreement on Trade in Services (GATS) as an environmental service, several countries -- the U.S. and Canada among them -- are pushing for its inclusion. In any case, the GATS covers hundreds of types of water services under other categories and contains a catalogue of measures that limits what governments can do to conserve and protect water. Canada also wants all member countries to eliminate restrictions on national treatment and market access to water services.

Already, the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund are aggressively promoting water privatization in developing countries, opening the door for huge transnational water corporations to profit from water delivery and wastewater treatment. Under this new WTO provision, a domestic rule that protects water as a public service and a human right could be considered a "non-tariff barrier" to trade and eliminated. So could rules that limit privatization.

Water is clearly a "good" in the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT). Article 11 already rules out any quantitative restrictions on the export of a good, but allows tariff measures, such as taxes or dual price systems. But the new text proposes to do away with such export controls, making it illegal to restrict the export of bulk water for commercial purposes.

Article 32 (also added that last morning) says that 31, iii, must be "compatible with" other WTO rules, particularly the Agreement on the Application of Sanitary and Phytosanitary Standards (SPS), which sets constraints on government polices relating to animal and plant health, including biological contaminants -- and the Agreement on Technical Barriers to Trade (TBT), set up to ensure that nations do not use "non-tariff barriers" (such as environmental laws) in a way that interferes with trade liberalization.

This means that domestic standards to protect water could be challenged by subsuming the trade in environmental services to these already dangerous WTO agreements.

These are not the only threats to the environment in the Doha text. Article 31, i, (also new) attempts to clarify and codify the rules between the WTO and multilateral environmental agreements (MEAs). But, no sooner are MEAs recognized (a development long sought by environmentalists) than the text exempts any country not a signatory to a MEA.

The U.S., for example, has not ratified the Kyoto or the Biosafety Protocols, and would not be bound by any WTO recognition of their trade provisions. In fact, this new provision would act as a disincentive for any country to sign a new MEA; it could benefit from the environmental good deeds of others, but be under no obligation to take action itself.

The delegates also agreed to broad new provisions on market access, which will speed up free trade in logging, mining, fishing and other natural resources. And the agreement on intellectual property (TRIPS) will continue to threaten biological diversity and conservation measures and permit the patenting of life forms, including plants, seeds, genes and animals.

The Doha round was forged under duress; already the North and South blocs disagree on what was agreed to. Civil society has two years before the next meeting to discredit this profoundly undemocratic and environmentally devastating deal.

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