Privatizing Public Water (March 29, 2006)

Nearly 8% of the planet's population (400 million people) now drink privatized water — but the numbers are not big enough for the world's water merchants. Glacial government bureaucracies and increasing non-governmental agency pressure is limiting the growth of their industry.

“Water is really an effective product. But the problem is that people used to get it for free and now we are selling it to them,” Gerard Payan, ex-director of the French Suez water group, recently told his peers at the World Water Forum held in Mexico City this March. “It’s a hard sell but our product is absolutely necessary for human life so I'm optimistic about growth,”

There are, of course, many ways to make a bundle from privatizing public water. Transnational soft drink bottlers like Coca Cola, PepsiCo, Nestle, and Danone bribe local governments into giving them long-term leases on subsidized public water and convert it into a much more extravagant product, in the process depleting water sources — it takes three liters of water to make one of Coke. The product is priced accordingly.

The transnationals pump up their bubble water with super hype and colorful giveaways — in the Indian highlands of Chiapas, consumers are invited to turn in Coke tab tops for a kilo of beans. 

The soft drink moguls seek to convince the public that their product is healthier for them than oft-contaminated ground water. How well does this ploy work? Mexico, which ranked 106th out of 120 countries at the World Water Forum in water quality, drinks more Coca Cola per capita than any other nation on earth.

Another way to make a fortune stealing public water is just to dam up all the rivers and horde the vital liquid to generate hydroelectric power that is then sold to consumers in the big cities at exorbitant rates to animate expensive home appliances. 45,000 dams on the world's rivers steal public water, inundate countless rural villages, kill species and destroy biodiversity, and drown sacred sites forever under turgid waters while the power companies make out like the bandits they are.

Transnational water purveyors like Suez, Aguas de Barcelona, Vivendi, Biwater, and Thames River are taking control of national and local water systems, providing a modicum of distribution and sanitation in exchange for charging sky-high consumer rates. Before it went belly-up in he wake of criminal scandal, Enron, operating as Aquarix, took over 20 municipal water systems in Mexico, including Saltillo Coahuila, Aguascalientes, and Cancun — cities which now have the steepest water rates in the country. The service is so poor in Cancun that a municipal water worker there traveled all the way to Kyoto Japan three years ago for the third World Water Forum to present the WWF with a flask of filthy water. The commissioners declined a drink.

The water merchandisers are particularly keen on privatizing water systems in the poorest pockets of the third world because World Bank and other international lending institutions' credits make for lucrative contracts. 

But the biggest bang for your buck is simply to suck the stuff out of the nearest source and bottle it up. The titans of the bottled water industry (mostly, soft drink transnationals) grossed $22 billion USD on sales of 113 billion liters last year. That's enough plastic to choke Mother Earth. 

If half the bottled water sales in the world were put back into infrastructure, no one would go thirsty anymore, Maude Barlow of the Council of Canadians testified to the World's Water privatizers in Mexico this March, pointing out that profit for each bottle of H2O sold is about 10,000 times what the bottlers paid for it.

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