At a spiritual retreat six years ago, I had an overwhelming vision (of the future?): Giant ice caps melting, water, water, water, the human struggle for clean water. It was such an intense vision, as if I was channeling information, as if possessed. I jumped up from a meditative state and began to speak of the dangers that were upon us, ranting to the other retreat attendees about how we would have to fight to protect the waters of the world, how it was the most crucial fight coming upon us. It was so powerful that for the next few months, I was obsessed with creating some sort of sculptural-machine-fountain-urban-filtration-device that could be installed in cities (this is what artists do with their free time) which could help provide clean free access to water. Luckily some others have already come up with amazing designs.
I also began to research laws regarding water rights, which led me to find tons of information on the modern privatization of water. During that same time, I also happen to go to Brussels with the March to Brussels which came out of the 15M movement in Spain. This was to be the start of the Occupy Movement in the U.S. although most people have been misinformed about how that all started. It began as a coordinated effort by European and U.S. activists. To sum it up, some of us walked from Spain to Brussels and by the time we arrived (3 month march on foot), the police and secret service had plenty of time to strategize how they were going to deal with the hundreds of protesters so they were ready and equipped to beat the living crap out of everyone if we camped out in the capital’s public spaces. (Maybe in a future blog I will write more about those experiences).
So, once in Brussels, we occupied an abandoned University for an entire week prior to the big international protests, and during that time, we held conferences and meetings inside that 7 story building with hundreds of activists and protesters who came from all over Europe. It’s been five years, and this is how long it’s taken me to process what occurred then.
Like I said, we organized lectures and workshops for every day that we were inside that building in order to exchange information and research. We had to have people take turns guarding all the doors to the building to make sure no secret police infiltrated. Meanwhile, outside, a constant stream of reporters came to interview us about what we were doing. All those days culminated into an organized protest march of over 15,000 people to the European Parlament. We had planned this for months, in order to bring the Senate the local issues from each of the communities we had passed through during the march- hundreds of towns, big and small. These acts would also kick off the Occupy Wall Street protests in NY. I believe it was the first time that activists organized and coordinated such a global event, occurring in multiple countries at the same time.
So, what does this have to do with water privatization and world domination? Everything. Of course we were kicked out of the building by police, they took advantage of the day of the big protest to burst into the abandoned university and kick the few people that were inside and destroy as much stuff as they could. Luckily, they couldn’t destroy the things that were saved on the internet. So, here I leave you with the water research we compiled in the form of the actual talk I gave on one of those days during those amazing and radical conferences with hundreds of wonderful people who actually care about what is happening in the world and who were actually trying to do something about it. Maybe you will read it, or maybe you will go back to scrolling through the hundreds of banal and superficial blogs and other social media which fill our web today, but at least I can rest assured that there’s a little bit more of truth floating around on the internet.
October 13th, 2011 in Brussels:
“Water sharing is a necessity for peace among nations because water is a necessity for life. Water shortage causes conflict. Peace among all the world’s peoples depends on our ability to share water resources. The deprivation and control of water by private interests is a source of poverty, of inequality, of social injustice, and of great disparities on our planet. The international governing bodies have failed to make water a priority, meanwhile, one billion people in the world are currently being denied their basic right to safe drinking water. It was only in July of 2010- after more than 35 years of intellectual discourse among our representatives, that the United Nations finally publicly obliged to declare water a basic human right.
Research suggests that the world already has the finance, technology, and capacity to end the water crisis. The world is not running out of clean water but millions of people do live in areas of mounting water stress due to the effects of industry, capitalism and greed. Competition for water will surely increase in the decades ahead, if we do not accept responsibility for the current situation, and make the necessary adjustments. If we allow the privatization of water to continue, 1.4 billion people who live where water consumption exceeds recharge capacity will suffer, along with the respective ecosystems. The right to clean water is blatantly being controlled by a minority. Cross-border conflicts could continue to intensify and break out into more open warfare. Ensuring safe drinking water and sanitation world-wide would save the lives of 1.8 billion children each year, and grant dignity to over 2.6 billion people who live without sanitation.
We must ensure environmental sustainability in order to ensure peace, equality, and freedom on planet Earth. Over 1.6 billion euros a year are spent on health systems in order to treat water-born diseases world-wide, when universal access to basic water and sanitation would prevent them. The amount of money needed to give universal access to clean water is spent by our governments on their military hardware in less than one month’s time.
In rural West Bengal, India, huge advances in sanitation, health, and community development have been achieved at incredibly low cost. A decade ago, on World Water Day of 2001, the UN Secretary General challenged the world to solve the water crisis, and for the last thirty years, EU law has been increasingly replacing national legislation concerning water use and protection. Community-wide standards for water protection was part of the first wave of EU politics in the 1970’s, followed by health-related directives such as the Drinking Water Directive, as well as legislation covering certain polluting economic activities. While the environmental directives have in the past helped to continually improve and secure the position of municipal water supplies by introducing protection of water sources, the intended new wave of economic legislation is likely to excerpt the opposite effect.
Given the difficulties in expressing ecological and social factors in monetary terms, the corresponding effects are likely to be underestimated. Despite the early environmental water protection directives adopted since the early 1980’s, the quality of most European waters has continued to deteriorate until today. Out of the 129 Black List substances causing water pollution, only 18 have been regulated by the EU’s Dangerous Substance Directive. In 2013, the Dangerous Substance Directive was replaced by the Water Framework Directive and the list of priority substances has been annulled and there has been much reluctance to implement even the existing legislations and provisions over the past decades.
Groundwater is of enormous importance for the European Union’s drinking water supplies, yet the future of ground water protection in the EU is presently uncertain. The Groundwater Directive was also repealed in 2013, and member States and the European Parliament have been unable to agree on a future groundwater policy under the Water Framework Directive. As a result of their cross-benefit assessment the level of groundwater protection intended for the new directive may have turned out to be lower than under the existing legislation. The Directive on Environmental Liability is likely to suffer the same fate due to commercial interests which perpetually compromise the effectiveness of the current legislation. For instance, when the Commission sued Suez (one of the world’s largest private water companies) for supplying drinking water above the nitrate limit of 50 mg/L to consumers over several months, Suez in turn sued the French State for not protecting the groundwater resources they took the water from, and the French High Court ruled that it is exclusively the obligation of the State to protect the waters, and that the water suppliers are merely responsible for installing adequate treatment equipment. This was a huge win for the private companies.
Water treatment is difficult and expensive, so in most cases of pesticide contamination, water suppliers opt to abandon the polluted reservoirs and move to deeper lying aquifers or distant mountain sources, or sometimes, dilute the polluted water with pesticide-free water. In Aarhus, Denmark, of the 25th of June of 1998, the Aarhus Convention was signed under the auspices of the UN Economic Commission for Europe (UNECE) “to contribute to the protection of the right of every person of present an future generations to live in an environment adequate to his or her health and well-being.” To that avail, “each Party shall guarantee the rights of access to information, public participation in decision making, and access to justice in environmental matters in accordance with the provisions of this Convention” (Article 1). Although regional in scope, the significance of the Aarhus Convention is global. “It is by far the most impressive elaboration of Principle #10 of the Rio Declaration, which stresses the need for citizen’s participation in environment issues and for access to information on the environment held by public authorities. As such, it is the most ambitious venture in the area of ‘environmental democracy’ for far” -Kofi Anan, Secretary General of the UN.
Public access to environmental information, as it is addressed by the Aarhus Convention, lays down that government and authorities shall make environmental information available upon requests from the public. Hence, data on groundwater and reservoir quality, on drinking water, on the state of waste-water discharged by the waste water treatment plants, would have to be made assessable on demand to natural and legal persons having public responsibilities or functions, or providing public services, in relation to the environment. Signatory States are to ensure that the public is informed timely and adequately, and that public participation is invited while all options are still open, that full access to information relevant for the decision-making process is granted, that the public can submit any comments, analyses, and opinions it considers relevant, that due account is taken in the public participation, that upon decision, the public is promptly informed and that text, reasons, and considerations concerning the decision are made accessible to the public. The EU transposed the Aarhus Convention on the 26th of May of 2003, and adopted it into EU law indicating an international “directive which provides for public participation in respect of the drawing up of certain plans and programs relating to the environment” (2003/35/EC).
Member states were given until the 25th of June of 2005 to incorporate the directive into their national laws. But around 95%-80% of the global water supply and sanitation services are provided by the public sector through local authorities which are restricted to their own localities. With a few exceptions, the public water companies do not operate internationally. For various historical reasons, three French companies are dominating around two-thirds of the global private water market- Saur, Suez, and Veolia. In the late-nineteenth and mid-twentieth century, those companies which had established themselves by the time the municipalization of water systems that took place in Europe and North America had a great advantage on the development of the infrastructure which took place. As a result, they evolved to be global leaders in private water supply, and operate across a number of different public authorities with the size and capital to take advantage of the privatizations which began in the 1980’s. Prior to 1989, there were no significant competitors to Suez and Veolia in any other European country. The nearest competitors to the two French companies arose in 1989 out of a political initiative of the Thatcher government. The competition was, however, relatively ineffective. The water industry has been characterized by high barriers to entry due to the capital intensive nature of its operations, the geographically dispersed capital structure, and costs high enough to make duplication of infrastructure economically unviable. This makes the water industry a natural monopoly. Attempts by a US-based energy company, ENRON, to break into the water market also proved a failure in 2001. In July 2002, the French Competition Council (Conseil de la Concurrence) ruled that Suez and Veolia had been abusing their market dominance.
In 1902, the city of Valencia, Spain gave a water concession to one private company, Avsa, which is owned by Saur. The contract specified that the monopoly would last for 99 years. In the late 1990’s, the company announced that if it lost the renewal of the contract, it would demand a compensation of 54m euros which the winner of the contract would have to pay. Unsurprisingly, there was not a single competitive bid. In 2050, the city of Valencia will have had 150 years of private water monopoly with not a single competitive bid. In Barcelona, Aguas de Barcelona has also enjoyed an unbroken concession for 140 years, with no prospect of a competitor for the same reasons as Valencia. There exists many incidents of corruption associated with privatization, and in France, water companies have been convicted of paying bribes to obtain water contracts. In Grenoble, in 1996, a former mayor and government minister and a senior executive of SuezLyonnaise des Eaux, received prison sentences for receiving and giving bribes. In Angouleme in 1997, the former mayor was jailed for two years for taking bribes, and the executive for the Generale des Eaux were convicted for bribing the mayor of St. Denis to obtain a water concession. Suez and Veolia have also been investigated in France for corruption practiced by their divisions in a scandal described as “an agreed system for misappropriation of public funds” . The extension of private water concessions acts to increase the opportunity and inceptive for corruption. The monopoly remains in place by the take over of existing companies or the acquisition of new operating contracts. We must get our communities informed and fight the privatization of the world’s water.