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Poverty Times #2

Large-scale manoeuvres around the “Market” for water

No one today dares to claim that water is anything other than “the common property which belongs to the whole of humanity and which should be available to all.” Moreover, this quotation always occupies a prominent position in the presentations of experts, including those who are the most fervent advocates of privatisation of the market for water. To offer a public reminder of this generous principle has the advantage of creating an impressive effect and does not cost a lot. It imparts a clear conscience and opens wide the doors for the legitimising justification of a purely economic treatment of the “merchandise” which is represented by water, as far as its exploitation and the associated costs (of extraction, transportation and distribution) involved. Furthermore, in the context of capitalism, these investments are not only seen as being worthy of reimbursement but are also expected to generate profits. By Philippe Rekacewicz

“God provided the water, but not the pipes.”

Gérard Mestrallet of Suez(the world’s biggest water company)

Water for all
If it is established that water belongs to all human beings – individuals or communal groupings – then the whole world ought to be able to take possession of water and to utilise it according to individual needs. This was certainly possible before the industrial revolution. But today, extreme demographic pressure in certain regions no longer permits the consumption of water without cooperation among the various communities as to the manner of doing so. Water is a fundamental element of the ecosystem, a common patrimony we can withdraw as long as the ecosystem survival is not threatened. During the last three decades, the increase in devastating droughts, the spread of aquiferous pollution, and more and more widespread poverty have led to the emergence across the various continents of the spectre of scarcity. With regard to this situation, the control of water resources has clearly become a major strategic stake sharpening the industrial and financial appetites of the large multinational enterprises in the sector. “The economists are able to quantify the benefits accruing from water,” reminds Aaron Wolf, professor at the University of Oregon in the United States, “and it is generally easier and fairer to portion out its benefits than to distribute water itself. The economists also have the merit of issuing the reminder that it is necessary to derive profits from the costs of the distribution, treatment and storage of water, etc. We are impelled to think of water in market terms, even if this concept has not yet found application at the international level. However, my emotional, aesthetic and religious attachment to water prevents me from considering it as sheer merchandise.”

In other words, the market for water does not yet exist; it remains to be invented. But according to what model? The one on the basis of which, for example, we have founded the management and distribution of petroleum, and which has benefited – except for extremely rare exceptions – only a handful of the wealthiest private multinationals or the privileged classes in those states possessing petroleum? The dice have not yet been cast nor the bets made, and the international market for water remains embryonic at the moment. Nine-tenths of the fresh water of the planet is still managed by public agencies; this is to say that perspectives are presenting themselves to the developed countries, which, by means of the commercial institutions under their control, are attempting at any cost to open up this gigantic market to the private sector. The World Bank, for example, makes the privatisation
of water an obligatory requirement for the granting of financial aid to poor countries. Thus the world is beginning to organise itself, and the actors are starting to take up their positions.

Multinationals sort themselves out
In the first place, it is the large multinationals such as Bechtel, Véolia-Environment or Suez which are putting intense effort into grabbing the juicy contracts for managing water everywhere in the world where countries – of their own will or under duress – are opening their doors. Furthermore, since the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro in 1992, major international institutions have busied themselves assiduously with the theme of water and its increasing scarcity, organising dozens of conferences and forums. Alongside these endeavours there have appeared in the course of recent years other far-reaching initiatives, among which are the World Water Council and the Global Water Partnership. They define themselves as “spaces of encounter, of reflection, of discussion and of exchange between private and public partners, civil society, non-governmental organisations and international institutions for improvement in the management of world water resources.” An attentive examination of these hybrid institutions (and especially of the background of their directors) is of such a nature as to leave one quite perplexed. And to raise doubt concerning both their objectives and their representative character – in other words scepticism as to their legitimacy.

World Water Council
Based in Marseille in southern France, the World Water Council (wwc) is an organisation founded in 1996 which brings together 250 members consisting for the most part of institutions from the public and private sectors: multinationals, governments, ngos, research centres, press organs, foundations, banks and international organisations (in addition edf – Electricité de France, Mitsubishi Heavy Industry, gap – Southeastern Anatolia Project, and icld – International Commission on Large Dams). According to the little book distributed by the wwc, all the protagonists of civil society and the major governmental agents are represented to a more or less equivalent degree. And yet its organisational chart and allocation of responsibilities imparts to the wwc a strong resemblance to a lobby which brings industrialists from the sectors of engineering and construction together with their partners at the level of national government and international financial institutions. René Coulomb, co-founder of the wwc and former vice-president of the group Suez-Lyonnaise des Eaux, recently ceded his position as vice-president, to Loïc Fauchon, current president and general director of the Groupe des Eaux de Marseille, a company held in equal parts by Compagnie Générale des Eaux (Véolia ex-Vivendi Environnement) and Suez-Lyonnaise des Eaux (through its subsidiary Ondéo). In other words, the two largest private French companies specialising in this sector. One finds, among others, in the office and on the “board of governors” representatives of the Corps of Engineers of the American Army.

Global Water Partnership
The Global Water Partnership (gwp) is an institution which presents troubling resemblances to its counterpart in Marseille. Founded in Stockholm (Sweden) in 1996, the gwp is directed today by Margaret Catley-Carlson, who also presides over the destinies of the Water Resources Advisory Committee (wrac), an “independent” committee created by Suez-Lyonnaise des Eaux “in order to accompany it in its reflection upon the high stakes linked to the management of water resources”. The mandate and the objectives are similar to those of the wwc, to the point that one asks oneself why there were created in the same year two organisations which are so similar and, what is more, derive their resources from practically the same donors. The only visible difference seems to be the closer relations which the gwp maintains with governments and agencies of international development.

The World Panel for the Financing of Infrastructures for Water is a joint emanation of the wwc and the gwp which was established after an appeal for funds during the conference in The Hague (Netherlands) in 2000. Intended “to envisage the solutions and financial requirements for getting to the root of the problem of water in the world,” this panel, directed by Michel Camdessus, former general director of the International Monetary Fund (imf), is composed of nineteen individuals who come from the principal regional banks for development, private and public financial institutions, large multinational corporations from the water sector and only three ngos. The conclusions of the panel, presented in a 60-page report on the occasion of the Kyoto conference in March 2003, recommend an increase in financial aid and public subsidies (180 billion dollars per year through 2025) that is earmarked for large infrastructure projects initiated in collaboration with private multinationals (whose investments are to be guaranteed by the public sector).

In addition, the creation of a “world commission for water in the 21st century” whose purpose was to reflect upon and to propose a “long-term vision for finding solutions to the problem of water in the coming century” has been announced during a symposium in Stockholm in August 1998. Certain participants to this commission are also members of the Camdessus panel. The result of deliberations carried out by this commission is the subject of two separate documents known by the name of “World Water Vision”, which during the first world forum on water at Marrakesh in 1997 were proposed to be edited, and which were presented to the public at the conference in The Hague in 2000.

A stable future?
These institutions, these forums and these reports constitute the promotion of a vision which is radically oriented towards the undertaking of grand tasks broadly supported by the interests of powerful private industrial groups, by means of presenting this vision as the only possible solution for assuring “a stable future.” The adherents to this vision assert to whomever wishes to listen that they speak in the name of everyone, that they represent the majority and consensus, under the pretext that the processes of decision-making and joint planning within their organisations are open and transparent. Actual practice demonstrates that they are neither the one nor the other. A few sole “decision-makers,” have appropriated for themselves the key positions in these organisations which offer them an unequalled visibility in the media and throughout various institutions, and which in effect take any possibility for communication away from the ngos (noticeably absent) and those organisations which are truly independent of the economical and political powers (even some un agencies are under-represented). And yet they could contribute amply to the “reflections” of which these institutions are all so fond. Unfortunately other international initiatives, like the World Water Contract (led by Ricardo Petrella, an advisor to the European Commission), have been sidelined.

Water for free or water at a price, private water or public water, dams or no dams? Such are the significant debates which inflame the relations between the protagonists who seek solutions for the future. The third world forum on water, which was held in Kyoto in March 2003, was a major event for the large industrial lobbies and their political extensions. The ngos in attendance were only rarely invited to speak and were systematically shunted aside during the principle debates and declarations, especially if they attempted to convince the planet that salvation would not necessarily come from private-public partnership and from the completion of large-scale hydraulic projects. The World Water Council, co-organiser and initiator of the forum, describing itself as a “representative of civil society,” presented during the course of the ministerial conference a declaration which curiously didn’t say enough about water as a fundamental human right. But what is most surprising of all is a detail from the report presented by the Camdessus panel, a fact concerning which the authors maintained discretion. In the distribution of the hoped-for financial investments (180 billion dollars per year), only 75 billion are intended for the provision of drinking water for the general population, and as for the rest – 105 billion dollars per year – one third only is devoted to agriculture, and the other two thirds are reserved especially for industry. Just a tiny detail.