The Global
Water Crisis


Michelle Mairesse

     More than a decade ago, I was a foot soldier in the environmental movement. I held up posters at Coastal Commission meetings, coaxed the Audubon Society to do bird species counts at ponds, read stacks of environmental impact reports, telephoned bureaucrats, researched California state, county, and municipal law codes, attended city council meetings, and bored my friends with indignant accounts of life on the front lines.

     A melancholy feature of life on the front is the realization that the war is never won. I might delude myself that yesterday's battle settled the matter: the acre of wetlands essential to twenty-four species of migratory birds won't be paved. But money and politics could regroup, strike a crushing blow, and proceed to drain and pave the acre right under my nose. The winning sortie can come from any direction--a zoning change, a new ordinance, a twisted ruling, a disinformation campaign, a bribe-taker hidden under a shell corporation, a missing document, a suborned inspector, or a shift in the political climate--city, county, state, federal, and, recently, international.

     Globalization has brought some new forces into the fray. The multinational corporations and the international financial and trade organizations that aid and abet them want the title to all the earth's resources. In comparison, the robber barons were pussycats. Still, the robber barons cleared the way for the multinationals to conduct the ultimate fire sale.

      Think about it. You can buy a building today without owning the underground mineral rights. You can operate a smoke-belching industrial plant and buy the "pollution rights" of another industrialist who isn't using his "quota" of pollution. If you want to build your skyscraper higher than the law allows, you can buy "rights" to extra air space from the owner of a less aspiring building.

     What the multinationals have in mind is far more audacious, and they're using tactics that make Enron and look like pikers. If we don't fight back with everything we have, we'll end up as serfs on a dying planet.

Water Wars

          Bad news and ominous predictions issue from every quarter. In 1995, World Bank vice president Ismail Serageldin predicted an acute water shortage for the new millennium: "If the wars of this century were fought over oil, the wars of the next century will be fought over water."

     While the world's population has tripled, water demand has sextupled. Both the United Nations and the United States government estimate that by 2015, at least 40 percent of the world's population will lack an adequate water supply. Water shortages will affect the livelihood of one-third of the world's population by 2025, experts predict.

     Pollution has so diminished the world's fresh water resources that less than one percent of it can be used for drinking or agriculture, and even as the Green Revolution increased food production it was creating depleted aquifers, saline soil, and chemical pollution.

     If American bureaucrats took chemical pollution seriously, we would not be reading stories like this one:
"The Environmental Protection Agency and Department of Agriculture announced an unprecedented plan Friday to entrust testing for water pollution from atrazine, one of the most heavily used weedkillers in the country, to the chemical's manufacturer.

     "The EPA called the plan for monitoring by Syngenta Crop Protection "an innovative protective approach." Syngenta, based in Greensboro, N.C., is a subsidiary of the Swiss agribusiness Syngenta."

     "Last year, a UC Berkeley study showed that quantities 30 times lower than allowed in drinking water still caused gross malformations in frogs. Earlier this year, University of Missouri-Columbia epidemiologists found reproductive problems in humans. Their study found male semen counts to be almost 50% lower in Missouri farm country where atrazine was used than in big cities, where it wasn't. 'The results were very surprising to me,' said the study's author, statistician Shanna H. Swan."

     "The European Union recently announced a ban on use of atrazine. Syngenta plans to replace the chemical in Europe with an alternative, terbuthylazine. However, the company has not sought permission to market the chemical in the U.S., said Syngenta spokeswoman Sherry Ford. 'It did not work as well on U.S. weeds,' she said." (Los Angeles Times, November 1, 2003)
     The ultimate cost of the Green Revolution has not yet been assessed. The Green Revolution promised to end hunger by introducing high-yield seeds to developing nations, but to replace their drought-resistant native crops with thirsty varieties, farmers had to abandon their traditional irrigation methods for deep wells that sucked up already scarce groundwater.

"Water cannot be looked on as the next gold or oil."

Jean-Michel Cousteau, speaking at
the World Water Forum in Kyoto, March, 2003

     Now 65 percent of the world's fresh water flows into industrialized agriculture, which requires huge irrigation projects. To solve the irrigation problem, government planners and developers build big dams that create further ecological damage. The Global Water Policy Project, a water conservation advocacy group, estimates that two large dams more than 15 meters high have been constructed every day for the past 50 years.

     Dams prevent streams and rivers from replenishing groundwater. The Ganges, Nile, Yellow, Indus, and Colorado Rivers often run dry before reaching the ocean. Unreplenished aquifers have been strained to the limit.

     The Ogallala Aquifer, underlying land from the Texas Panhandle to South Dakota, has probably lost over half its bounty. More than 200,000 wells draw 13 million gallons from the aquifer a minute, faster than Nature can replenish it. Nevertheless, corporate raider T. Boone Pickens compelled a Texas state water district to allow him to pump and sell up to 65 billion gallons of water a year from the Ogallala Aquifer.

     Governments all over the world are squabbling over water. Syrians, Jordanians, and Palestinians condemn Israeli manipulation of water resources. Syria and Iraq object to Turkey's plans to dam the Euphrates River. Turkey, in turn, is opposed to Kurdish independence because the Kurds control the snow-covered mountains that augment their water supply. Egypt resents Ethiopia's plans to take more Nile water, and Bangladesh, downstream from India, is drying up because India has dammed and rerouted so much of its water.

     China's dam construction has displaced whole populations and created severe ecological imbalances. The former Soviet Union's vast irrigation plan to support water-intensive crops in Central Asia has turned the Aral Sea, one of the largest inland bodies of water, into a shrunken, salty puddle.

     Twenty-five percent of the world's fresh water goes to non-agricultural industrial projects, everything from automobile production to silicon chip manufacturing, which laps up immense quantities of pure water.

     Manufacturing plants that were once welcomed in third-world countries have had unexpected impacts on communities and their water deposits. Plachimada, a once prosperous farming village in Kerala, India, is demanding that the largest Coca-Cola plant in India shut down.

     Since 1998, the company has drawn up to one million liters of water daily from an underground aquifer that used to feed the village wells, sustain its coconut groves, and drench its crops. Now that the wells have dried up, the company sends water tankers through the village each morning with subsistence allotments of water for the residents.

     Coca-Cola sells the residual manufacturing sludge as fertilizer, gives it away, or dumps it in dry riverbeds. Exeter University analyzed samples of the sludge and reported finding high levels of lead and cadmium.


     The ruins of aqueducts throughout Europe attest to the Roman Empire's belief that water was a right of the people. Until recently, public drinking fountains were found in public squares.

Sweetwater Alliance      The notion that water could be considered a commodity sold for private gain arose in France in the nineteenth century during the reign of Napoleon III. Suez Lyonnaise has been expanding its global reach ever since, recently grabbing the American United Water Resources. The German-based RWE Aktiengesellschaft purchased the British OMI-Thames, as well as the largest private water company in the United States, American Water Works.

     These and other multinational water corporations lobbied the World Water Forum meeting in 2001 to change the definition of water from being a "human right" to a "human need."

     Maude Barlow, chair of Canada's largest public advocacy group protests, "These companies completely reject the idea that water is a common property belonging to all living creatures. Their only goal is to commodify the earth's most precious resource."

     According to the World Trade Organization, "human needs can be supplied by private entrepreneurs for a profit, unlike a human right which accrues equally to everyone." National and international trade associations like the WTO and NAFTA define water as a "commodity" and have agreements requiring governments to permit water exports under specified conditions.

     Frank Rijsberman, chairman of a consortium of water scarcity researchers, says that "policy decisions taken in the World Trade Organization are possibly the single most dominant factor shaping the global demand for food and consequently the amount of water required to grow that food."

     In short, follow the money.


     Commodification and privatization go hand in hand. Even though the evidence for water scarcity is overwhelming, governments and global bureaucracies, influenced by lobbyists, and, in many documented cases, outright bribery, are disposed to call water a commodity, to transfer what remains to private corporations, and to let the market determine who gets water and the price they pay for it.

     The mythological "market" doesn't apply to water traders. As Jim Hightower points out:
"Wielding monopoly power, they slash staff, lower wages, compromise service, cut corners on quality, skimp on long-term investment, raise rates--and call this "efficiency." Any savings derived from these tactics are routed into extravagant executive-pay packages, luxurious corporate headquarters, bureaucracy for the parent conglomerate, lavish advertising and lobbying budgets, and profits. All of this is done behind closed doors, for these private empires are not subject to the open-access and disclosure rules of public agencies. Then, when the peasants rebel, the faraway CEO dispatches an army of PR flacks and lawyers, overwhelming the financial resources available to local citizens and governments."
     Fortune magazine predicts that water stocks offer consistent returns well into the next century. And why not? Hightower explains:
"Many of these companies get profit guarantees written into their contracts. For example, if residents use less water than predicted, companies can raise rates so profits don't fall below a predetermined number. Once in control of a water system, they can also take any surplus and sell it off to the highest bidder, usually a neighboring city that's experiencing an unexpected shortfall. In some parts of the world, reports the trade journal Global Water Intelligence, water commands the same price as oil."
     Although many local governments claim to lack money for improvements to their fresh water and waste water systems, they end up privatizing public assets and subsidizing private profits.

     Environmentalists claim that profits come from increased sales, hence the water privateers have no incentive to conserve.

     Corporations like the giant Vivendi demur, arguing that their investments in new technology and infrastructure can improve service and conserve water. Theoretically perhaps they can, but in the real world it hasn't happened.

     Multinational tentacles reach into sectors and utilities other than water management. In 2000, for example, Vivendi transferred the entire debt of its communications division onto its environmental division--water, energy, waste, and transport operations. While the communications division is now debt free, subscribers to the "environmental" division have a surcharge of 4% added to their bills.

     A study compiled by David Hall, director of the Public Services International Research Unit at the University of Greenwich, concludes that privatization of water in Argentina, Brazil, Germany, Nairobi, and the Philippines resulted in enormous price increases that incited public outrage.

Georgia Out of Its Mind

     Georgia's House Bill 237, which Atlanta Constitution columnist Jay Bookman has called a "wholesale theft of public property," would privatize water "into a commodity that will be bought and sold like bushels of wheat and pounds of coffee.

     "Under HB 237, water permits would be transformed into property deeds to water, stream, lake, river, aquifer water, that has always belonged to the people of Georgia. Farmers could sell their irrigation permits. Declining wood products companies could auction off the permits that have allowed them to withdraw millions of gallons a day.

     "You would think that the legislators had learned their lesson in January 2003, when Atlanta took back control of its municipal water system from UWR, a subsidiary of Suez Lyonnaise. UWR had promised to make a demonstration project of the public-private partnership.

     "The company racked up big profits from privatizing Atlanta's water system under its twenty-million dollar yearly contract, yet it still managed to lower bills for customers. What went wrong?

     "UWR went on a cost-cutting binge, reducing staff from 731 to 327 employees. Fire hydrants didn't function. Service for repairs or installation was reluctant and slow. Worst of all, darkgreen water flowed from the taps. In the year 2000 alone, the health department issued five boil-all-water alerts.

     "Where oh where were the Georgia legislators hiding their heads when they framed HB 237?"

Bechtel Versus Bolivia

     The World Bank denied a $25 million loan guarantee to Cochabamba, Bolivia unless the local government sold its water system to the private sector. Two years prior to the water deal, World Bank officials threatened to withhold $600 million in international debt relief if Bolivia, the poorest country in South America, did not privatize Cochabamba's public water system.

     Immediately after Bechtel bought the municipal water supply in Cochabamba, the American firm raised prices two hundred percent and cut off water access to the poor. When the company refused to lower its rates, there followed a general strike, a transportation stand-still, and demonstrations resulting in mass arrests, hundred of injuries, and at least one death. After only four months, Bechtel fled to the United States and filed a twenty-five million dollar suit against Bolivia that is to be tried behind closed doors in a secret trade court at World Bank headquarters in Washington, D.C.

Ghana Gets Gouged

     Here we go again. World Bank and IMF officials laid down disastrous terms to the Ghanaian government in exchange for $400 million in loans to rebuild its publicly owned water systems. The Ghanaian government agreed to sell water at full market rates and to cease subsidizing poor communities at the expense of wealthy industrial customers. Rates increased two hundred percent and seventy-eight percent of poor Ghanaians had to slake their thirst with contaminated water wherever they could find it. Raging epidemics of malaria, cholera, and guinea worm are filling the hospitals.

Down and Dirty Down Under

     In the last decade of the twentieth century, Australia began privatizing its water supplies in a big way, awarding over fifty contracts to private enterprise. By 2001, foreign multinationals provided a quarter of Australia's drinking water.

     Adelaide was the only Australian city that handed over the entire management and operation of its drinking and waste water systems to a consortium called United Water International and led by Thames Water and Vivendi. Less than a year and a half later, citizens began to complain that the terrible stench pervading the city made them ill with headaches, nausea, sinusitis, and asthma. For three months, the stink's origin remained a mystery until an investigator located it at one of Adelaide's four wastewater treatment plants eleven miles north of the city. Chemical treatment of the plants system eliminated the smell. It was the old story: to cut costs, UWI had neglected maintenance of the treatment plant's large lagoon system. As for the many benefits UWI had promised, they are not forthcoming.

     Adelaide is stuck with the contract until 2011. A government study concluded that with the continued salinity of its water source, the Murray River, Adelaide will no longer have potable water by 2020.

     The convoluted, secret bidding process that secured UWI's contract has been the cynosure of two government investigations and a parliamentary committee inquiry.

Canada Gets Conned

     Hamilton, the first privatized large water utility in Canada, was planned as a demonstration project. The city council set up a new entity with Philip Services, a local corporation. Philip Utilities Management Corporation (PUMC) was awarded an unbid, ten-year one hundred-fifteen dollar contract to operate, manage, and maintain fourteen municipal water treatment facilities, three wastewater treatment plants, and one hundred twenty-nine pumping stations. PUMC retained seventy percent controlling interest and the city would be responsible for water rates and investment in the system. PUMC promised to create an export-oriented water company with its head office in Hamilton. Seven months after start-up, PUMC slashed staff by fifty percent.

     After a massive raw sewage spill into Hamilton homes in 1996, the corporation held out against lawsuits for damages for more than three years. As sewage spills continued on a regular basis (sewage floated in the harbor and bubbled up from manhole covers in a neighboring town) the operation accumulated sizable environmental fines that were passed along to the frequently changing ownership. By September 2001, when the German RWE corporation took over, Hamilton had suffered multiple indignities and rate increases from five water companies in eight years.

     Community sentiment appears to favor public ownership when RWE's contract comes up for renewal in 2004.

Everybody Lives Downstream

     Despite the spirit of the age--untrammeled greed, casual cruelty, unabashed corruption, and fatal short-sightedness--we still find people who want to redeem the time, to make a difference. Fortunately for humankind, these people have encouraged conservation of natural resources for the last fifty years

     The Tree People, a California ecological group, for example, have shifted their focus from planting trees to renewing the watershed that nurtures the trees. In Pacoima and Westchester schoolgrounds, they have mounted demonstration projects using landscaping and underground cisterns to retain rainwater. If parks and schools spent a little more on cooling trees and underground watering systems, they would save money on water and energy while preventing pollution and erosion from pavement runoff.

     The many proponents of organic farming want us to stop growing water-intensive crops in the desert with scarce irrigation water and government subsidies, as the industrial agriculturists are doing all over the world. Drought-resistant plants grown on pesticide-free small plots prevent pollution and conserve water.

     We have learned from the water privateers how important definitions are. Water defined as a right rather than a commodity can be protected from predators.

     Dianne Wassenich is taking the definition a step farther. The western states have traditionally granted water rights on the basis of "beneficial needs." Beneficial needs have included mining, building, and agriculture, but not conservation.

     Wassenich has applied for a permit to allow the water flowing through her property to continue in its course to the Gulf of Mexico and she has set up a one-person foundation that is part of an emerging movement to redefine beneficial use.

     One seasoned warrior in the water wars is Rajendra Singh, who makes rivers flow in the desert. Using traditional methods, his organization has rejuvenated land in India's driest area.

     In 1985, Rajendra Singh quit his government job and the comforts of the Rajasthani city of Jaipur for rural development work in the Indian outback. Medicine and literacy were all very well, villagers said, but what they needed first was water. So he learned traditional water-management skills, dug ponds with his hands, braved cudgels and hundreds of legal writs and finally, after many battles, was honored with national and international awards.

     This interview with Singh was first published in New Scientist print edition. Excerpts from the web transcript follow:

Question: How did you learn to build johads?

     "The farmers taught me. How you harvest water depends on your objective, the geography, topography, catchment area, pond area and soil type. Between 100,000 and 500,000 rupees ($2000 to $10,000), depending on the size. The first one was built with my efforts. Today, the local contribution is up to 90 per cent. Rajasthan has had drought for the past five consecutive years. But there is no migration from the region around the Ruparel and Arvari rivers. The water that had flowed away in flash floods is now accumulating underground. Farmers' crops are growing and there is fodder for their cattle."

Question: So why the opposition?

     "In the beginning the power brokers and moneylenders--those who mistakenly think that economic empowerment of the poor means loss of their riches--were against me. And the government engineers felt illiterate villagers had no right to enter their domain of construction.

     "When we built our first johad, the state irrigation department issued warrants for its removal under the Irrigation and Drainage Act of 1954. I told them we cannot stop rain falling on our land. Last year the people of Lava ka Baas village built a pond to collect run-off water. The area became green and farmers started growing vegetables. But the act forbids stopping the flow of water. The state irrigation department sent earth-movers to demolish the water-harvesting structure. How can the government come between nature and people like that?"

Question: So the government claims ownership of water?

     "No king in history has claimed to rule over water. They only had rights in water management. Government alone cannot own water. Civil society has a right in water management but even it does not own water. Nature owns water. Before they lost their rights over common land and forests, these communities had a rich tradition of building johads and other rainwater harvesting structures. With government centralisation, the johads were neglected and allowed to die.

     "You know, Jaisalmer in the west of Rajasthan--the last town before the border with Pakistan--is in one of the driest areas in the world. Yet 100 years ago it was India's major trading centre. It had twice the population it has today, and 15 times more camels. It survived on a traditional water-harvesting system. But now society has become indifferent as it thinks that water is the responsibility of the government that collects taxes. Only when a community realises that it owns water will it treat it with care and stop misusing it.

     "Communities should manage their water resources and the government should help them. In a democracy, it is the duty of the government to make sure every person has drinking water. If the government is unable to provide it, it should take help from communities. They can work together. The government should have declared water a common natural resource."

Question: Is there a role for the private sector?

     "Government has failed in water management. So it is handing over to the private sector. Fine. But what private sector? Communities or multinational corporations? If multinationals gain control of water, they will squash the rights of the poor. The National Water Policy implies water privatisation. That would spell doom for society."

Question: If the solution is so simple, then why has the government gone for huge dams and irrigation projects?

     "Maybe because big projects mean more money and more scope for corruption."

Question: Are you against such schemes? You also support the protests against the dams on the Narmada river in Gujarat and neighbouring states.

     "It is not a question of big or small structures. Small projects are not automatically sustainable either. Sustainability comes with a sense of community ownership and participation. Big dams displace a lot of people and raise issues of equity. You have to think hard, and go for such projects only if there is no other option.

     "It is the modern engineers who destroyed the traditional water-harvesting systems. The new technocrats and scientists have not concerned themselves with nature and ecology. They are intellectual giants, experts in calculations and research. But more problems arise when you seek solutions without understanding the underlying circumstances. Consider massive, centralised schemes like the Indira Gandhi Canal. Is this wise in a desert state like Rajasthan? There are problems with increasing soil alkalinity and rises in malaria due to water logging and waterborne diseases like diarrhoea. No local would have advised such a canal here."

Question: Why this clash between traditional and modern systems?

     "Traditional knowledge is dismissed as unscientific. But what's really unscientific is not trying to understand local agro-ecology-climate dynamics, local culture and needs, and soil characteristics. Our scientists think problems should be solved by any means necessary. But they looked only at the benefits of their schemes, not the harm. You should not dismiss everything emanating from illiterate villagers as unscientific."

     May the wisdom of Rajendra Singh prevail. Think globally and act locally.

First presented: 12/30/2004

Links and Updates

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  • 4/17/2013: Endangered Colorado River

  • 1/16/2013: EPA halted 'fracking' case after gas company protested

  • 12/14/2012: Injection Wells Polute

  • 11/11/2012: America's Water Mirage

  • 11/11/2012: Egypt's Nile Under Threat

  • 3/21/2012: Endangered Water

  • 8/23/2011: Expanding Deserts, Falling Water Tables and Toxins Driving People from Homes
  • 7/15/2011: Corporate Water World

  • 5/29/2011: Libya and Water

  • 4/16/2011: Seattle poison river shortens workers' lives

  • 4/16/2011: Toxic chemicals injected into wells

  • 3/10/2011: Ogallala aquifer being pumped dry

  • 2/25/2011: USDA Approved Monsanto Alfalfa Despite Warnings of New Pathogen Discovered in Genetically Engineered Crops

  • 2/21/2011: Genetic Engineering: Scientists warn of link between dangerous new pathogen and Monsanto's Roundup

  • 2/4/2011: Towns Defeating Corporations

  • November 2010: New book: Peter H. Gleick, Bottled and Sold: the Story Behind Our Obsession With Bottled Water

  • 10/1/2010: World rivers in crisis state

  • 9/12/2010: Hoover Dam could stop generating electricity as soon as 2013
  • 8/18/2010: Kern Water Bank transaction was a gift of public property to private interests

  • 1/8/2010: Billionaire Thugs Plot to Steal California's Water

  • 7/15/2010: Water as Human Right Threatens to Split U.N.

  • 7/5/2010: The false promise of Hoover Dam

  • 8/17/09: Does Fiji Water Legitimize a Dictatorship?

  • 7/9/08: Uranium Spill Contaminates French Water Supply

  • 4/28/08: Capitalism Causes Spain's Water Crisis

  • 4/23/08: Capitalist Privatization Causes Turkey's Water Crisis

  • 10/19/07: Bottled Water Backlash

  • 8/1/05: Bad To the Last Drop

  • 12/30/04: Cartels Already Selling American Water Abroad

  • Southern California, Where Rivers Go to Die