The Battle for the World’s Water Supplies: A Backgrounder

 Although 1.1 billion people lack access to drinking water and 2.4 billion are without adequate sanitation globally, governments have failed to implement a resource management system that can fulfil the universal human right to water. The March 2009 World Water Forum in Istanbul generated little progress in equitable water governance, recognising only that “access to drinking water and sanitation is a basic human need” in its official ministerial statement, rather than acknowledging water as a fundamental human right. 

Forum delegates produced this weak outcome despite a call during the Conference by the president of the UN General Assembly, Miguel D’Escoto, for international leaders to view water as a public trust and common heritage of people and nature – and not simply a commodity to be bought and sold on the open market. 

A significant obstacle to the universal realization of the right to water is the trend for private corporations to seek control of water, and  many of these businesses have considerable influence at the World Water Forum. Since water is in short supply yet irreplaceable, the eminent campaigner Susan George has referred to it as ‘universal public good’ rather than a ‘human right’, suggesting that the word ‘right’ gives the impression of an unlimited free resource. The economic values of scarcity and indispensability also make water a ‘dream come true’ for any business entrepreneur trained in classical liberal economics – a good with a permanent market, an ‘ideal product’ without substitute, and thus a lucrative asset to private business. 

George argues that it is logical for one firm to manage an entire water network, as a single authority can offer a better combination of efficiency, quality and price – the so-called economic model of the “natural monopoly”. When a corporation gains control over such a natural monopoly, says George, it can only be expected to maximize profits by raising prices and minimising maintenance. As a result, poorer communities are often left without adequate infrastructure and unable to afford water services. 

Commentators often cite the privatization of the municipal water system in Cochabamba, Bolivia, in 2000 as one of the clearest examples of the disastrous effects of corporate water control. The US-registered corporation Bechtel severely hiked water prices after taking over the Cochabamba water supply as a condition for a loan from the World Bank. Mass demonstrations ensued, eventually ousting the disgraced firm from the country. 

A March 2009 UNESCO report has predicted that with the increasing pressure put on global water supplies by pollution and climate change, nearly 50 percent of the world’s population will be living under high water stress by 2030. As a result of diminishing global water supplies, analysts have described water as ‘blue gold’, or the next ‘oil’ of the twenty-first century, referring to both its scarcity value and potential to spark future resource wars. 

As Tara Lohan points out in an article for the Nation, the beginnings of conflict over the world’s dwindling freshwater resources are already evident in diplomatic disputes between China and Tibet, Israel and Gaza, and Mexico and the US. Whether countries choose a course of cooperation or competition in these water disputes will likely be an important factor in defining future international peace and security scenarios.

Lohan also stresses that governments should not prioritize national security concerns over responses to the ongoing humanitarian crisis suffered by the one billion people that lack access to drinking water. This perspective is shared by the authors of the 2006 UN Human Development Report, which identifies the heart of the water crisis as rooted in power, poverty and inequality, rather than physical availability. 

Maude Barlow, Senior Advisor on water issues to the UN, has long highlighted the three converging water crises: dwindling freshwater supplies, inequitable access to water, and the corporate control of water sources. As a solution to the water crises, she proposes the Blue Covenant, a global agreement on water. The recommended covenant has three components: water conservation as a response to diminishing supplies; water justice, the sharing of water between resource rich and resource poor nations and communities; and water democracy, the global acknowledgement that water is a fundamental human right that should be under public rather than corporate control. 

Water was not included in the 1948 Human Rights declaration, but Barlow explains that lobbying from the global water justice movement has shifted the UN’s position on water rights. Most significantly, the Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights recognized in 2002 that water is a prerequisite for realizing other human rights and “indispensable for leading a life in dignity.” Grassroots activists must now push governments to accept that corporate control of water is incompatible with the goal of securing water as a universal human right. The task ahead, says Barlow, is to reclaim water as a part of the global commons that must be cooperatively managed and shared – an unattainable goal unless we reject the values of competition, unlimited growth, and private ownership that underpin economic globalisation. 

Water and Sustainable Development – Susan George, Transnational Institute   

Blue Gold: Have the Next Resource Wars Begun? – Tara Lohan, The Nation   

Blue Covenant: An Alternative Water Future – Maude Barlow, MRZine   

Further Resources   

Further Resources:

 Link to STWR’s key facts page on Water   

Is Water Becoming the New Oil? – Mark Clayton, The Christian Science Monitor, 30th May 08   

Water Super Profits in a Time of Crisis – Sakuma Tomoko, 29th September 08 

Managing World Water – Daniel Moss, Foreign Policy in Focus, 3rd June 09   

Changing the Flow: Water Movements in Latin America – Food and Water Watch, March 09

Blue Planet Project website  

 Right to Water website