Global consumption of water is doubling every 20 years,
more than twice the rate of human population growth.
According to the United Nations, more than one billion
people already lack access to fresh drinking water.
If current trends persist, by 2025 the demand for fresh
water is expected to rise by 56 percent more than the
amount of water that is currently available.
Multinational corporations recognize these trends and
are trying to monopolize water supplies around the world.
Monsanto, Bechtel, and other global multinationals are
seeking control of world water systems and supplies.
The World Bank recently adopted a policy of water privatization
and full-cost water pricing. This policy is causing
great distress in many Third World countries, which
fear that their citizens will not be able to afford
for-profit water. Grassroots resistance to the privatization
of water emerges as companies expand profit taking.
San Franciscos Bechtel Enterprises was contracted
to manage the water system in Cochabamba, Bolivia, after
the World Bank required Bolivia to privatize. When Bechtel
pushed up the price of water, the entire city went on
a general strike. The military killed a seventeen-year-old
boy and arrested the water rights leaders. But after
four months of unrest the Bolivian government forced
Bechtel out of Cochambamba.
Bechtel Group Inc., a corporation with a long history
of environmental abuses, now contracts with the city
of San Francisco to upgrade the citys water system.
Bechtel employees are working side by side with government
workers in a privatization move that activists fear
will lead to an eventual take-over of San Franciscos
Maude Barlow, chair of the Council of Canadians, Canadas
largest public advocacy group, states, "Governments
around the world must act now to declare water a fundamental
human right and prevent efforts to privatize, export,
and sell for profit a substance essential to all life."
Research has shown that selling water on the open market
only delivers it to wealthy cities and individuals.
Governments are signing away their control over domestic
water supplies by participating in trade treaties such
as the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) and
in institutions such as the World Trade Organization
(WTO). These agreements give transnational corporations
the unprecedented right to the water of signatory companies.
Water-related conflicts are springing up around the
globe. Malaysia, for example, owns half of Singapores
water and, in 1997, threatened to cut off its water
supply after Singapore criticized Malaysias government
Monsanto plans to earn revenues of $420 million and
a net income of $63 million by 2008 from its water business
in India and Mexico. Monsanto estimates that water will
become a multibillion-dollar market in the coming decades.
Update by Maude Barlow
This story is of vital importance to the earth and all
humanity. The finite sources of freshwater (less than
one half of one per cent of the world's total water
stock) are being diverted, depleted, and polluted so
fast that, by the year 2025, two-thirds of the world's
population will be living in a state of serious water
deprivation. Yet governments are handing responsibility
of this precious resource over to giant transnational
corporations who, in collusion with the World Bank and
the World Trade Organization, seek to commodify and
privatize the world's water and put it on the open market
for sale to the highest bidder. Millions of the world's
citizens are being deprived of this fundamental human
right, and vast ecological damage is being wrought as
massive industry claims water once used to sustain communities
and replenish nature.
Recently, a civil society movement has been created
to wrest control of water back from profit-making forces
and claim it for people and nature. Called the Blue
Planet Project, this movement is an alliance of farmers,
environmentalists, Indigenous Peoples, public sector
workers, and urban activists who forced the issue of
water as a human right at the March 2000 World Water
Forum in the Hague. The Project is holding the first
global citizens' summit on water in Vancouver in July
2001. One major project has been support of the water
activists in Cochabamba, Bolivia, who, led by union
leader Oscar Olivera, forced the giant engineering company
Bechtel to leave the country and stopped a World Bankimposed
privatization scheme that more than doubled the price
of water to the local people.
The mainstream press has been reluctant to tell this
story. Our fight in Canada started with concern over
the potential of bulk water exports sought by some politicians
and corporations. Water is included in both NAFTA and
the WTO as a tradable good; once the tap is turned on,
corporate rights to water are immediately established.
But our mainstream press generally supports economic
globalization and these trade agreements and will permit
only selective reporting on opposition positions. Blue
Gold, my paper on the commodification of water published
by the IFG in 1999, has been printed in several languages
and sold all over the world but has been ignored by
the North American media.
The story of the destruction of the world's remaining
freshwater sources is one of the most pressing of our
time; there is simply no way to overstate the nature
of this crisis. And yet when the mainstream media report
on itwhich is not nearly often enough or in sufficient
depththey seldom ask the most crucial question
of all. Who owns water? We say the earth, all species
and all future generations. Many in power have another
answer. It is time for this debate.
For more information on this story
and the Blue Planet Project, please contact
The Council of Canadians:
502-151 Slater Street
Ottawa, ON. Canada, K1P 5H3
613-233-2773; fax, 613-233-6776
Maude Barlow is the National Chairperson of the Council
of Canadians and a director with the International Forum
Update by Jim Shultz
Eight months have passed since the people of Cochabamba
forced the departure of a subsidiary of the Bechtel
Corporation and restored control of the regions
water supply into public hands. The story has brought
unprecedented attention to the issue of water privatization
and important events continue to unfold, both locally
Locally, Cochabambas residents are working closely
with the newly reconstituted water company, SEMAPA,
to extend water service to more families. In Alto Cochabamba,
one of the citys poorest neighborhoods, a community
water tank had remained uncompleted for years and became
a local trash dump. Today the tank is in full operation,
bringing public water into the neighborhood for the
first time. Civic leaders say they are building a utility
that is run by the people rather than by corrupt politicians
or an overcharging corporation beyond local democratic
As a direct result of the Democracy Centers reporting,
Cochabambas water rebellion is also drawing substantial
world attention and solidarity. In December, a delegation
of leading citizen action and labor groups from the
U.S. and Canada came to Cochabamba for an international
conference on water privatization. These groups and
others have also pledged their support against Bechtels
latest attack, a lawsuit for as much as $20 millioncompensation
for losing their lucrative Cochabamba contract. It is
an action that pits one of the worlds wealthiest
corporations against the people of South Americas
Bechtel has been actively shopping for the friendliest
international forum possible and apparently has decided
its best chances lie in a suit under a Bilateral Investment
Treaty (BIT) signed previously between Bolivia and Holland.
Late last year Bechtel quietly reshuffled corporate
papers to place its subsidiary under Dutch registration,
in preparation for such action. International groups
are gearing up to help Cochabamba leaders fight Bechtels
lawsuit. "This is going to be the first major international
civil society fight against a corporate legal action
under such a treaty," says Antonia Juhasz of San
Francisco-based International Forum on Globalization.
The Democracy Centers articles, which ran primarily
in the progressive press and were distributed widely
via the Internet, also attracted publication in some
dedicated city dailies, such as the San Jose Mercury,
San Francisco Examiner, and Toronto Star (thanks to
distribution by the Pacific News Service). Most mainstream
coverage of the story, however, was limited to the dispatches
of the Associated Press Bolivian correspondent. AP correspondent
Peter McFarren came under fire for stories that eagerly
repeated the Bolivian governments and Bechtels
public line, falsely blaming the water uprising on "narcotraffickers."
One reader of the Democracy Centers articles noted
the difference in the reporting and uncovered that McFarren
was, at the same time, actively lobbying the Bolivian
Congress to approve a controversial project to ship
Bolivian water to Chile. When that conflict of interest
was reported to AP, McFarren suddenly submitted his
More information on the story, including subscription
to the free e-mail newsletter in which the stories originated,
is available at www.democracyctr.org
Update by Pratap Chatterjee
Engineering News-Record magazine ranks Bechtel as the
biggest construction company in the United States; it
is also the biggest private company in northern California.
It has built mega-projects from the Alaska pipeline
and the Hoover dam to the San Francisco Bay Bridge,
from natural gas pipelines in Algeria to refineries
in Zambia. Hardly a day passes without the company signing
a new contract somewhere in the world; all told it has
worked on 19,000 contracts in 140 countries in the past
century, many of them with taxpayer money. Yet an extensive
review of Bechtel contracts over the last 100 years
shows that time and again the company has been found
guilty of sleazy political connections. In fact, if
there's a pattern to Bechtel's public works projects,
it's this: The company works under cover of the utmost
secrecy and routinely jacks up the cost of projects
far beyond the original bid, sticking taxpayers with
huge, often unexpected bills.
If these cost overruns do generate some headlines, the
environmental and social impacts of the company's construction
activities rarely get a mention: managing bombsites
for nuclear testing in Nevada, helping hack off the
top of a sacred mountain on the Pacific island of New
Guinea to build the world's largest gold mine, planning
pipelines for Saddam Hussein in Iraq, drawing up development
plans for a man accused of killing half a million Hutu
refugees in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (former
Zaire), building toxic refineries for Chevron in Richmond
that destroy the San Francisco Bay.
Bechtel's management and spin doctors went into overdrive
when staff at headquarters read the San Francisco Bay
Guardian story and started to ask hard questions. We
obtained an internal memo that explained why they had
decided not to respond to the story:
"We're not currently considering legal recourse
(for) a number of reasons:
* To win a libel or defamation lawsuit, Bechtel would
have to show that the journalists, activists, or politicians
in question either knew that such statements were false
or entertained serious doubts about their accuracy.
This could be very difficult to prove.
* A lawsuit would give Bechtel's most vocal critics
another public forum in which to reprise their claims.
Defense attorneys would be permitted to engage in wide-ranging
discovery into Bechtel's nonpublic business affairsincluding
making substantial document requests and taking depositions
from Bechtel employeesto probe whether or not
the critical claims were true.
* Bechtel would have to prove the amount of damages
suffered as a result of the alleged defamation. Bechtel
would have to demonstrate some monetary loss, which
might be difficult (and would, again, open us up to
discovery of data)."
The mainstream press regularly writes about the contracts
that Bechtel wins and completes but they rarely ever
dig deeper to find out about the impact of these projects.
No mainstream press has ever looked at a broad overview
of the company's history or been able to probe into
the company's inner workings: this is partly because
the company refuses to give the media access to the
company staff and management.