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Mar 27 2006
Supplied or written by Patrick Bond

Water Activists Turn On The Taps And Turn Up The Pressure
By Patrick Bond
Mar 24, 2006, 12:24

On March 16 in Mexico City, thousands of grassroots water warriors
marched against an equivalent number of establishment delegates from
governments, corporations and international agencies at the World
Water Forum.

The activists, opposed to what they term the 'commodification' of
water, were stopped a kilometer away from their establishment
opponents. But as the Washington Post reported, 'Youths in ski masks
attacked journalists and fought with police, smashing a patrol car
and hurling rocks during largely peaceful Water Forum protests
involving about 10,000 marchers.'

The Post continued, 'Many of the battles over water in Mexico don't
involve people who would otherwise be considered radicals. Those on
the front lines are residents of low-income neighbourhoods in Mexico
City who get in fistfights over water-truck deliveries, or housewives
who can no longer stand the stink of untreated sewage flowing beside
their homes. And then there are the Indian families whose crops are
ruined by the diversion of water to feed a nearby city, while their
children go without safe drinking water.'

Here in South Africa, there are millions who can tell stories of
water 'delivery drought'. Rural areas are underserviced due to lack
of operating subsidies which mean that a large percentage of taps
installed in the post-apartheid era are now dry. And for those lucky
to be on municipal water grids, mass disconnections due to
unaffordability affect more than 1.5 million South Africans each
year, even the government admits.

According to Desmond D'Sa of the South Durban Community Environmental
Alliance, 'Across the metro, low-income people and even whole blocks
of flats are having trouble paying their rates, and quite a few have
had their water cut off recently. I've negotiated for some
reconnections, but the amounts outstanding are vast. People simply
can't afford the rates. Council is even reneging on a pre-election
promise to write off arrears.'

Water warriors here also decry the new 'pre-paid meter' technology
that leads to self-disconnection. Conlog, a firm directed by the late
ANC leader Joe Modise once he retired as minister of defense in 1999,
is manufacturing these devices, which Johannesburg activists backed
by the Freedom of Expression Institute will argue in court next month
are unconstitutional.

Meanwhile, Conlog is installing them across the African continent.
Soweto Electricity Crisis Committee activists have taken the lead in
ripping out pre-paid meters - both water and electricity - and
periodically marching to municipal offices to trash the hated

And as part of the New Partnership for Africa's Development, with its
focus on public-private infrastructure partnerships, state-owned Rand
Water - which supplies bulk water to Johannesburg - is helping a
Dutch company and the World Bank privatise water in Accra, Ghana.
That country's National Coalition Against the Privatisation of Water
is already in close contact with the Johannesburg Anti-Privatisation
Forum, helping coordinate protests.

The highest profile citizens' campaign against commodified water was
in Bolivia six years ago, when the people of the third-largest city,
Cochabamba, fought the US firm Bechtel, backed by the World Bank. As
of two months ago, the new Bolivian water minister in Evo Morales'
indigenous-led government is Abel Mamani, a neighbourhood activist
veteran of another water war, in El Alto, who cut his teeth battling
the French water company Suez.

Mamani made five points in a speech last week:

* Water is a fundamental human right and a pre-requisite to the
realization of other human rights; * Water belongs to the earth and
all living beings including human beings and it is the duty of
everyone to protect access to water for all forms of life and for the
earth itself; * Water is a public good and therefore its management
needs to be in a sphere that is public, social, community-based,
participative and not based on profit; * Water should not be
privatised and should be withdrawn from all free trade and investment
agreements; and * There should be profound change in the organization
of the World Water Forum to allow majority and decisive participation
in the negotiations by the poorest and those who most need water.

Bolivia is just one of the sites where the balance of forces has
shifted left; other major battles - not always victorious - have been
fought in Manila, Jakarta and Detroit. Biwater was kicked out of Dar
es Salaam last year, to the regret of its advisor, the Adam Smith
Institute, funded by British taxpayers.

Civil society movements and governments have forced Suez to retreat
from major cities ranging from Atlanta to Buenos Aires to Montevideo
in recent months. The firm's bid to retain the Johannesburg Water
contract for another 25 years will be considered by council in June,
but after mass protests in Soweto, Orange Farm and other townships,
is by no means secure.

The goals of progressive civil society activists, generally, are
'decommodification' of water, improved access by poor people, better
conditions for water workers, and more appropriate eco-management of
water. The latter should include penalties for hedonistic

Additional campaigns are waged against megadams, inappropriate
irrigation, fish destocking, water pollution, bulk water diversions,
bottled water, abuse of water by golf courses and extractive firms
like Coca Cola and Nestle, and looming water scarcity. On one crucial
battleground, control of water by the World Trade Organisation,
activists appear to have just won, by exempting water from the WTO's
General Agreement on Trade in Services.

As the Mexico confrontation shows, protesters are linking up with
vigour. Back in 1992, after the Rio Earth Summit and a Dublin water
conference both advanced the principle that water is 'an economic
good', privatisation began in earnest. Within a few years, a broad-
based international front of community, consumer, environmental and
labour organisations emerged to fight back.

The formal privatisation of water slowed during the late 1990s, in
part because it became so difficult for the big British, French,
German, Spanish and US firms to realise profits across the Third
World, not least thanks to rising social resistance. Nevertheless,
municipalities and water supply agencies are still being pressured by
the World Bank to adopt commercial principles, including pricing
water high enough to at least to cover operating/maintenance costs,
at a time of declining subsidies.

No one disputes that with at least 2.6 billion people lacking
adequate sanitation and 1.1 billion lacking access to improved water
sources, there is an urgent need for dramatic improvements in
investment, management and affordability. Third World states shrunk
during the past quarter-century of sustained structural adjustment,
addled by debt payment outflows, capital flight and foreign aid
cutbacks. So the resources required for water and sanitation can not
often be found.

Still, the primary strategy adopted by water advocates has been to
defend the state as the key institution for delivering water. There
are vast problems with relying on state agencies (whether national or
municipal), yet in most societies it remains the institution which
can best redistribute and organise resources.

Some water-delivery NGOs such as WaterAid, members of Freshwater
Action Network or South Africa's Mvula Trust do find themselves
occasionally accused of betraying mass popular movement sentiments
over water prices, standards and institutional delivery systems.
While expanded community control is generally an objective of
progressive activists, a primary concern is that decentralization
should not replace a serious state commitment to subsidizing poor
people's water. Unlike what most NGOs can provide, an operative
state's grid service is more likely to offer purified, high-pressure
water in sufficient quantities to serve gender equity, public health
and other broader eco-social goals.

Critics argue that some NGO interventions lubricate neoliberalism,
because installing inadequate collective tap systems - usually
without sufficient sanitation - contributes to further state
shrinkage. The general trend towards private outsourcing, including
some examples of NGO delivery, has been destructive, because
standards are lower, prices are higher, disconnections are more
common, maintenance is worse and accountability is harder to

The struggles against commodified water often erupt on global
platforms, such as the triannual World Water Forum - at The Hague in
2000, Kyoto in 2003 and Mexico City in 2006 - and related meetings of
the water establishment such as WTO summits. There, activists have
battled a series of enemies:

* the Global Water Partnership (created by the World Bank, UN
Development Programme and Swedish aid); * the Marseilles-based World
Water Council (founded by Suez, Canadian aid and the Egyptian
government and joined by 300 private companies, government
ministries, and international organisations); * the International
Private Water Association (privatisation firms plus the World Bank,
US Credit Export Agency and Overseas Private Investment Corporation
and the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development); * the
World Bank itself (which in $20 billion worth of 1990s water projects
imposed privatisation as a loan condition in a third of the
transactions); * Mikhael Gorbachev's Green Cross (in ongoing dispute
with Council of Canadians over global-scale water rights and property
rights in the UN); * Aquafed (a federation set up by a former Suez
managing director); and * the World Panel on Financing

The latter was chaired by former IMF managing director Michel
Camdessus during 2002-03, with major multilateral development banks,
Citibank, Lazard Freres, the US Ex-Im Bank, private water companies
(Suez, Thames Water), state elites (from Egypt, France, Ivory Coast,
Mexico, and Pakistan) and two NGOs (Transparency International and
WaterAid). It proposed much greater amounts of public subsidies for
privatisers, via a risk insurance mechanism to safeguard companies
like Suez against currency crises which devastated the firm's
Argentina operations after 2001.

Some of the strongest critics of neoliberal water policies are
citizens'/consumers' organisations (especially the Council of
Canadians in Ottawa and Public Citizen in Washington); trade unions
(Public Services International and their affiliates); indigenous
people's movements; environmental groups (led by the International
Rivers Network and Friends of the Earth); and think-tanks (e.g., the
PSI Research Unit at Greenwich University, Polaris in Ottawa, the
TransNational Institute in Amsterdam, the Agriculture and Trade
Policy Center in Minneapolis, the Municipal Services Project in South
African and Canadian universities, Parivartan and the Centre for
Science and the Environment in New Delhi, Food and Water Watch in
Washington, and the International Forum on Globalization in San

From the struggles have emerged inspiring leaders, intellectuals and
politicians, including Accra campaigners Rudolf Amenga-Etego (who was
awarded the 2004 Goldman environmental prize) and Alhassan Adam,
Canadians Maude Barlow and Tony Clarke (who won the 2005 Right
Livelihood Award) and writer Varda Burstein, Paris-based Danielle
Mitterrand, Cochabamba movement leader Oscar Olivera, Washington-
based water watchdogs Maj Fiil-Flynn and Sara Grusky, Olivier
Hoedeman and Satoko Kishimoto of 'Reclaiming Public Water' at the
Transnational Institute, filmmakers Alan Snitow and Deborah Kaufman,
European campaigner Ricardo Petrello, anti-dam strategists Paddy
McCully and Lori Pottinger, and extraordinary Indian women like
Sunita Narrain, Medha Patkar, Arundhati Roy, Vandana Shiva and Shiney
Varghese. South Africans who are well-known internationally include
Bryan Ashe and Lianne Greef of the SA Water Caucus, Dale McKinley of
the national Campaign Against Water Privatisation, Wits sociology
researcher Ebrahim Harvey, Anil Naidoo (based in Ottawa), trade
unionist Roger Ronnie, and Sowetans Trevor Ngwane and Virginia

The World Social Forum in Porto Alegre, as well as regional Social
Fora, have provided spaces for water activist assemblies during the
early 2000s. Email listserves such as 'water warriors', 'reclaiming
public water' and 'right to water' permit information exchange and
coordination. A People's World Water Forum was held in Delhi two
years ago, preceded by the 2001 'Blue Planet' conference in
Vancouver, as well as periodic European gatherings.

Because the water movements have generated superb examples of
cooperation across borders, campaigns against commodified services
will continue to serve as a model for global civil society. If in the
short-term here in South Africa activists can reconnect water to
Durban's poor and working people and disconnect Suez from
Johannesburg and Rand Water from Accra, over the longer-term, the
world desperately needs to link their visions, programmes and
projects to similar processes, in the next set of 21st century water

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