Carrying water in the Chico Mendes landless peasant settlement in Pernambuco, Brazil.
Credit: Alejandro Arigón/IPS.
No Water in Copenhagen Climate Talks
By Stephen Leahy
The climate change summit in Copenhagen has ignored the world's water problems, which will only worsen with global warming, say experts.
COPENHAGEN, Dec 16 (Tierramérica).- In the last two years, the conclusion among decision-makers has been that the only way to solve the climate crisis is to turn carbon into a commodity and privatize the atmosphere.
Similar market-based solutions will be used to "solve" the growing water crisis, warned experts at the Klimaforum09, a parallel meeting a few kilometers away from the official 15th Conference of Parties (COP15) to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, Dec. 7-18 in Copenhagen.
"Corporations do not want regulations and have convinced governments that they can deliver continued economic growth and save the planet," said Maude Barlow, chair of the Council of Canadians, the largest citizens group in Canada and author of several books about water issues.
"It shows the power of the corporate lobby that nearly everyone, including many big NGOs (non-governmental organizations), all see the market as the solution to climate change," Barlow told Tierramérica.
Meanwhile, the climate justice movement is fighting against carbon trading and carbon offsets and advocating for real emissions cuts, while recognizing that the commons - air and water - are a public trust, she said.
"I've spent five days in the Bella Centre (the site of the official COP15 negotiations) and the real issues around water and land are being ignored," said Adriana Marquisio, vice president of the Uruguayan union of employees in the public water agency.
"The little countries who are suffering real impacts (of climate change) are trying to bring attention to this," Marquisio told Tierramérica.
Both Uruguay and Bolivia have pushed hard to broaden the vision on this issue, but the United States is dominating the talks with its agenda of corporate interests, she said.
To properly address vital issues dealing with water and climate, "we can't be talking about profits," she said.
"Why should we have to defend water or air as a commons?" wondered Italian expert Riccardo Petrella, founder of the International Committee for the World Water Contract and a member of the World Political Forum’s Scientific Committee.
"If water or air are turned into commodities, that is equivalent to commodifying life itself and leads to the privatization of democracy," Petrella said. "If we do this, it will make democracy a lie."
The negotiations to reach an agreement for confronting climate change ignore water, biodiversity and land. It is all about energy and finance, which are the only interests of the rich countries, he says.
But water is an essential ingredient for energy production: 44 percent of freshwater in France is used by its energy sector. And the portion reaches 60 percent in some other countries, according to Petrella.
"The reality of resource depletion, including water, and the reality of 2 billion hungry people are peripheral in the official talks," he said.
The central focus of climate justice is food, land and water, he emphasized.
Petrella and others are lobbying for a global agreement on water and a new United Nations agency to "prevent and settle international disputes on the property and use of water through common monitoring systems," states a proposal from the World Political Forum.
Having seen the widespread distribution of mobile phones in Africa and elsewhere, some water companies believe they can do the same with bottled water so that their products become the only source of drinking water and negate the need for investing in public water infrastructure, said Canadian Barlow.
"Around the world, investors are buying up water rights and land. India and China are doing this already in Africa," she said.
If water becomes just another commodity, in many parts of the world farmers will sell water rather than growing food because they can make more money that way, she said.
Water is also a crucial element in the manufacture of many goods: an automobile requires 400,000 liters of water to produce the steel, plastic, electronics and other components.
Oil production also uses enormous amounts of water. Petrella believes that the urgency of the water crisis is such that no country in the developing South should export products to the industrialized North that require water to produce.
It is equivalent to exporting water, he said, and "that is one of the biggest problems we have to deal with in future."
A model for effective water protection is that of the small northeastern U.S. state of Vermont, says Barlow. Water there belongs to all the people of the state and the government oversees its distribution.
The state issues permits for water use, with first priority going to people, nature and agriculture. Industrial uses are second, and the government has the right to deny water access to companies that pollute.
In 2004, Uruguay approved a reform that gave constitutional priority to the right to water, and banned its privatization. Other countries are considering similar measures.
Looking to the future and the potential for millions of climate refugees, Barlow believes that most of those forced to relocate will be due to lack of water.
With water excluded from the formal climate negotiations and the predominance of corporate interests, the best outcome in Copenhagen is a total failure, she said.
Petrella argues that peace, justice and democracy have never come from pricing common resources: "Commodification of carbon and privatization of the atmosphere will cause enormous conflict and devastation."
* IPS correspondent.