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Water Control

Sasha Wright
Date Published: 
February 14, 2003

Blue Gold: The Fight to Stop the Corporate Theft of the World’s Water
by Maude Barlow and Tony Clarke
The New Press, 2002

Water Wars: Privatization, Pollution and Profit
by Vandana Shiva
South End Press, 2002

    “If the wars of this century were fought over oil, the wars of the next century will be fought over water.”
    —Ismail Seragelden.

This statement by the former vice president of the World Bank in 1995 pinpoints current trends in the world’s water situation. Even more frightening than the environmental catastrophe faced by people, other species and the watershed itself, is the way in which a small elite is moving in to control and capitalize on the remaining fresh water resources.

Not surprisingly, this fight over water management and distribution is the focus of several important new works by activists and intellectuals in the global justice movement. Barlow and Clarke of the Council of Canadians have a history of involvement in water advocacy, and Blue Gold brings together the research of environmentalists, policy makers, public utility workers, and others to give a comprehensive picture of the water crisis and the role of corporate elites within it.

The first section of the book testifies to the frightening situation of fresh water resources on the planet. Urbanization, industry, farming practices from the green revolution, and consumption rates in the first world mean that amount of clean fresh water is decreasing at an alarming rate.

The water crisis is not even equally distributed; while no country is free of water problems, 75% of those in water stress live in the global south. Disparities also exist within countries. The poorest people in the poorest countries pay the most for water, since they have to get it from private vendors. Elites and tourists get special access, even in times of crisis or drought.

In the second section, Barlow and Claude expose the corporate economic agenda of privatizing the world’s public water system for their profit. Though posed as a solution for water shortages, privatization usually entails a decrease in quality, skyrocketing tariffs and limiting working and poor people’s ability to access this necessity.

If there are any weak points in the book, it is in the conclusions offered. While Barlow and Clarke point to the importance of civil society’s involvement in water policy, many of their solutions depend on governments developing stronger laws or the U.N. incorporating the right to water into the declaration on human rights. Since these very institutions serve as vehicles of corporate interests, then perhaps going back to the lessons they document of Bolivia, where people take power and build alternatives, would provide a more useful guide for water activists.

Severe crisis

Shiva, a longtime environmental activist and writer, brings her understanding of economic globalization and the environment to the issue of water. Water Wars discusses the severe crisis of fresh water, focusing on the values and policies of corporations who have, through the green revolution, deforestation, pollution and damming, created shortages in places once abundant with water.

Shiva explains the current water takeover and the role of the International Financing Institutions (IFIs), corporations, government elites and trade institutions. She contrasts this with the vision of societies and religions around the world who have traditionally viewed water as sacred and held it as a commons.

Water increasingly underlies local, national and international disputes, and is one of the primary issues in the struggle of the Palestinian people. Shiva weaves in cases of water saving technologies in India and looks to these examples as the path for equitable and sustainable uses of water in the future. Like Barlow and Clarke, Shiva views water as an intrinsically different resource that can never be commodified because of its indispensable life giving qualities.

While her stand against private ownership should be universal for anyone concerned with social justice, perhaps extending it to other resources would better link the issue of water privatization to other concerns global justice activists face, such as the privatization of all public and social services which working people have fought for.

The issue of water privatization has already become a focal point of global justice struggles around the world, and these works leave no doubt that the issue of water conservation and distribution should be on the forefront of all of our minds. These analyses of what’s at stake, the powers at play and possibilities for confronting the situation, give activists the fundamentals for entering into the debate.