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The Poison called water privatisation

By Kingsley Oghojafor

Water is God's gift to every living thing. As seen from space, it is one of the most unique features of our planet earth. Water, in both its liquid and frozen forms, cover approximately 75% of the Earth's surface. Believed to have initially arrived on the surface through the emissions of ancient volcanoes, geologic evidence suggests that large amounts of water have likely flowed on Earth for the past 3.8 billion years - i.e. for most of its existence. As a vital substance that sets the Earth apart from the rest of the planets in our solar system, water is a necessary ingredient for the development and nourishment of life.

Water is not a creation of man like cars, houses, companies, bridges, etc. so it is not something to be sold to every person on earth. Water is a necessity for every living person. Like air, water is a 'cannot do without' for all peoples of this world. Water is supposed to be free for all. It is no wonder that nature has blessed the world abundantly with two main things. And they are water and air. The importance of water for human survival is manifested in the fact that it covers the major parts of the world. This is so that mankind will have it in abundance, just as we have air in abundance.

Sadly, unlike air, water is not pure and drinkable in all its forms. 96.5% of the water on earth is sea and salty water and only 3.5% is fresh water. And of this 3.5% only 0.8% is available for us to use, the difference being accounted for by the permanent icebergs of the South and North poles. And more frightening, because of the properties of water resulting from its chemistry, this quantity available to us is not always pure in its natural form. In fact, studies have revealed that about 50% of diseases plaguing man today could be traced to the kind of water consumed. The human toll from impure water, in illness and mortality, is indeed very steep. 1 billion people lack access to drinking water that meets the crudest safety standard. UNICEF reports that 3.8 million developing world children died under the age of 5 last year of diarrhoea deaths caused by impure drinking water. Diarrhoea kills more people than cancer. Most of Africa, the Indian subcontinent and Latin America have no wastewater treatment or facilities. Raw human and industrial wastes are discharged directly into the water used for drinking. The lower quality of the water is worse than the water discharged from the American factories. In India ritual bathers get their bodies exposed to a wide range of pollutants entering rivers such as the Ganges). In China 25 billion tons of unfiltered industrial pollutants went directly in the waterways. There was more water pollution in one country alone, than the whole western world.

So while it is water, water, everywhere, it is also not enough to drink. The World Bank has even predicted that by 2025, two-thirds of the world's population will run short of fresh drinking water.

In order for more people to stay alive and healthy, they have to have access to fresh and clean drinkable water. The importance of water was also emphasized by Fortune magazine recently when it called water, "the oil of the 21st century." This therefore means that water will be more important to more people than the case is today. That is why private companies, many of which are multinationals, are bent on capitalizing on this 'future oil boom'. They are now poised to spread their tentacles in probing all the countries of the world for opportunities to turn the misery of water-starved regions into profits for their executives and stockholders.

It is very clear that private companies and multinationals are more concerned with profit making than with caring for the people. They are first and foremost accountable to their executives and stockholders before they are to the public. Most of them are evidently out to make profits and nothing else. The first thing on their minds is how to increase profits using any means necessary. And the fact that people have no alternative to water means that they will always have a willing, desperate and exploited people who will buy water from them.

It is indeed sad that despite the problems that the world is facing because of the lack of clean and drinkable water, more and more private companies /multinationals, and government officials throughout the world, instead of protecting existing supplies, enhancing conservation efforts, helping vulnerable populations, curbing pollution and raising public awareness, are turning to privatisation with the sole aim of transferring the control of this precious resource from the public sector to the private sector.

We have to rely on our governments exclusively to purify and provide us with drinkable and freshwater that will be cheap, within the reach of all humans, and at all times. The very survival of untold millions of people could rest on decisions being made today for the most part behind closed doors in corporate boardrooms and government offices throughout the world. With each drop of water that falls into the hands of private interests, any sustainable solution to the global water predicament moves further and further from the public's grasp. And the further it moves away, the more people will die.

The world has treated global capitalism with too much laxity. And the result is now the poison called privatisation. As part of the prerequisite for capitalism, most parts of the world have engaged in and almost completed the privatisation of almost every sector of their economies. Many Western powers and the World Bank believe that privatisation is the only quid-pro-quo for development of any country. As laudable as the desire for development is, it is also pertinent to mention that dangers exist in the privatisation exercise worldwide, especially the privatisation of key government owned public enterprise that the mass of the people rely on.

International Conference on Freshwater

The importance of the provision of water to its people by every government as a free or affordable commodity was further highlighted in the International Conference on freshwater held in Bonn, Germany. The International Conference on Freshwater was held 3-7 December 2001 in Bonn, Germany. The conference brought together government delegates from 118 countries, including 46 Ministers, representatives from 47 international organizations and delegates of 73 organizations from major groups and civil society. It was a meeting appropriate for the age of global partnerships as it demonstrated that governments, the private sector, civil society and local and grassroots initiatives can work together in a spirit of partnership while acknowledging the differences in their mandates, roles and responsibilities. The conference reviewed the role of water in sustainable development, took stock of progress in the implementation of Agenda 21 and identified how this implementation can improve. The conference recommended priority actions under the following three headings: governance, mobilizing financial resources, and capacity building and sharing knowledge. For more details, visit the conference web site at or contact the Secretariat of the International Conference on Freshwater, Tulpenfeld 7, 53113 Bonn, Germany; tel: 49-228-28046-55; fax 49-228-28046-60; email:

The challenge of providing good cultural water for a sustainable development among various countries of the world was the main subject of discourse. Expectedly, the conference rightly noted that the provision of freshwater and water resources management generally are essentially the responsibility of the governments all over the world. Among its recommendations were that government policy on water should focus on the development of infrastructure that will make freshwater possible for everybody. It maintained that the policy of provision of water by governments worldwide should be linked to policies of poverty reduction and sustainable development in general.

To emphasis the importance of water as a key responsibility of governments worldwide, the conference also recommended that government policies should equitably and suitably allocate water to basic human needs, the functioning of the ecosystems, and different economic uses, including food production, while desertification and drought require the development of new water policies.

The emphasis of the Conference, and many like it in the past, clearly spells out the importance of water as a very critical element to humanity. Water is too important not to be handled by governments. It is a community asset and it should remain so. But like the proverbial African dog that refused to listen to the hunter's whistle, the governments and private companies have refused to listen to the voice of reason.

It will be pertinent for me to count the dangers of water privatisation so that we will know how monstrous it is and why it should be nipped in the bud now.

Privatisation exposes countries to economic hiccups:

This is especially true of countries whose governments need an avenue to shy away from the duty of providing their people the necessities of life, which include water. It is a fact that many governments, especially the sit-tight despots in Africa, need an opportunity to evade their duty of providing their people with the basic things of life. They prefer to sell off the people's public companies that help to keep them alive. And a good opportunity open to them is privatisation.

Privatisation will benefit foreigners more than locals

Many people in those countries whose governments are hell-bent on privatisation, have expressed fear that the privatisation exercise would not benefit them but would only end up further enriching foreign interests and local money bags alone. This is because very few people in most of the developed and developing countries will partake in the privatisation exercise. Only the rich and the strong will enjoy the 'scramble and partition of all the "for sale" properties of the government'

Privatisation will lead to loss of jobs

Another major fear about privatisation concerns the impending loss of present and future employment. The International Labour Organisation, in 1997 said 'improvements in efficiency have been leading to job losses in many parts of the world'. Also the lack of modernization and lack of competition will eventually contribute to higher job losses. The private companies and multinationals are more concerned with profits, so they will be willing to cut as many jobs as possible to continue to make profits. They would not care how many lives would be adversely affected by their actions. All they want is to provide a report to their executives and stockholders that shows 'profit'. Many in the developed countries have continued to express concern that it will result in more retrenchment of workers and the general state of lack of care for the ordinary people

Privatisation means only one thing for the advocates-PROFIT. And it means another different thing too for those fighting against it, - POISON

Many of the poor people all over the world, especially the third world countries, are going to be particularly hit by the whole privatisation exercise, especially the proposed privatisation of water. This is because in all spheres of life, all is not well in these countries. Many of them, especially in Africa and the other Third World countries cannot even afford to eat. And now with the proposed privatisation of water, we will surely see more deaths from not only starvation but also thirst. I envisage a situation whereby it will be 'water, water everywhere, but not a drop to drink'. Of course, this will happen because that is what privatisation will cause. There will be water everywhere but the people will not be able to afford to buy it.

The privatisation of water for the Third World would result also in more fraudulent transfer of their lean foreign exchange earnings

This would happen through over-invoicing. Equally true is the fact that privatisation of public enterprises like water companies would ensure that many of the Third World countries remain forever peripheral economies and consequently, never industrialized.

Privatisation is politically unpopular

Water has long been viewed as a community asset in the developed and developing countries of the world, even in the United States. The decision to keep water utility in the public realm, therefore, may often be a political decision rather than a financial one. Many people are nervous to mix protection of the environment and public health - two highly charged issues - with profits. They feel that it is a political responsibility of their governments to provide them with water. Responsibility is the keyword here and not profit.

More so, privatisation can become politically unpopular because the people believe that privatisation will simply transfer authority from an inefficient public monopoly to a price-gouging private monopoly. This assumption is more common in Third World countries, like Africa, where most public companies perform far below expectation.

Privatisation will endanger the environment as a result of bulk water export

Private companies and multinationals, fully aware of the bleak water supply prognostications, will engage in the mad dash to obtain access to fresh water that they can sell at huge profits, as high as 35 percent. This mad rush will lead to massive bulk water export from water-rich countries to water-poor countries. And as it increases (which it is sure to), the environment will be threatened because massive extraction of water from its natural sources on a constant basis will result in ecological imbalance and destruction. Also disrupting aquifers by over-extraction often damages the environment and socio-economic standards. Groundwater is being over-extracted as it is, and once aquifers are emptied or polluted, they are almost impossible to restore. At the end of the day what will we have? We will be left with an endangered environment where everyone will be at risk of not having the right water to drink and use.

Privatisation has no regard for the poor

Privatisation is sure to leave the poor people of the world with no access to clean water. Despite the World Bank and International Monetary Fund privatisation schemes in the developing world, many people in the developing world still believe strongly that the schemes usually result in reduced access to water for the poor. The private companies and multinationals that have bought the water companies will always utilize rate hikes to maximize profits, which, by characterization, is their bottom line. This bottom line often comes at the expense of water quality and customer service, but not at the expense of maintaining inflated executive salaries. So because of the inappropriate aspects of handling water as a marketable commodity, rather than a basic human need and a natural resource, the poor are often denied access. Because living without water is not an option, like going without food, medicine or education, the poor are then forced to buy water to be able to stay alive.

Privatisation is forced on many countries by the World Bank/IMF

"Structural adjustment" programs foisted upon governments seeking loans often include water privatisation as a condition. Impoverished, politically enfeebled countries are hardly in a position to refuse these conditions, as doing so would cause them to default on their debts. As a result, the World Bank and IMF are able to provide lucrative and virtually risk-free contracts for multinationals, due to guaranteed rates of return and investment protection clauses. Most of the Third World Sub-Saharan African countries, including Nigeria adopted the policy of privatisation in 1986 as an integral part of a larger reform Structural Adjustment Programme (SAP) propagated by the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) as a condition for external debt relief.

Privatisation is almost impossible to reverse

This is a very important disadvantage leading from privatisation because if a country decides that it has erred in privatising its water, it cannot reverse the decision easily. In some instances it is impossible. Once a government agency hands over its water system to a private company, withdrawing from the agreement borders on the unattainable. The best way that a country can try to do this is to claim that the private company has breached the terms of contract. But herein lies another problem. The problem is that proving breach of contract is a difficult and costly ordeal. And multinational trade agreements provide corporations with powerful legal recourse. A private company, for instance, can use the North American Free Trade Agreements secretive tribunals to contest challenges to privatisation. And in World Bank loan deals, which often make water privatisation a condition, companies are usually guaranteed cash payments if a government agency returns its water system to public control.

Privatisation leads to corruption

Checks and balances that help in preventing corruption, such as answerability and transparency, are missing at every step of the process of the water privatisation, from bidding on a contract to delivering water. Contracts are usually worked out behind closed doors with the details often still kept secret after the contract is signed, even though it is the public that will be directly affected by the conditions of the contract. This circumstance opens itself up to bribery, which, if recent scandals throughout the world are any indication, is not an uncommon occurrence. It is true that anything done in secret is not done with all honesty.

Privatisation of water will lead to poor water quality

As profits rather than the public good drive corporate agendas, privatisation usually results in the compromising of environmental standards. Most of the private companies and multinationals will be more concerned in making more and more profits and will not be too interested in the quality of water they provide to the public. That is why the National Association of Water Companies (NAWC), which represents the U.S. private water industry, intensively and perennially lobbies Congress and the Environmental Protection Agency to refrain from adopting higher water quality standards. The NAWC also persistently requests that all federal regulations be based on sound cost-benefit analysis, which means that public health is compromised for the sake of higher profits.

Conclusively, the proposed privatisation of water is a wrong step in the wrong direction. It is bad enough that we have to contend with most of the public enterprises being privatised, but now with the proposed privatisation of water, the whole world will be in danger of committing genocide as millions of people will die because they will not be able to afford water. Presently, more than a billion people lack drinking water - and in much of the developing world these numbers are rising (Ghazi, 1999).

It is now up to all of us to do the best we can to fight this menace because, whether we want to accept it or not, we are all going to be affected by the privatisation of water. This therefore makes it necessary for all of us to speak with one voice to oppose the plans of privatisation of water. Edmund Burke said, 'It is necessary only for the good man to do nothing for evil to triumph'. We should therefore not keep silent but volubly oppose, with all our might, the privatisation of water. It is the responsibility of all good people world-wide to oppose the privatisation of water.

As Charles De Gaulle of France once said, 'politics is too serious a matter to be left to the politicians', so also should we all say -'water is too serious a matter to be left to the private individuals and companies'. The happy future of our earth and all that exists in it depends on whether or not the privatisation of water takes complete effect in all countries of the world.


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