A World Without Water

Advocates Warn of Thirst and Turmoil for a Parched Planet

In 1995 World Bank vice president Ismail Serageldin made a much quoted prediction for the new millennium: "If the wars of this century were fought over oil, the wars of the next century will be fought over water." Serageldin has been proven correct much faster than he or anyone else thought. Two years into the 21st century, the global water wars are upon us.

The very bleak details about water security may finally seep out during the 10-day United Nations World Summit on Sustainable Development (WSSD) starting Monday in Johannesburg, South Africa. While heads of state and corporate bigwigs converge in Sandton (rumored to be Africa's wealthiest suburb), thousands of anti-globalization activists and environmentalists will be attending shadow summits just down the street. They'll be trying to call attention to the dangers of privatizing the world's water supplies, and pointing to places like Nelspruit, 125 miles to the north, where residents now buy their drinking water from the Biwater corporation, and are all but dying of dehydration. The problem isn't water flow but cash flow: Poor residents can't pay privatized rates. It's a scenario that's beginning to play out all over South Africa. "That's exactly what's wrong with privatization," says Maude Barlow, chair of the Council of Canadians, Canada's largest public advocacy group. "These companies completely reject the idea that water is a common property belonging to all living creatures. Their only goal is to commodify the earth's most precious resource."

The concept of privatizing water service has been around since Napoléon III, but only 5 percent of the world population currently receives water from corporations. Activists want to stop the process before it goes any further; the world's water lords want rapid expansion. In 1998, when the private sector began angling for the water market in earnest, the World Bank predicted the global trade in water would soon generate revenues of up to $800 billion a year. Two years later, at a World Water Forum in the Hague, a triumvirate of multinational water companies backed by the World Trade Organization (WTO) successfully strong-armed the UN into defining water as a human need (which can be sold for profit by private companies) instead of a human right (which means people are ensured equal access on a nonprofit basis).

Faster than you can say Evian, revenue projections jacked into the multiple trillions. Private companies had a green light to approach cities and states around the globe (usually cash-strapped ones) and offer to lease, buy, or enter into a consortium agreement for the existing municipal water systems. After privatization is complete, the companies make a profit by charging residents every time they turn on a tap or flush a toilet. Some also offer wastewater services, such as sewage disposal, and implement water treatment plants. Many of these companies get profit guarantees written into their contracts. For example, if residents use less water than predicted, companies can raise rates so profits don't fall below a predetermined number. Once in control of a water system, they can also take any surplus and sell it off to the highest bidder, usually a neighboring city that's experiencing an unexpected shortfall. In some parts of the world, reports the trade journal Global Water Intelligence, water commands the same price as oil. No wonder Fortune magazine touted the water market as a "safe harbor in stocks—a place that promises steady consistent returns well into the next century."

The two reigning conglomerates are Vivendi Universal and Suez, both based in France, which have amassed 70 percent of the existing world water market. Together they deliver water services to more than a hundred million people. Suez operates in 130 countries and Vivendi in more than 90. Right behind them are Bouygues-SAUR (French), RWE-Thames (German), and Bechtel-United Utilities (American). These are the biggest multinationals, but there are numerous other companies doing the same thing on a smaller scale.

But what of the world's water crisis? Currently the UN identifies approximately six "hot stains," places where water is so scarce that human life may not be sustainable and conflict over dwindling resources is an ever present threat. Water giants like Vivendi insist privatization and conservation aren't mutually exclusive. They say it can actually improve water service, because for-profit companies are wealthy enough to invest in new technology and infrastructure improvements to aging systems where poor governments are not. Activists like Barlow say for-profit companies are not set up as sustainable enterprises or to conserve resources. The more water sold, the better their bottom line—so why should they try to halt the world's parching?

Here's the really hard news Barlow says the water lords don't want known: Not only is there the same amount of water on the planet as there was at its creation, it is almost all the same water. There is no secret source to replace the vast quantities that modern humankind consumes, and technology hasn't come up with a magic bullet either. Desalination of seawater has proven outrageously expensive and leaves behind brackish water mostly uninhabitable for marine life. According to the latest official calculations, there are only 8.6 million cubic miles of fresh water left on earth, a mere 2.6 percent of the 330 million cubic feet of total water. The UN predicts that two-thirds of the world's population will live in water-scarce regions by 2025, and many of them in regions previously considered water-rich, like the United States.

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