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In The Midst Of A Global Water Crisis -- The EU Threatens Water Privatization

By Theodora Filis

Water privatization is a very hot subject, and is causing many problems in the European Union (EU). In countries like Greece and Portugal, the Troika is pushing for water privatization, with more and more citizens being deprived of water access in municipalities where water supply is managed by private companies. Citizens are fighting against water privatization across the EU, with many examples of massive mobilizations in Italy with the 2011 binding referendum, the local consultations in Madrid and Berlin, more recent mobilizations in El Puerto de Santa Maria, Spain and upcoming local public consultations in Thessaloniki, Greece.

Everyone agrees that we are in the midst of a global freshwater crisis. Around the world, rivers, lakes, and aquifers are dwindling faster than we can possibly replenish them. Increased global population and industrial and household chemicals are also causing a decrease in freshwater.

Goldman Sachs estimates that global water consumption is doubling every 20 years, and the United Nations expects demand to overcome supply by more than 30 percent come 2040. Although water is essential to life, it makes it no less expensive to obtain, purify, and deliver, and does nothing to change the fact that as supplies dwindle and demand grows, that expense will only increase.


Maude Barlow - The Global Water Crisis


The World Bank has argued that higher prices are a good thing. Right now, no public utility anywhere prices water based on how scarce it is or how much it costs to deliver, and that, privatization proponents argue, is the root cause of such rampant overuse. If water costs more, they say, we will conserve it better. 

As the crisis worsens, companies like True Alaska that own the rights to vast stores of water (and have the capacity to move it in bulk) won’t necessarily weigh the needs of wealthy water-guzzling companies like Coca-Cola or Nestlé against those of water-starved communities in Phoenix or Ghana; privately owned water utilities will charge what the market can bear, and spend as little as they can get away with on maintenance and environmental protection.

There is no substitute for water, and as everyone is painfully aware, corporations don’t care about the environment – and they don’t care about human rights – they care about profit.

In the developed world it’s easy to take water for granted. Turn on any tap, and it comes rushing out, clean and plentiful, even in the arid Southwest, where the Colorado River Basin is struggling through its 11th year of drought; in most cities a month’s supply still costs less than cable or a cell-phone plan.

Water privatization, until recently, was an almost exclusively Third World issue. In the late 1990's the World Bank infamously required scores of impoverished countries—most notably Bolivia—to privatize their water supplies as a condition of desperately needed economic assistance. The hope was that markets would eliminate corruption and big multinationals would invest the resources needed to bring more water to more people. By 2000, Bolivian citizens had taken to the streets in a string of violent protests. Bechtel—the multinational corporation that had leased their pipes and plants—had more than doubled water rates, leaving tens of thousands of Bolivians who couldn’t pay without any water whatsoever. The company said price hikes were needed to repair and expand the dilapidated infrastructure. Critics insisted they served only to maintain unrealistic profit margins. Either way, the rioters sent the companies packing; by 2001, the public utility had resumed control.

On 28 July 2010, the United Nations General Assembly recognized the human right to water and sanitation and acknowledged that clean drinking water and sanitation are essential to the realization of all human rights. The Resolution calls upon States and international organizations to provide financial resources, help capacity-building and technology transfer to help countries – in particular developing countries – to provide safe, clean, accessible and affordable drinking water and sanitation for all.

In November 2002, the Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights stated that "The human right to water is indispensable for leading a life in human dignity. It is a prerequisite for the realization of other human rights" – it also defined the right to water as “the right of everyone to sufficient, safe, acceptable and physically accessible and affordable water for personal and domestic uses”.

Water MUST be accessible to all people – regardless of their social and economic status. The European Citizen’s Initiative expected the European Commission to propose legislation implementing the Human Right to Water and Sanitation as recognized by the United Nations, and to promote the provision of water and sanitation as essential public services for all.

The European Water Movement continues to support local struggles in places such as Thesaloniki or Alcazar de San Juan to ensure that water is declared a common good -- reminding candidates in the elections for the European Parliament -- of the importance of recognizing that water is a human right, to concretely act towards its implementation and to avoid liberalization and profit of water and sanitation services.

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