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Tidal Wave

International movement takes on the water industry

Erica Hartman

Water is under increasing threat in developing countries.
—In a new grassroots movement to combat the corporatization of water, organizers gathered here in mid-May for their first annual water forum. Titled “Securing the Right to Water in Africa,” the event brought together various groups in Africa who oppose growing efforts by multinational corporations and lending institutions to privatize water.

The World Bank has set its sights on Ghana as a poster child for water privatization in Africa. Under Bank loan requirements, monthly water rates have skyrocketed for the average Ghanaian. Now, the Bank is demanding the country privatize its system. A coalition of nonprofit groups and grassroots protesters have delayed the plan for two years.

Twenty-four other African countries have active World Bank loan conditions that include measures to privatize water systems. Many countries worldwide may face the same fate. As lawmakers pledge to reduce by half the amount of people who are deprived of clean and affordable drinking water by the year 2015, privatization is being promoted by the World Bank and by multinational corporations as the “solution” to global water scarcity. They argue the water scarcity problems will be solved by turning water into an economic good—a commodity to be controlled by global corporations and sold to the highest bidder in international markets.

But in places such as Accra and Nicaragua, citizens groups are fighting the commodification of water at the local level. “Water belongs to the earth and all species for all time,” says a statement drafted by groups earlier this year in Kyoto, Japan, site of the Third World Water forum. “It is an inalienable human right and a public trust to be protected and nurtured by all peoples, communities and nations, and the bodies that represent them at the local, state, and international level.” To date, nearly 300 groups have signed on to the statement.

An estimated 8,000 people gathered in Kyoto for the forum, sponsored by the World Water Council. The Council is a heavily business-influenced think tank that focuses on water policy. This year, representatives from public interest, human rights, and consumer advocacy organizations attended the week-long meeting to protest the forum’s corporate focus.

Activists passed out a vision statement about the global right to water to conference attendees and displayed blue headbands, printed in five languages, bearing the text “Water Is Life.” On the final day of the conference, as former IMF Managing Director Michel Camdessus presented a report in favor of water privatization, civil society groups staged a walk-out. Some activists stormed the stage, parading huge banners that read “World Water Mafia” and “Water Is a Human Right.”

Citizens’ groups in Florence, Italy, New Delhi, India, and Sao Paulo, Brazil, are already planning their second annual water forums. “The amazing work of the civil society coalition that came together to attend the forum will reverberate for years to come,” water activist Maude Barlow said after the Kyoto meeting. ————–

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