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    Water privatization

    by Cathy Holt

    Water privatization was the theme of several workshops at Boston Social Forum, held at the University of Massachusetts July 23-25 (a huge offering of speakers and panels with activists from all over the world)...

    The big water companies include Veolia (formerly Vivendi), operating in over 100 countries, with annual revenues of $14.5 billion; their North American subsidiary is US Filter. Suez ($15.2 billion) has United Water in North America. Besides these, RWE/Thames Water, Nestle (Poland Spring, Ice Mountain, Deer Park), and Coca-Cola (Dasani, Evian) make up most of the market.

    One of the major goals of the FTAA (Free Trade Area of the Americas) negotiations is to increase privatization of water world-wide.

    In Nicaragua, there are already 3 million people who don't have water. There are street battles taking place against privatization of the water supply. Many children are dying due to the unclean water. Activists are calling for a consumer council to oversee watersheds. In India, Coca-Cola has been charged with causing water shortages. In Ghana, people must pay with pre-paid water meters, costing up to half of household income. Cholera outbreaks are happening. Coke is now cheaper than water in India and Mexico.

    The problems are in the U.S. and Canada as well. In Detroit, Michigan, there have been 40,000 homes where water was shut off due to scarcity and resulting price hikes; yet the state allows Nestle corporation to bottle water. The only access to water in Laredo, Texas, is from a city tap, where people bring their jugs and pay with quarters. In Canada, Enron took over a city's water system, with a "public-private partnership"; E.Coli killed ten people. 10 percent of First Nations' water (indigenous people's water) is contaminated, in Canada.

    How do the water companies take over municipal water supplies? They argue that it is "too expensive" for the public sector. However, in the U.S., 85 percent of all utilities are still publicly owned. It will take an estimated $2 trillion to refurbish the aging water supply infrastructure in the US, within the next 20 years. "The private sector has money to invest," we are told. In truth, they also borrow, but at a higher interest rate than a city; also, they must pay higher taxes, and they require a 15-20 percent profit. So the numbers don't make sense. A municipal utility exists to deliver water, not to make profit. In Lexington, KY, privatization was tried and already failed. In Atlanta, privatization led to huge cost overruns, and the city canceled the contract.

    Bottled water can cost up to 1000 times what tap water costs, although of bottled water is simply tap water. In Latin America the Life Network is fighting commodification. The water crisis has led to a huge potential for profit. The giant water companies, backed by the World Trade Organization, have the power to change laws in their own favor. Privatizers swoop in on cities with water problems, like Miami, San Diego, and Phoenix. But they don't want to invest in infrastructure. Federal assistance to cities will be needed.

    The World Water Council is actually an international lobby group, posing as impartial, which advocates privatization and says that packaging water is the answer. They are not solving the problems of accessibility and accountability.

    Tap water is monitored by EPA, but bottled water is less regulated. NRDC found that 2/3 of bottled waters sampled had high bacterial counts. There is a movement now, through Water Allies Network, to boycott bottled water. They seek to force the municipalities, through the local water boards, to give better water. Using a filter at home is better than buying water in plastic bottles. More public drinking fountains need to be installed. People need access to clean drinking water.

    How do we push for water stewardship? One way is through water conservation, another through pushing state legislatures to protect groundwater. We must acknowledge the sacredness of water, which should never be under corporate control. All people must be able to afford water, as a human right. We need to oppose dams and pollution, and offer alternatives. Kerry must be pressured to remove CAFTA. Mayors can be urged to commit not to sell their cities' water. The movement can be expanded to include workers, youth, and indigenous peoples. Legislative changes: we need watershed source protection. Water services must be placed in public trust.

    An organization called Public Citizen, led by Hugh Jackson, is working against privatization nationwide on a "Water for All" campaign. They have published several excellent articles. See

    The Water Allies Network was formed in November of last year. One of their working groups is taking on the bottled water industry. Their goal is to shut down "exclusivity contracts." Three other working groups focus on Clean Water, Healthy Communities, and Energy & Scarcity.

    The film Thirst can be shown at house-parties. Other websites:, (indigenous water issues).


    In 2006, Mexico City will host the next international Water Forum.

    Contact Cathy Holt, author of "The Circle of Healing: Deepening Our Connections with Self, Others, and Nature," at To order by phone, call (800) 404-9492. is a developing experiment -- give us your feedback! Write us at

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