Not a Drop to Drink

Kristie Reilly

The statistics are startling, even a bit panic-inducing. Around the world today, more than 1 billion people have no access to clean drinking water; another 2 billion live in conditions of water scarcity. Water consumption doubles every 20 years, at twice the rate of population growth: Since 1970, available fresh water per capita worldwide has dropped 33 percent. By 2025, the world will hold an additional 2.6 billion people—a 57 percent increase over today’s 6.1 billion. By the same year, the United Nations predicts that as many as two-thirds of the world’s population will be living in conditions of severe water shortage, and another third in conditions of absolute water scarcity.

Water—to put it mildly—is not an endless resource. Available fresh water makes up less than one-half of 1 percent of all water on the planet. To meet the needs of the estimated 8.7 billion people inhabiting the globe 23 years from now, water use will double. Yet pollution of water sources is projected to quadruple in the same time period, and 10 percent of the world’s crops are already irrigated from sources that cannot be renewed. How will we feed these new arrivals? How will we feed ourselves?

Water Wars, by environmental thinker and activist Vandana Shiva, explores the legal and theoretical issues surrounding the rapid diminishing of this most precious resource. Awarded the Alternative Nobel Peace Prize in 1993, Shiva is one of the most far-reaching and hopeful thinkers on the left today. Blue Gold, by Maude Barlow and Tony Clarke—probably North America’s foremost water experts—is a nearly encyclopedic companion, cataloging challenges to water worldwide.


The two books provide a chilling, in-depth examination of a rapidly emerging global crisis. “Quite simply,” Barlow and Clarke write, “unless we dramatically change our ways, between one-half and two-thirds of humanity will be living with severe fresh water shortages within the next quarter-century. … The hard news is this: Humanity is depleting, diverting and polluting the planet’s fresh water resources so quickly and relentlessly that every species on earth—including our own—is in mortal danger.”

The crisis is so great, the three authors agree, that the world’s next great wars will be over water. The Middle East, parts of Africa, China, Russia, parts of the United States and several other areas are already struggling to equitably share water resources. Many conflicts over water are not even recognized as such: Shiva blames the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in part on the severe scarcity of water in settlement areas. As available fresh water on the planet decreases, today’s low-level conflicts can only increase in intensity.

Demand for water is so great near cities that many, like Los Angeles and Beijing, have begun or are considering huge water transport projects just to maintain current levels of usage. At current rates of growth, cities in the American Southwest—Albuquerque, Phoenix and Tucson—are projected to go dry in 10 to 20 years. Experts give Mexico City another 10 years.


Much of the world’s available fresh water is stored in naturally forming aquifers underground, and as a result of demand these aquifers are being heavily mined. Surface water has been depleted and polluted so drastically that many countries of the world have no choice but to rely on them: In the Middle East, the world’s most water-scarce region, countries from Saudi Arabia to Libya rely on aquifers to supply half or all of their water. In Israel, aquifers are so empty that sea water has begun to flow into them, in a process called salination. Once sea water enters an aquifer, the basin becomes salty, and the water is permanently lost to use.

Urbanization—the paving over and deforestation of the earth—is causing a permanent loss of water as well. Instead of being absorbed into the earth through water catchments like wetlands and forests, to return to aquifers and the water cycle, water flows across pavement out to the sea, where it is lost: Because the earth can no longer hold ground or surface water, drinking water disappears, too. The earth is being paved so quickly, Barlow says, that it may be just 100 years before we’ve lost all the water we have left.

Population growth and its concomitant demands on water aren’t the only problems, however. Our existing water supply is being devastated by human activity, from dams to massive river diversion projects to pollution and deforestation. We are rapidly destroying what little water we had to begin with.

Sixty percent of the world’s rivers have been harnessed by a stunning 840,000 dams, at great environmental and social cost; Shiva estimates 16 to 38 million tribal peoples have been displaced by dams in this century in India alone. There are now so many dams that geophysicists believe their combined influence has altered the speed of the earth’s rotation and the shape of its gravitational field. These dams, Barlow and Clarke say, are the major reason many of the world’s rivers are so depleted they no longer reach the sea.

At the same time, rampant pollution is devastating the earth’s rivers and lakes. Eighty percent of China’s rivers are so polluted they can no longer support fish. Seventy-five percent of Russia’s water is no longer safe to drink. Pollution, deforestation, urbanization, aquifer mining: Combine all of these elements, say Barlow and Clarke, and “there is simply no way to overstate the fresh water crisis on the planet today.”


For all that, the authors make clear that an environmental crisis in water is not the only thing to worry about. As water is overused and aquifers empty worldwide, major corporations are eagerly eyeing what water has become: a booming, virtually untapped market worth $1 trillion per year. If the world has a water problem, privatization proponents say, let us solve it. Through global trade agreements at the WTO, they are likely to get the chance. The grasp of the free market is extending to our most precious resource—the basis of all life.

Water has been defined as a good, Barlow and Clarke note—not a right—for years in the General Agreement on Trade and Tariffs (GATT). But the IMF’s structural adjustment programs and the World Bank’s very similar policies throughout the past two decades have created a climate in which privatization, and the global corporations eager and ready to take advantage of it, could grow. Since the ’80s, the IMF has made loans to developing countries contingent upon their governments’ willingness to drastically restructure their economies—privatize state services, slash public spending on health, education and social services, and reorient production almost entirely toward exports. All this, of course, to service debts owed to foreign creditors.

In the past several years, these IMF policies have forced—and this is hardly a complete list—Tanzania, Niger and Rwanda to privatize their water systems. The World Bank has been behind privatization in Argentina, Chile, Mexico, Malaysia and Nigeria. Attempts to privatize water in Ghana are underway. “In the ’70s and ’80s,” Shiva explains, “the World Bank and other aid agencies focused on disastrous technologies as a means of water provision. Since the ’90s, these agencies have been aggressively pushing privatization and market-based distribution of water, which already promises to be equally catastrophic.”

Conditions for the IMF’s structural adjustment programs make them seem somewhat more like internationally enforced looting sprees. The IMF and World Bank often insist on “full cost recovery” in water privatization, Barlow and Clarke report, which means governments are not allowed to subsidize any part of the cost of services. On the other hand, companies are allowed to charge customers for infrastructure improvements that may not be made for years. Both factors send water bills through the roof; those who cannot pay are cut off and left without access to water at all. Privatization contracts between major companies and governments, called public-private partnerships, are negotiated partly through the World Bank and IMF and may also deliver guaranteed profits to the company. In Chile, one company is currently guaranteed an annual 33 percent profit through its World Bank-backed contract.


Privatization is the future, if the World Trade Organization has its way. Three trade agreements—NAFTA, GATT and the General Agreement on Trade in Services (GATS)—define water as a tradable good, service or investment, and these international trade agreements are the most alarming, least-publicized aspect of the wars brewing over water today. When water is defined as a good or service, all global trade rules apply. These trade agreements are hostile to most government regulation as “non-tariff” barriers to trade, and as such they effectively discourage governments from shaping their own domestic water policies. NAFTA prohibits its three members, Mexico, Canada and the United States, from banning the bulk export of any resource, including water. GATS is actually designed to promote trade liberalization for water and other services. The proposed Free Trade Area of the Americas, now being negotiated, promises to be even worse.

Under the WTO, member countries can bring suit on behalf of corporations who say they’ve been discriminated against in regulatory measures; NAFTA allows corporations to sue countries directly. In a 1998 case that is still under consideration, a California company sued the Canadian government because British Columbia had banned the export of bulk water just after the company signed a contract to export water from Canada to California. The company, Sun Belt Water, is suing for $10 billion in lost profits.

Perhaps most disconcerting of all is GATS. This agreement went into effect at the end of the Uruguay round of GATT negotiations in 1994, and is intended to inaugurate a new era in international trade. What are services? Virtually anything that cannot be considered a good. “Many services are highly regulated to protect both consumers and the domestic economy,” a publication from the European Union pitched toward business explains, “and some are public monopolies.”

There are 160 service sectors defined in the GATS agreement; they span finance, law, education, health care, energy provision, even social services. And, of course, water. GATS negotiations between WTO members are scheduled to occur over the next few years and to conclude in 2005. The agreement’s architects hope the next several years will involve progressively greater liberalization in services around the world.

But perhaps not if the public finds out. In April of this year, the European Union’s liberalization requests to 29 developed and middle-income countries—prepared for the first deadline of GATS negotiations—were leaked to the press. The European Union had asked each of them to open up markets in water across the board. It also requested the lifting of restrictions on foreign ownership in countries from Malaysia to Mexico, and the opening up of markets in electricity, finance, banking and telecommunications.

The disclosure caused a firestorm. Advocacy groups accused the European Union of trying to privatize the Third World on behalf of corporations. (Europe is home to the largest water companies in the world, Suez Lyonnaise des Eaux; Vivendi Environnement, a division of the media conglomerate Vivendi Universal; and Thames Water, a subsidiary of the huge German utility RWE). The European Union denied the charges in a barrage of statements. GATS poses no threat to water systems, officials said: Governments can simply refuse to accept our requests.


It remains to be seen how the world’s governments will respond next March, when they must indicate which markets they are willing to open to international trade. The United States submitted its requests this summer; those too, according to a statement from U.S. Trade Representative Robert Zoellick, make numerous requests of other countries in “environmental services,” finance, telecommunications and other sectors. Global trade in services—and the potential opening up of water markets worldwide—has officially begun.

In the United States, privatization has already gained a significant foothold, with some 15 percent of the market. That figure probably includes older, existing contracts—Boston, for example, has arranged water shipments with private companies since 1796—but much of it is undeniably new as well. The global water giants—Suez, Vivendi and Thames Water—dominate here, too: Together, the three companies own the four largest private water companies in the country, and they are behind every major privatization project of the last few years. Atlanta, Milwaukee and Indianapolis have privatized their municipal water systems; New Orleans will decide whether to privatize its own, as well as its sanitation system, in October, and numerous towns and communities have privatized as well.

Of course, along with privatization comes the ineptitude and sheer disregard for health and safety associated with such projects. This summer, Atlanta Mayor Shirley Franklin sent a formal letter of warning to Suez, which runs the city’s water system. Water in many parts of the city ran the color of iced tea for weeks, and four times over the course of the summer Atlanta residents were told to boil their water before drinking.

“We cannot survive as a species if greed is privileged and protected and the economics of the greedy set the rules for how we live and die,” Shiva writes. Residents of water-privatized cities all over the world agree—privatization seems to strike a visceral nerve, especially where it is accompanied by unreliable or unsafe service and high rates. The communities it strikes are fighting back. Cochabamba, Bolivia, is perhaps the best-known of such protests: In 2000, tens of thousands of residents protested and then rioted after the U.S.-based Bechtel took over the water system, raising rates as much as 300 percent. The protests eventually forced Bolivia to cancel the contract, and company executives fled the city.

The Alliance of Small Island States is a group of island nations whose very existence is threatened by the rising tides and violent storms associated with global warming. An ambassador from the group says, “The strongest human instinct is not greed. … It is survival.”

Welcome to the 21st century. Let’s hope Shiva, Barlow and Clarke are wrong.

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