While it's hard to see it here in the U.S., "trickle-down" economics is beginning to be confronted by popular democratic movements, which are bubbling up in communities across the country as well as all over the world in countries like Ghana and Bolivia, where fierce resistance to the privatization of water not only pushed big water multinationals like Bechtel out of the country , but led the government of Bolivia to begin pushing the world's international financial institutions to exempt water from trade liberalization (i.e. corporate predation) agreements and bolster effots to reverse now widely-discredited structural adjustment programs that have forced debtor nations to privatize essential services like water in exchange for usurious loan packages.
Activists who went to the World Water Forum held in Mexico City last month say that Bolivia's experience is beginning to show signs of rippling out to the rest of the world, becoming a significant model that the struggle for democracy can use to challenge the cold logic of "trickle-down" economics -- i.e. the bogus arguments for efficiency etc. by which privatization is sold.
Instead, the principles of community self-determination and social and environmental rights are beginning to bubble up and challenge the right of multinational corporations, unaccountable investors who benefit from the corporate system, and their shills in the development-financial institutions.
For years protestors have been told that "there is no alternative" to global corporate rule -- but now we are beginning to see the emergence of a new dynamic in public discourse -- led by activists and societies of the South -- and focused on specific sectors where these norms of accountability and human rights are easily understood -- a dynamic that will turn much of the dominant global economic framework upside down if allowed to run its course. (Yes, a big IF. As every activist knows, power never concedes anything on its own.)
Meanwhile, the struggle against what people in Bolivia experienced, has also been going on in communities across the U.S., as groups like Public Citizen's Water for All Campaign have documented so well.
You may think a discussion of oil and water doesn't mix well, but the problems in Iraq have a lot to do with the trickle-down model of political economics, which U.S. interests have been pushing there as well.
E.g. the same company, Bechtel, as well as other construction and engineering contractors failed to fix more than 35% of the water treatment systems slated by the CPA to be fixed (leaving two out of three Iraqi's without potable water).
Of course, that's just a minor piece of the broader model of "trickle-down" economics that the Bush administration would have wished to impose upon Iraq, starting with Paul Bremer's series of CPA executive orders, which were designed to privatize state-owned industries, relieve multinationals of any obligations, and criminalize popular forms of organizing (Saddam's anti-union law being the one law Bremer decided to uphold).
That is, Bremer and Bush decided to force Iraqis to recognize investor rights by fiat that elsewhere they and other administration's have pushed through more velvety (but no less lethal in consequence) trade agreements and development policies.
Nevertheless, an ill omen of things to come happened very early during the occupation, indicating just what Bush and companies mean by bringing "democracy" to places like Iraq: Some bonehead decided early on after one of the southern cities was captured that Iraqis suffering from the scorching heat needed to begin to learn about the market system. This commander decided to impose a rule that all Iraqis seeking water from water trucks that were beginning to circulate would have to purchase the water instead of just having it provided to them for free.
The policy was quickly reversed when riots began to break out.
Of course the insurgency has since continued to make it awfully difficult for transnational investors to make a killing in Iraq.
Leaving aside for now the question about whether or not the intention was really to exploit Iraq's various liquids, even if you believe the military mission itself was designed to promote democracy, another Halliburton scandal has clearly demonstrated that the privatization of water has also undermined that goal.
I refer to the story, first documented when current and former Halliburton employees contacted my colleagues at HalliburtonWatch.org last year, to tell us how the company and its KBR subsidiary have knowingly exposed thousands of U.S. troops in Iraq to hazardous levels of unhealthy water from the Euphrates River, including human fecal matter.
These allegations were once again the subject of an unofficial congressional hearing on Friday, when Capt. Michelle Callahan, MD, a U.S. army surgeon in Iraq with the 101st Sustainment Brigade, told the committee that water containing human fecal matter and other human waste was being re-circulated by Halliburton back into the non-potable water supply used by the troops for showering, brushing teeth, shaving, washing clothes, and preparing food and coffee. After finding coliform bacteria and e-coli in the water, Callahan said a Halliburton official informed employees that, "there's not a problem with it."
"I had a sudden increase in soldiers with bacterial infections presenting to me for treatment," Callahan told the committee. "All of these soldiers live in the same living area (PAD 103) and use the same water to shower. I had 4 cases of skin abcesses, 1 case of cellulitis, and one case of bacterial conjunctivitis," she said.
An internal Halliburton report leaked to the committee and authored by the company's Iraq water quality manager, admitted that, "No disinfection to non-potable water was occurring [at Camp Ar Ramadi] for water designated for showering purposes. This caused an unknown population to be exposed to potentially harmful water for an undetermined amount of time."
"This event should be considered a 'NEAR MISS,'" the Halliburton report warned, "as the consequences of these actions could have been VERY SEVERE resulting in mass sickness or death" (emphasis in the original). The report added, "The deficiencies of the camp where the event occurred is (sic) not exclusive to that camp; meaning that country-wide, all camps suffer to some extent from all or some of the deficiencies noted."
The report laments that, "The likelihood of a similar event is considered high if no actions to correct widespread program deficiencies are taken."
Nevertheless, Halliburton management continue to deny that a problem even exists.
But after reviewing Halliburton's internal water report, Jeffrey K. Griffiths, MD, Professor of Public Health and Medicine at Tufts University School of Medicine, told the committee that the source water used at Ar Ramadi was "highly polluted" and "highly likely to make [the troops] sick." He said the troops "would have been better off with water [taken] directly out of the Euphrates River," which the doctor described as an "open sewer."
"This is really pretty unbelievable to me," Senator Byron Dorgan stated in response to denials by Halliburton and the Pentagon. "I understand no one wants to take responsibility. No one ever wants to be accountable for anything," he said. "We now know that those denials were wrong and Halliburton and the Pentagon would have known them to be wrong."
So, you may be thinking, how does this relate to what I said about what's been happening in Bolivia? It's almost directly related, because similar arguments about market-based efficiencies were used to hand over the water supply work to a private contractor.
Back in the early 1990s, when Dick Cheney was Secretary of Defense, the Pentagon set up the Army's logistics contracts program (LOGCAP), which established that private contractors would take over certain basic services for the military, including building new bases (whether temporary or "enduring"), cleaning the laundry, cooking meals and filtering and providing water for the troops, and most of the other things Halliburton has been doing in Iraq (the oil infrastructure and engineering work is a separate contract, though they got mixed up in the beginning, which is why it's somewhat confusing).
Although the justification for establishing the LOGCAP contracting system still remains hidden in a classified Pentagon report, we can surmise that it was sold on some basis of efficiency -- i.e., either it would save taxpayer money for other weapons boondoggles (and now we know how bogus that claim is), or, probably more likely, so that the military could maximize its troop strength by freeing up combat-ready troops from performing duties that don't require so much military training.
Setting aside the question of whether it's even at all logical at this point to try to maximize U.S. troop strength at the "enduring bases" in Iraq where Halliburton continues to provide water and meals, etc., the point is that even for the military itself -- and measured by its own standards of efficiency -- privatization of water services has been a complete failure, because by cutting corners, the contractor made an unknown number of U.S. troops sick, and put an unnecessary additional strain on the already overtaxed military.
What links all of these stories together is the manic logic of global political-economic corporate control which, judging from what's happening in Bolivia and rippling outwards, may be starting to dry up.
After becoming sick and tired of being poisoned by "trickle down" policies, you can bet that people everywhere will increasingly slake their thirst for something better.
Charlie Cray is the director of the Center for Corporate Policy in Washington, DC. He helped establish Halliburton Watch, and is co-author of The People's Business: Controlling Corporations and Restoring Democracy (Berrett-Koehler), and is a former associate editor of Multinational Monitor magazine.
2006 The Huffington Post