Privatization of Water
(Transcript of talk given at LaRoche College, March 27, 2008, Pittsburgh, PA)
As we all know, corporations own the water we drink. Whether it’s bottled water that we buy at the store or privatized municipal water systems like we have in Allegheny County [Pennsylvania], one of the most essential elements to human life—water—is now controlled by profits.
This means that if you think the corporation that owns the water you drink is dumping toxic chemicals into that water or failing to filter out deadly bacteria or raw sewage or antibiotics, there’s nothing you can do about it. The most you can do is get the appropriate regulatory agency to conduct an inspection. But that agency is required by law to inform the corporation ahead of time and schedule an inspection at the convenience of the corporation,1 which of course, gives them time to do a quick patch and prevent any proof of wrongdoing from being collected.
This is why we have so many workers die on the job in this country: because OSHA is required by law to do the same thing.2 No surprise visits, no unannounced testing of the water or air or heavy equipment that can cut off a worker’s arm or crush her to death. Because that would violate the corporation’s 4th Amendment rights.
How many of you think that 100 percent of all the earth’s water is potable for human consumption? 50 percent? 10 percent? Actually, less than ½ of 1 percent of the earth’s water is potable, and that number continues to shrink due to widespread pollution of water tables, massive overconsumption of water by factories, agribusiness and other corporations and because of gross mismanagement by corporations who are privatizing municipal water systems around the world.3
In Allegheny County alone, thousands of gallons of water are lost every day because Pennsylvania Water Company refuses to invest its profits into upgrading the infrastructure.4 We’ve all seen the big water main breaks that make the news, but the smaller ones that happen regularly throughout West Mifflin, Munhall, Dravosberg, and everywhere else the company operates go unreported. And the breaks go unattended to for days, sometimes weeks, while our precious resource of potable water goes into the sewer and the corporation raises our rates so we have to pay for our loss.a
In 1999, the government of Bolivia, as a condition of economic aid from the World Bank, entered into a 40-year contract with a private company named Aguas del Tunarib to privatize the water system of the city of Cochabamba. The citizens were unaware of the deal until it went into effect in January of 2000, when they were informed that their water rates were suddenly higher, in some cases by 100 to 200 percent.5
For many families, this increase represented over 20 percent of their monthly income. So the citizens revolted. A broad coalition of community, labor, and human rights groups demanded that the contract be cancelled. They shut down the city with a four-day general strike, and began a campaign which included peaceful resistance, mass marches, more strikes and constant disruptions.6
The government responded by outlawing protest marches and sending in the military to occupy the city. Organizers were taken from their homes in the middle of the night, 175 people were injured, two youths were blinded and one murdered by the army.7 But the uprising kept going for four months until the Bolivian government finally gave in to the will of the people. The contract was cancelled and the company had to hand control of the water back to the people of Bolivia.8
Elsewhere in the world, citizens have not been so empowered to kick out the corporate water lords:
Privatization of the water in Nelspruit, South Africa, by the British water lord Biwater, brought a tripling of fees and cutbacks in the provision of water, particularly in poor neighborhoods. Those who cannot pay have their service terminated immediately and with no warning. White neighborhoods are charged lower fees. Water meters charge for water even when no water is flowing. Water is switched off at night. Frequent breaks go unrepaired for days.9
In Buenos Aires, Argentina, yet another World Bank privatization scheme gave French water lord Suez Lyonnaise des Eaux control of the public water with the result that water and sewage rates steadily increased so much that some 30 percent of the citizens have had their water cut off because they can no longer afford to pay. And like all water barons, infrastructure is left to collapse as they drain the system and the people dry. Suez reneged on its contractual obligation to build a new sewage treatment plant so now over 95 percent of the city’s sewerage is dumped directly into the Rio del Plata river. The incidence of gastrointestinal diseases has increased, particularly in poor neighborhoods.10
In Jakarta, Indonesia, privatization of the water supply has resulted in the cost of water accounting for 30 to 40 percent of many family’s incomes. Since many impoverished families cannot afford the cost of piping water to their home, they must haul buckets of water every day. Water that they pay for. In all cases, it is the women who do the hauling, along with the housework, child-rearing, food production, income production, and serving their husbands. Privatization of the water supply has resulted in more widespread contamination of waterborne bacteria and diseases, and even though the people routinely boil the water, skin diseases, particularly among children, are common.11
Privatization of the water supply in the United Kingdom brought average rate increases of 50 percent in the first 4 years, along with a tripling of water shutoffs due to nonpayment. At the same time, water quality declined as the incidents of sewer backflows, contamination levels, and leaks climbed.12 Rather than put profits back into repair of infrastructure to prevent sewage contamination of the water supply, the corporations which control the water find it more cost-effective to simply pay fines when they’re caught.
Privatization of the water supply in Atlanta, Georgia, resulted in average rate increases of 12 percent every year to the citizens, accompanied by elimination of customer service, broken water lines, non-functioning fire hydrants, solid matter appearing in the drinking water, a succession of boil advisories, and an interesting array of brown colors to the water. After the corporation, tried to extort an additional $80 million from the city, billed the city for work it never actually performed, including nonexistent repairs to infrastructure, the city terminated the contract.13
The same corporation kicked out of Atlanta, the U.S. subsidiary of Suez, is one of the largest water lord corporations in the United States. Suez and a handful of other water corporations, and their sewer subsidiaries, run privatized systems from New Orleans to Milwaukee, from New Jersey to Oregon, and all have long histories in the U.S. of charging excessive rates, eliminating public accountability, destroying public infrastructure, bribing public officials, contaminating water supplies, destroying the environment, creating public health hazards, creating economic hardships to entire communities, and racking up extraordinary profits for their small number of corporate owners.14 And all of it is legal under the laws we the people have allowed to be passed.
And finally, what makes this so relevant to today’s events and this week’s commemorations of the war and the dead is that these same corporations are the same corporations profiting from the war in Iraq. These are the corporations with deep and dirty ties to the Administration that gave them Iraq. Both Bechtel and CH2M are the profiteering water lords of public water systems across our country and the globe, and both corporations are in Iraq, making billions from this war.15
Bechtel alone was awarded $680 million of our money in 2003 in a limited-bid contract to carry out reconstruction of the water system that our shock and awe campaign destroyed.16 Later that year, they were awarded an additional $350 million because they were unable to do the work.17 Five years later, a humanitarian crisis has been declared in Iraq because of the lack of drinking water available to the citizens.18 And Bechtel continues to be awarded billions of our dollars every year to provide water to the people of Iraq.19
Right now in this country, it’s clear that our national treasury is being funneled to a relatively small handful of corporations who are deeply embedded in Iraq: Bechtel, CH2M, Halliburton, Ashbritt, Fluor Corporation, and the Shaw Group.20 These same six corporations received billions in no-bid contracts to rebuild New Orleans, and like Bechtel, failed to rebuild much of anything, but reaped record profits off the blood and bodies of women, children, and men slaughtered for profit.
The reality is that all corporations have been given rights and treasures that far exceed anything ever seen before; they have taken hold of life on this planet and are strangling us all to serve their greed.
copyright 2008, Mimi Yahn
a: I lived in West Mifflin, Pennsylvania, from 2002 to 2008, and during that time, water main breaks in the surrounding area were frequent occurrences, particularly in the summer and winter. It generally took between a week to several weeks for Pennsylvania Water Company to repair the breaks. Local officials took no action against the company at any time, even when entire communities were without water for a month.
b: Aguas del Tunari, was a newly-formed Bolivian subsidiary of the American company, Bechtel Corporation, which was one of the primary corporations that profited from the Iraq War.22