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Water is a Human Right, not a Commodity

by Dorothea Harlin and Christine Wicht Thursday, May. 14, 2009 at 9:56 AM

In Bolivia there was a bloody struggle over water. Indigenous persons led the water war in Cochabamba. Water is a human right and must be withdrawn from the logic of profit maximization.


Interview with Dorothea Hardin

[This interview published in: SoZ Sozialistische Zeitung, March 2009 is translated from the German on the World Wide Web,]

Our Turkish comrades say building dams in Turkey will be easier. There are already 140. Building the Iliso dam was temporarily stopped on account of protests. . If the Tigris is privatized, the private owners will not have to pay any heed to social and ecological questions. The German federal ministry for development has withdrawn its support for the project ecological questions. 500 to 1000 dams are planned!

There is another problem: 70% of the Turkish population lives from agriculture. What will happen in the future if every drop of water must be paid for? That will be a social catastrophe robbing people of their foundation of life. They will come to the cities. New big farms are planned that should be irrigated by dams. From similar projects in the region, we know this will lead to ecological catastrophe. After some time too much salt spoils the soil. We must see the whole context and recognize the consequences of privatization.

Drinking water is a necessity. What possible solutions are there?

The best solution according to international experience is a decentralization of the water supply. For example, NGOs in Africa support building rain collectors and dams. Today there are regions in Africa where women are employed all day in transporting water. They run four hours to the source of water and four hours back with the load. The water is not always of the best quality. However if there are local water tanks, a small farm can survive. Corporations obviously cannot draw any profits from this. Still in my opinion this could be one of the pioneering ways out for the population there.

The European Union demands that Turkey produce more energy through waterpower… A big industrial branch is planned there. Everything for profit maximization!

Is there resistance in Turkey?

In Istanbul, there is a great alliance of different movements, unions, trade associations, doctors, teachers and also leftist parties and groups. The alliance with the name Su-Ko seeks to inform and support resistance in Turkey.

In Germany there are many people from Turkey. Many come from rural areas. Some even have a piece of land there. What does it mean for them to pay for every drop of water? They should be able to inform their relatives and friends in Turkey so they can resist. The first leaflet in the Turkish language is ready.

Are there examples of successful resistance?

In Bolivia there was a bloody struggle over water. Indigenous persons led the water war in Cochabamba. As a result, they now have a competent minister and one of their comrades is head of state. Something similar happened in Argentina. In South Africa, the townships resisted the construction of water mains. A court judgment prohibited this. In many communes of Europe, citizens have regained control of water, for example in Grenoble. Others like Hamburg citizens prevented the sale of their waterworks by plebiscite. Honest mayors are occasionally found even in Germany who do not grant any access to the water vultures.

In countries of the South, women are in the front lines in the battle against the privatization of water. They have to care for the family.

What is the situation now in Berlin?

We started a signature campaign to force the Berlin Senate to reveal its agreement with private parties that was kept secret in the past. We have twice as many votes as are necessary for a referendum. In the Berlin Senate, a coalition of SPD and DIE LINKE (German Left party) is convinced the basic law sets the interests of private property above those of community property so that secrecy is legitimated. How absurd! In Italy the population knows about the negotiations. Is there democracy in Germany? We presented our complaint with the constitutional court.

Unfortunately many think private is more effective.

Some public institutions do not always work for the welfare of society. But should we conclude a private party has greater care? Private parties are anxious about their profit. Private parties use an existing infrastructure, drive down investments and personnel 50% and keep prices high. They do not want waterworks in villages where people have no money.

The population must control social property. In Venezuela there were “water tables” before Chavez came into government. The local population is concerned about such things. Everyone can share in the round table, businesspersons, hoteliers and also poor farmers who tap water illegally. We followed this example in founding the Berlin water table because the problems are the same. Water is a human right and must be withdrawn from the logic of profit maximization.


By Christine Wicht

[This article published 4/1/2009 is translated abridged from the German on the World Wide Web,]

The 5th World Water Forum met in Istanbul from March 16-22. The World Water forums organized by the World Water Council (WWC) and occurring every three years since 1997 in alternating countries are the most important global conferences of the worldwide water lobby. At earlier forums, the participants saw water as a “public good” while access to water was not seen as a basic inviolable human right. However a paradigm shift has occurred in water policy in the last years. Through the lobby work of the global trade institutions, water was degraded more and more into a commodity. With the support of the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF), a handful of international corporations tried to seize control over the public water supply and drastically forced up the price of water. The policy of privatization, liberalization and deregulation in favor of international water corporations will be pushed on different political planes.


This policy can be referred back to the Washington Consensus (1990) that includes a series of economic-political measures for the promotion of economic stability and growth. Economic processes should be liberalized and economic activity privatized to a great extent. According to the economically liberal idea, resou8rces are better allocated and used more efficiently through that liberalization. Liberalization of trade policy and privatization of public institutions are part of that orientation. The IMF functions as a lender for the central banks; the World Bank assumes this function for private banks. In addition, an international network of regional development banks is joined with the IMF, the World Bank and the WTO like the European Inve4stment Bank, the Inter-American Development Bank, the Asian Bank, the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development and the Islamic Development Bank.

Global water corporations, the World Water Cou9ncil and the Global Water Partnership cooperate closely with the WTO, the World Bank and the IMF. Water is rated as an economic article so it can be freely marketed. Officially the policy of water privatization and building dams is justified as poverty removal. This argument is only used as a dummy since the involved organizations and corporations do not support decentralized solutions, as for example the use of rainwater. Rather big dams and capital-intensive infrastructure projects are promoted. Even development assistance organizations are often harnessed as sponsors for these projects. A network of lobbyists and trade associations works hand in hand and stands behind this alignment of worldwide water policy…


The GWP was founded in 1996 by the World Bank, the UNDP (UN Development Program) and the Swedish state development organization (SIDA) to “support countries in the sustainable use of their water reserves.” GWP has its headquarters in Stockholm… This is the most important international forum for an expert dialogue on questions of the water sector, for accepting and deepening contacts and monitoring current and strategically important developments. The GWP represents the view that water is an economic asset and has an economic value. Like a central thread, this perspective dominates the program for “reforming” the water supply and water economy. The GWP is financed by the European Commission, the governments of Canada, Denmark, Finland, Germany, Japan, the Netherlands, Norway, Great Britain, the US, Spain, Sweden and Switzerland and receives funding from the World Bank, the UN Development Program and the Ford Foundation…

“After the deadlock of the Doha round, a new head has grown on the hydra of neoliberal globalization – the EU commission’s “Global Europe Strategy” stands for building the power of European corporations…”


Aside from individual states, transnational organizations also do their utmost for water privatization. Again and again the EU tries to liberalize the water market within Europe. For the European Commission, public grants for communal water providers are decried as prohibited subsidies that distort markets. The commission strives for the far-reaching abolition of public grants and thus of the guarantee of a qualitatively top-flight supply for all. In addition, many in the EU try to force communities to public competition for contracts for allocation of drinking water to open the market for private suppliers.

Even if these attempts were successfully blocked in the past, the European Union is an important driving force for a further liberalization of the water markets. Commissioned by EU-member states, the European Commission conducts negotiations on the General Agreement on Trade in Services (GATS). This is one of the most important international trade agreements in the framework of the World Trade organization (WTO). GATS forms a framework for liberalizing international trade and earmarks opening over 50 sectors of the service area for the world market including water supply. GATS is applied as soon as the public authority appears in a certain area in competition to a private supplier. State assistance should support profit-oriented suppliers just as businesses support the public authority. The public services are thereby under sharp competitive pressure. In addition, the GATS regulations of “unrestricted market access” prohibit a commune from limiting the extent of private involvement in city departments to under 50% to keep its control of water.

On the occasion of the WTO conference in December 2005, the “Water Out of the WTO” campaign was started in Hong Kong. In this campaign, representatives from all over the world sought to remove the vital good water from the GATS negotiations of the World Trade Organization. The water supply also should not be an object of regional trade agreements.

In the international negotiations on the further development of GATS, the EU does its utmost that developing countries open their markets for European water corporations. Development policy is also used as a lever to carry out privatization and liberalization of the water supply. As important leaders, the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank demand free exchange of goods and services, competition orientation and above all the deregulation and privatization of public functions. As a lever, reduction of debts only occurs with structural adjustment programs. The IMF only gives credits given under the condition that states submit to a detailed examination and promise to carry out a structural adjustment program (SAP). Pushing back the state and privatizing public enterprises seem unavoidable. In this way, contracts for businesses and investments from rich industrial countries are made possible as international businesses take over the markets. The affected people in the receiver countries have no influence on the resolved measures and their needs fall by the wayside. A study of the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ) revealed that the World Bank required a privatization as the precondition in around 30 percent of the credits for water supply projects. Through the SAP of the IMF, transnational corporations gain unhindered market access and prevent life essentials from being understood as social factors as was possible under state management. The population of Cochabamba/ Bolivia massively resisted the privatization of water after the US Corporation Bechtel took over Bolivia’s water market with the help of an SAP. The population could not afford drinking water any more since the corporation as monopolist drove the price to astronomical heights. Bechtel was closely connected to the past US administration. The corporation that stipulated that only the solvent in Cochabamba would obtain water also managed the water supply in Iraq. Under US command, Iraq has applied for credits from the IMF. These credits are naturally tied to conditions. Altogether Bechtel received reconstruction contracts of over billion. In November 2006, Bechtel announced its withdrawal from Iraq. The three-year interlude in Iraq presented top contracts to the firm. Water supplied by Bechtel had serious consequences for the Iraqi population. The physicist from India and winner of the Alternative Nobel Prize, Vandana Shiva, wrote on water provision in Iraq:

“When Bechtel received the first contract for reconstruction of Iraq, this was an obvious example for the non-transparency, secrecy and corruption with which the rule of corporations was established. Every time whether in the water privatization contracts in Bolivia or India, secrecy and weak democracy characterize the methods for appropriating markets and profits. Free trade in reality is totally unfree. It is forced, corrupt, deceitful and violent.”

The doctrine of privatization of state enterprises is not only in force for developing countries. In the former Eastern bloc states, vast numbers of state enterprises were systematically destroyed in this way or left in the dubious freedom of Mafia-type structures.

From the progenitor of the market economy, Adam Smith, comes the sentence: “The interest of merchants of all branches in trade and commerce differs widely and occasionally even contradicts the public interest. Merchants are always interested in expanding the market and limiting competition… Every proposal for a new law or a new regulation about trade should always be encountered with caution. One should never adopt them without examining thoroughly and carefully, even distrustfully and skeptically, because they originate from a group of persons whose interest never corresponds to the public well-being and who as a rule are much more interested in deceiving or even misusing the general public.” (Source: The Wealth of Nations)

Concerning the liberalization, privatization and deregulation of water, the real driving force of the water corporations and merchants is realizing profits from a liberalized and privatized water market. The removal of poverty and observance of human rights, social rights and ecological standards fall by the wayside..






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