Water is not Merchandise
The profit drive of transnational soft drink companies keen on dictating the global agenda for water resources must be curbed, says Maude Barlow, a Canadian activist and author of the best-seller ‘Blue Gold’.
MEXICO CITY, (Tierramérica).- Canadian activist Maude Barlow says she began to worry about the question of water when she saw that it was conceived of as a “good” in the trade agreements that her country was negotiating with the United States, first, and later with Mexico.
An activist and the author of more than a dozen books, Barlow decided to take an in-depth look at the water crisis, and the result was ‘Blue Gold’. Co-authored by Tony Clarke, the president of the Polaris Institute in Canada, the book has been published in 15 countries so far. The Portuguese edition was presented in Brazil in February, and the Spanish edition is to be released in October.
‘Blue Gold’ is one of the most widely-read books on the water issue, especially due to its novel political approach, and to its focus on the role played by multinational soft drink companies.
Chairperson of the Council of Canadians, a powerful civil society group with more than 100,000 members, Barlow has many followers, but many detractors as well. She is an uncomfortable figure at international meetings. Many label her a “radical”, and dismiss her work as lacking in “scientific rigour.”
Now that the international community is coming together again to discuss the issue, in the Third World Water Forum in Kyoto, Japan, Mar. 16-23, Barlow will once again give people something to talk about.
The activist spoke with Tierramerica a few hours before heading to Japan.
- The international community has been talking a lot about the water issue. Why discuss it again? What difference can the Third World Water Forum in Japan make?
- That is an important question. I am afraid that the gathering in Japan has to do with the aim of the Global Water Council, which is organizing the meeting, to become the main protagonist in the debate on water resources management. And that is worrisome, because the Council, with the support of the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, is pushing for the privatization of water resources, for a corporate model of water governance. I don’t think there’s anything new that wasn’t said or done at the meeting in the Hague (the Second World Water Forum in 2000) or in Johannesburg (at the World Summit on Sustainable Development in 2002).
- What will you do in Japan?
- I am going to coordinate a seminar on “Type 2” partnerships for water management, which were promoted in Johannesburg (alliances between the community, non-governmental organizations, governments and the private sector). Our aim is to try to convince the nearly 10,000 people who will gather at the meeting in Japan that this is not an option, that it is based on a mistaken concept. The public sector takes all the risks, while the private sector builds, operates and rakes in the profits. The profit motive is okay if you’re talking about cars or TV sets, but the forces of the market should not apply to water. The private sector should play a role as a consultant to governments, it can build infrastructure, but it must not have control over the management of water.
- Is the goal of cutting in half the number of people around the world without access to clean water by 2015, as agreed in Johannesburg, realistic?
-No, due to a conceptual problem. It seems to me that it puts an emphasis on access, but not on water shortages or pollution. Without strict legislation, for example, water sources will not stop being polluted.
- In its most recent report, the United Nations predicts that up to seven billion people -- out of a projected world population of 9.3 billion -- will suffer from water shortages by 2050 if measures are not taken to address the crisis. Do you agree with that apocalyptic estimate?
- Yes, absolutely. I believe the evidence is there, and it is very good that the UN has recognized it. The water crisis is not a crisis of the future; it has already arrived. We are seeing the conflicts it generates, from Bolivia and Mexico to India and Pakistan.
- In that report, the UN also criticizes politicians’ inertia and lack of political will.
- That’s true. There is no dedication. States should promote access to water, but where are the politicians? Only bureaucrats attend these meetings. The commitment to resolve the water crisis has to come from civil society.
- Who does water belong to?
- I argue that water belongs to the Earth, to all species. It is a fundamental human right, not a tradable “good.” It must be preserved for future generations. If it is privatized, who will take care of nature? Who will care if animals have access to water? Or whether or not ecosystems receive adequate nourishment?
- Many argue that if a market price is not put on water, no one will conserve it.
- I don’t say there is no place for setting a fair price for water services. What I am arguing is that the corporate model says: let’s sell the resource to the highest bidder, and since it will be expensive, demand will be reduced in the market, and we will thus solve the water crisis.
Let’s first give the needy free access instead. Only then can we begin to talk about setting a fair price.
- Your book ‘Blue Gold’ was praised for its political analysis of the
water question. But your critics complain that you demonize corporations.
- Since the book was published, scandals over the corporate management of water have mushroomed. Privatization processes have been a disaster. I have no doubt that there are good, honest businesspeople. But the three biggest transnational soft drink companies are working to seize control over water. I believe that is immoral, when every eight seconds a child dies of water-borne diseases. Unfortunately the evidence shows I am right.
- Many see innovation and technology transfer as the solution to the water crisis. Processes like desalinization, for example, are gaining attention. What do you think?
- The emphasis on technology is extremely dangerous. People could think: “no problem, let’s destroy the environment, technology will help us fix it.” There is evidence that we are already altering the water cycle. And I assure you that there is no technological solution for that. Desalinization is a very costly process, perhaps it can work in specific cases. But the answer lies in conservation and equity.
- Do you believe there will be wars over water in the next few decades?
- Definitely. Conflicts have already broken out, and there will be more. But I hope that water, instead of causing war, can become an instrument of peace.