Looming threat to water security
BLUE GOLD The Fight to Stop the Corporate Theft of the World's Water: Maude Barlow and Tony Clarke; LeftWord Books, 12, Rajendra Prasad Road, New Delhi-110001.
THE TITLE of the book gives the misleading impression that it is a pamphlet produced for a campaign, but it is much more than that. It deals fairly elaborately with the theme of the impending water crisis, and the still larger theme of "endangered planet", before turning to the stated subject of "corporate theft".
It gives a detailed account of the threat to the world's water resources because of the rapacious and unsustainable drafts on rivers, lakes, glaciers and aquifers, and because of the extensive pollution and contamination of those resources. There are numerous examples drawn from many countries. The review cannot give an idea of the richness of the book, but a few random examples can be mentioned.
The very large Ogallala aquifer in the American mid-west is under severe stress. The Great Lakes, the largest repository of freshwater in the world, are losing water and have suffered considerable pollution and contamination. Mexico, once rich in water, has become dry because of the destruction of old systems, and is sinking because of extensive groundwater-extraction.
In Jordan, the famous Oasis of Azraq has become a dusty garbage dump, an open sore of deep fissures. Wetlands are being lost all over the world. The greatest of all such man-made disasters is of course the death of the Aral Sea.
Moving on to the corporate threat, industries with large requirements of water are said to be buying up water rights or acquiring vast areas of land essentially for the water under the land.
Big corporations, sensing profits in the emerging water scarcity, are moving in (Suez, Vivendi, RWE-Thames, Bechtel, the soft-drinks giants Coca Cola and Pepsi Cola, and so on), and are trying to obtain control over the world's water resources. The growth of the global water lords and the emergence of water cartels make frightening reading.
These tendencies are reinforced by the prescription of privatisation of water supply and sanitation services by the World Bank, IMF and the ADB, as conditions of loans or essential elements in the Structural Adjustment Programmes.
Any powers that governments in the poorer countries might have had of exercising control over the corporates, domestic and foreign, or of protecting their natural resources, are undermined by such conditions.
The WTO in particular is shown to be a formidable force, far more powerful than all earlier institutions. The horrendous consequences that the privatisation of water has had in many instances are set forth.
The book then proceeds to argue that all is not lost, and that there have been several instances of successful fights against these processes. Some of those stories are told; in particular, the well-known Cochabamba (Bolivia) case is narrated.
India's own Narmada case is mentioned with understandable admiration, but the fact that the outcome of the two big fights in India, namely, Narmada and Tehri, has in the end been disheartening, was perhaps not known to the authors at the time of writing.
All this leads to the development of a standpoint against these trends, and 10 principles are set forth such as "water belongs to the Earth and all species", "water should be left where it is whenever possible", and "water must be conserved for all time".
In the final chapter, the way forward is outlined, and 10 steps to water security are outlined: water lifeline constitutions, water governance councils, national water protection Acts, opposing the commercial trade in water, challenging the lords of water, promoting the "Water Commons Treaty Initiative", supporting a Global Water Convention, and so on. "The Treaty Initiative to Share and Protect the Global Water Commons" is in fact put right at the beginning of the book.
Given the scope and sweep of the book, some errors were perhaps inevitable. For instance, this reviewer found the references to Indian developments somewhat lacking in precision, though not significantly inaccurate, and there might be similar imprecision in the instances cited from other countries. However, these are unlikely to vitiate the broad presentation of wrong policies and dire consequences.
The exposition, analysis and diagnosis presented in the book, and the grim picture of where we are today, are extremely valuable. Some of the material given in the book may come to many readers as a shocking revelation.
The reviewer has some doubts about the desirability of describing water as a global commons or promoting a global water convention. These could be twisted and distorted to serve the purposes of the more powerful countries or of the global water lords, leading to the loss of national control over natural resources, which is precisely what the authors want to avoid.
However, what this means is that some changes may be called for in the principles and steps, and not that the approach outlined in the book is wrong. The book is a very important one, and one hopes it will be widely read in this country.
RAMASWAMY R. IYER
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