'Water Wars' a Bad Sign of Times

When my children come home from school, typically they put their books down and go pour a glass of fresh water out of the kitchen faucet. Increasingly, and internationally, all aspects of that image are in contention -- the glass, the availability and even cleanliness of tap water as compared to bottled water. In America, the issue prompted a congressional hearing last week.

Opponents of water bottling argued that the $11 billion that Americans now spend on bottled water can work an unnecessary financial hardship on families when tap water in most communities is already clean. In the process, we pile up 2.7 million tons of plastic bottles, produced with petroleum and resulting in more landfill disposal issues. Other opponents argue that bottling water draws down groundwater resources and harms the environment in the locality where it is bottled.

Bottled water companies rejoined that it's in the public interest to encourage drinking water as opposed to many other beverages. They point out that the plastic waste is a small part of the waste stream -- a third of 1 percent.

Had I been attending the hearing, I would have objected to sitting in the Kansas City airport after going through security and being offered two water choices -- purchasing bottled water or drinking warm water from the bathroom sink. No water fountains are available, nor is there cold water in the bathroom to fill up a water bottle. I would have noted that I recently heard someone on a flight being charged for bottled water, which was apparently the only way it was available.

As the issue emerges in the United States, we may not even be aware of the stormy water debates that have been raging for well over a decade in many parts of the globe. From India to Bolivia, water privatization fights have produced some of the most powerful protests in years and galvanized grass-roots opposition like no other issue. Indian author Vandana Shiva has written about such fights in her book, "Water Wars," and the record is mounting internationally about the profound human rights issues associated with privatized water.

Since the 1990s, the United States, World Bank and International Monetary Fund have actively promoted water privatization in Chile, Malaysia, Argentina, the Philippines, Australia, Nigeria and many other countries, making it a condition of loans and trade agreements and otherwise asserting its central role for developing countries. The rationale for such policies is that a stable water supply is a prerequisite to stable economic development and that many developing countries cannot afford the infrastructure to reliably provide water to all citizens. Also, government corruption can result in bad management and little accountability in providing water. The assumption is that a profit motive will prompt the private sector, especially international companies with superior technology, to perform better, and the private provision of water will allow developing countries to release their own scarce dollars to meet health, education and other urgent needs.

However, the global track record of privatized water has shown different results. In the Philippines, Manila's private provider more than tripled the water charges workers paid and abandoned its operation when it could not negotiate another doubling of that higher amount. In Casablanca, Morocco, prices tripled. In Guinea, prices rose by 650 percent; when people could not pay those prices, thousands of people were disconnected. Such rate hikes have become a common outcome of water privatization.

Thus, private companies have indeed provided water to those who can pay much higher rates, especially in urban areas. But their performance in rural areas has drawn understandable fury from people accustomed to sourcing their own water, whose wells have dried up due to large draw-downs by private providers. Further, many of these companies insist on substantial subsidies to operate -- negating the rationale that privatization would allow developing countries to use scarce cash on education, health care and other needs.

Global climate change is clearly exacerbating the problem, as rainfall patterns change water availability in many parts of the globe. It is appalling that at this late date in human history, any question should exist about the inappropriateness of allowing profit motives to affect access to this basic element of life, whether in Kansas City or Cochabamba, Bolivia.

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