By Mohammed Mesbahi
25 November, 2004
Every living thing, every plant, every
animal and every human being needs water to stay alive. For centuries,
possibly millennia, all over the world, water was shared, for everyones
right to this essential resource was recognised. For thousands of years
legal systems have accepted that running water cannot be owned. Even
in the industrialised west, up until recently, water was a shared resource.
Public utilities were set up in the industrialised world to install
complex water delivery and sewage treatment systems. People in the first
world were expected to pay for the delivery of their water, the upkeep
of the system, the building of reservoirs and other water storage systems
but the water remained a shared resource.
However, over the
past half century, as the world population has increased and water has
become increasingly scarce, it has become less and less a shared resource.
By the 1970s international organisations such as the United Nations,
UNICEF, World Health Organisation and the UN Development Plan began
to highlight the plight of the poor in the third world. By 2003 more
than a billion people, a quarter of the worlds population, had
no access to safe drinking water. Every year more than five million
people (mostly children) die from water-born diseases, such as dysentery
and diarrhoea. Global water consumption is now doubling every twenty
years, more than twice the rate of population growth. The UN is now
predicting that water will become more and more scarce, and global per
capita water availability could decline by a third during the next twenty
years. The poor in the third world, who are already suffering from lack
of water, will be the worst affected.
In 1989 Margaret
Thatcher carried out a huge water privatisation scheme for the whole
of England and Wales. Suddenly a precious natural shared resource was
taken from the British people, sold off and privatised. The British
people now had to pay the water companies, not just to provide water,
but to make a profit for their shareholders and to pay huge management
salaries. Water bills doubled in less than a decade, causing hardship
in many parts of the UK. There were 50,000 disconnections during this
period and water quality steadily deteriorated.
By 1990 international
water companies operated in 12 countries.
Between 1994 and
1998 there were 139 water-related deals. However, in most parts of the
first world, governments continued to safeguard their water resources
and to provide a public service for their people. This got in the way
of the global water companies, who wanted to buy up these public utilities.
So they began to form partnerships with international financial institutions
so that they could reduce the role that traditional governments played
in water provision.
The first two of
these partnerships, the Global Water Partnership (GWP) and the World
Water Council (WWC) were formed in 1996 with Ismail Serageldin, the
World Bank Vice-President, in the chair of the WWC. Once these partnerships
had been formed water companies could now negotiate and collaborate
with multilateral banks and the United Nations.
The World Water
Council held its first meeting, the World Water Forum, in Marrakesh
In 1998 the World
Water Council created the World Water Commission, which included all
the major water corporations and the CEO of the World Bank/UN Global
Environment Facility, Mohamed T. El-Ashry. The commission called for
full deregulation of the water sector and recommended that trans-national
corporations should take over the provision of water worldwide.
By the year 2000
private water corporations operated in 100 countries and 10% of the
worlds water was privatised. In 2000 the World Bank, the UN and
some of the largest water corporations met at the second World Water
Forum, in Den Haag, Netherlands. They decided to accelerate global water
In May 2000 Fortune
Magazine predicted that water would become one of the worlds
biggest business opportunities.
Ever since they
began to collaborate with the World Bank, trans-national water corporations
have been trying to have more influence over individual countries. A
series of trade agreements have all increased the power of the trans-national
water companies. The North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), the
Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA) and various World Trade Organisation
(WTO) agreements all gave trans-national water corporations access to
the water of the countries that had signed these agreements. Governments
all over the world signed away their right to control their countrys
The two biggest
water corporations, Suez and Vivendi, now provide water for 230 million
people, 7% of the worlds population, mostly in Europe. In the
US 85% of households still get their water from public utilities. But
the water corporations are putting pressure on Congress, lobbying for
laws which will protect them from lawsuits over contaminated water.
This legislation will make it easier for the water corporations to take
over water provision. The British parliament has already passed a law
providing UK water companies with indemnity against lawsuits brought
against them by the public.
in the Third World
The World Bank and
the IMF are now putting pressure on third world countries to sell off
their water to multinational corporations in order to reduce their national
debt. Together with international development organisations, they have
been promoting the idea that the only way to provide water in the third
world is through the private sector. Third world countries have huge
national debts, which they struggle to pay, so in many cases the IMF
has made further loans to these countries, on condition that they conform
to structural adjustment programmes, including the privatisation of
their water supplies. As in the west, water privatisation causes increased
costs, which in the case of the poorest people in the world, they cannot
afford to pay.
So in the poorest
parts of the world, people (mainly women) are forced to walk further
and further in search of water which has not been privatised, water
which is often neither safe nor clean. In some cases people have to
choose between buying water and buying food. In Ghana today, since water
privatisation, the cost of water has doubled, so that families lucky
enough to have running water must now pay a quarter of their income
for it and a bucket of water can cost up to a tenth of most peoples
In Cochabamba, Bolivia
water rates increased by 35% after the water company Bechtel bought
the citys water in 1999. The citizens of Cochabamba were so incensed
that they marched, protested and rioted. Eventually the Bolivian government
voided Bechtels contract. There have been protests against water
privatisation in Paraguay, Panama, Brazil, Peru, Colombia, India, Pakistan,
Hungary and South Africa.
In 1979 Anwar Sadat
said The only matter that could take Egypt to war again is water.
His threat was directed at Ethiopia. King Hussein of Jordan said the
same thing in the same year and his threat was directed at Israel. In
the 1980s US government intelligence estimated ten places where water
wars could break out: Jordan, Israel, Cyprus, Malta, the Arabian Peninsula,
Algeria, Egypt, Morocco, Tunisia and the Yemen. More than 200 major
river systems cross international borders.
In 1999 Gaddafi
warned that the next Middle East war would be over dwindling water
supplies. Other people say that past and present Middle East conflicts
have always been over water. Water scarcity in the Middle East is already
critical. Four and a half percent of the worlds population live
in the area, which contains half the worlds oil, 2% of the worlds
rainfall and 0.4 % of the worlds recoverable water supplies. It
is one of the worlds most water-stressed regions with deteriorating
quality and dwindling water supplies. The Arab per capita water supply
is expected to drop by half by the year 2030.
Israel gets two
thirds of its water from territories that it has invaded: the Golan
Heights and the West Bank. It takes water from the Jordan and stores
it in the Sea of Galilee in contravention of international law, which
states that water should not be diverted from its catchment basin. This
water is then transported to Israels cities, farms and industries.
The river Jordan
flows from the Golan Heights in Syria and from the Lebanon, through
Jordan, Israel and Palestine. In 1949 Israel began taking water from
the Golan Heights and in 1951 invaded, driving out the villagers and
ignoring UN Truce Supervision protests. In 1953 the Eisenhower Administration
prepared a unified plan for the use of the Jordan River, granting Israel
use of 33% of it. But Israel wanted more than that, so in September
1953 Israel began secretly constructing a pipeline to divert the Jordan
from the Golan Heights in defiance of the US. The US found out and applied
sanctions. Israel suspended work on the pipeline briefly, US aid was
resumed and then Israel continued to work on the diversion project,
which was soon complete. Syria and Jordan protested against Israels
appropriation of their water and the PLO attacked the pipeline. Israel
subsequently ignored several UN Security Council Resolutions and occupied
the Golan Heights in 1967.
In 1982 Israel invaded
Lebanon and took control of the Hasbani and Wazzani rivers which flow
into the Jordan. They also took control of the Litani river.
A quarter of Israels
remaining water comes from underground reservoirs in the West Bank,
which Israel occupied in 1967. This water supplies 30% of Tel Aviv households.
Israel uses 17% more than the 1.9 billion cubic meters of water it obtains
from renewable sources, so it is causing the water table level to drop.
In 1994 Jordan and
Israel signed a peace treaty in which Israel agreed to share the water
from the river Jordan with Jordan but in 1999 Israel cut Jordans
supply by 60% because there was a drought.
The 1997 United
Nations Convention on the Law of the Non-Navigational Uses of International
Watercourses states clearly how these waters are to be shared: equitably
and reasonably. The Palestinian people therefore have the right to an
equitable and reasonable share of the international watercourses situated
in their land. They do not, at present enjoy this right. Israels
severe restriction on Palestinian use of water in agriculture limits
their ability to grow food.
India and Bangladesh
have been quarrelling for twenty years over rights to extract water
from the Ganges.
Egypt is totally
dependant on the Nile. For the past twenty years Egypt has been diverting
water from the Nile into land reclamation projects in the Sinai desert,
in contravention of international law, since the Nile flows through
Sudan, Ethiopia, Uganda, Kenya, Tanzania, Rwanda, Burundi and Zaire.
The waters of the Nile should therefore be shared equitably and reasonably
among all these countries and not be diverted outside its catchment
In 1996 Mubarak
announced that he planned to divert water from the Nile under the Suez
Canal into the North Sinai desert east of the Suez Canal, 40 km from
the Gaza Strip. Many believe that this water will eventually end up
in Israel. 86% of the Nile water comes from Ethiopia, which desperately
needs to develop water projects in order to grow food for its own people,
so Ethiopia is fiercely opposed to Egypts Nile diversion project.
The Sudan threatened to cut Egypts water quota and all the other
countries which border the Nile are opposed to the project, viewing
it as a violation of international law.
Sinai has plenty of underground water and rainfall would be sufficient,
if it were harvested, to support as many as a million people in the
rivers sometimes contravenes international law, especially when countries
upstream take more than their fair share of water from countries downstream.
And yet the World Bank and the Asian Development Bank have promoted
the building of large numbers of gigantic dams throughout Asia. These
dams displace millions of people who live in the areas to be flooded
and deprive people downstream of the water the rivers once provided.
Turkey signed a
treaty with Israel in 2004 to ship 50 million cubic metres of water
a year, for 20 years, from the river Manavgat in Anatolia, in return
for arms from Israel. Turkey is building dams on the rivers Tigris and
Euphrates, which flow through Syria and Iraq. This is called the Grand
Anatolian Project and includes a vast irrigation scheme, seven dams
on the Euphrates, six dams on the Tigris and the giant Ataturk dam.
The Ataturk dam will deprive Syria and Iraq of most of the flow of the
Euphrates. With Israel already appropriating water from the river Jordan
from the Golan Heights, Syria will be seriously short of water when
Turkeys Grand Anatolian Project is complete.
China and the
Six countries depend
on the Mekong river for food, water and transport. The Mekong rises
in Tibet, flows through Chinas Yunnan province, then through Burma,
Thailand, Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam. The Manwan dam, built by China
in 1996 has resulted in shallower river levels and flash floods. Now
China is building six more dams and the countries downstream are afraid
that this will have a deleterious affect on their river. None of these
Chinese dams have been assessed for their social or ecological impacts
on the downstream countries.
In 2003 the Asian
Development Bank recommended building a $43 billion electricity generation
system, including major dams in Laos, China, Burma and Cambodia. The
Mekong could become one of the most dammed rivers in the world, with
more than 100 other major dams, diversions and irrigation projects.
It is hard to imagine how Vietnam, the last country the Mekong flows
through, will survive if all these projects are carried out. The dams
planned for Laos will displace 5,700 people, impoverish 120,000 and
saddle the country with enormous debts. All the electricity produced
by the dam will go to Thailand. Thousands of indigenous people have
already been dispossessed by the building of smaller dams in Laos.
institutions, such as the World Bank and the Asian Development Bank,
finance a large proportion of water projects in the third world: huge
irrigation projects, without adequate drainage, to grow crops. 70% of
global water diverted from rivers or drawn up from aquifers is used
for irrigation to grow crops. It takes a thousand tons of water to produce
a ton of grain.
pumps draw up water from deep aquifers previously unavailable. These
pumps have only recently become available, making it possible for countries
to pump groundwater faster than it can be replenished through rainfall.
All over the world water tables are falling and the world is incurring
a vast, largely invisible, water deficit.
China, India and
the United States, which collectively grow half of the worlds
grain harvest, are all depleting their aquifers to supply irrigation
projects. China is over-pumping the North China Plain, where the water
table is falling by 3 metres a year. He Quincheng, head of the Geological
Environmental Monitoring Institute in Beijing, is concerned that the
region is losing its last water reserve. In the area around Beijing
wells now have to be drilled as deep as 1,000 metres before they can
tap fresh water.
projects are over-pumping water in the Punjab, Haryana, Gujarat, Rajasthan,
Andhra Pradesh and Tamil Nadu. In some places water tables are falling
by a metre per year.
In the US, the water
table has already fallen by 30 metres in parts of Texas, Oklahoma and
Kansas, all major grain producing states that depend on irrigation.
In Pakistan, in
the province of Baluchistan the water table is falling by 3.5 metres
per year. The capital of Baluchistan, Quetta, will run out of water
in 15 years, according to Richard Garstang, water expert with the World
In the Yemen the
situation is desperate. Over-pumping has depleted the countrys
water to such an extent that the World Bank predicts that parts of the
rural economy could disappear within a generation.
North Africa and
Saudi Arabia have ancient aquifers which are never replenished. Saudi
Arabia is drawing water from its aquifers for irrigation at such a rate
that in fifty years there will be none left. Worldwide rivers are being
sucked up for irrigation, leaving dry river beds.
When water becomes
very scarce, countries sometimes stop irrigating and producing food,
in order to divert what water they still have to their cities and industries.
They then have to import grain. As underground water becomes more and
more depleted, more and more countries will begin to rely on imports
of grain. In China grain harvests are already shrinking and it will
soon have to begin importing grain. The world water shortage will lead
to a world grain shortage.
But about 80% of
irrigation water is wasted through leaking pipes, unlined channels,
evaporating reservoirs and canals. One quarter of all irrigated land
has now accumulated salts, rendering it useless for cultivation, for
example two million hectares have been lost to salinity in Pakistan.
450 cubic km of
wastewater are discharged into rivers, streams and lakes every year.
This polluted water reduces the amount of freshwater available. Groups
such as International Rivers Network, Clean Waters Network and Friends
of the Earth International have been confronting industry over the contamination
of water is essential.
Improving irrigation efficiency
could cut down on the amount of water they use by as much as 80% if
drip systems were used. Drip systems deliver exactly the amount of water
a plant needs.
especially in industry, will also help cut down on water consumption.
1,500 women from
12 Indian states met together in Rajasthan, Western India for the National
Womens Water Conference in February 2003. They discussed ways
of protecting water supplies in rural India.
Villagers in Madhya
Pradesh have resolved the problem of heavy summer rainfall followed
by months of drought by building small dams and wells, sharing both
the work involved, the money invested and the water harvest. Women in
Gujarat built check dams and revived old ponds.
Women in Rajasthan
have begun to green the desert through community rainwater harvesting
The women who attended
the conference fiercely opposed the Governments proposal to privatise
water and resolved to fight to protect it. We will take our sticks
and chase out those who attempt to sell our water to us one Rajasthani
Recycling of human
waste, rather than discharging it into rivers, will provide valuable
fertilizer for growing more crops and will leave more clean water in
rivers to be used as drinking water.
Cutting down on
pollution from industrial processes will similarly help keep rivers
clean and available as drinking water.
Trees prevent soil
erosion and conserve water. Village women in parts of India, for example
Orissa, have planted trees.
Water is part of
the earths heritage. It needs to be preserved for future generations
and protected in the public domain by local, national and international
law. Access to clean water for basic needs is a fundamental human right.
We cannot continue to abuse the worlds precious water resources.
International cooperation over sources of freshwater is possible and
practicable. International legislation which enshrines the principle
of equitable and reasonable sharing of water resources already exists.
Similarly international legislation already exists for the control of
pollution. Water privatisation is not the answer. A return to the principle
of sharing this vital resource is possible and essential.
Chair and Founder
P.O. Box 34275
London NW5 1XT
Website : www.stwr.net
E-mail : email@example.com / Mesbahi@slsuk.com