Socialist Worker

Squeezing us dry for profit

Issue No. 1695

Multinationals grab water across the world 

Squeezing us dry for profit 

By Hassan Mahamdallie

PEOPLE LIKE to joke that the capitalists, given a chance, would buy up the water that falls from the sky and sell it back to us. That is exactly what is happening at the moment. And the right wing often accuse socialists of being "conspiracy theorists". But how else would you describe the fact that everywhere corporate executives are meeting to "corner the global water market"? Public water systems are being handed over to privatisers everywhere. British firms are at the heart of the process. 

The second World Water Forum met in The Hague in March. It was chaired by the World Bank vice-president Ismail Serageldin and attracted swarms of delegates from business and governments. The forum was part of a series of meetings held by umbrella organisation the World Water Council-none of whom were elected by anyone. At The Hague powerful forces, brushing aside objections from poor countries and environmentalists, pushed forward their "mission statement". It is a pure capitalist vision about setting a "market value" for water, so that private firms can trade water as a commodity and enshrine the thrust to privatisation everywhere. 

At The Hague big business refused to accept that water was a "human right". They didn't want to know when an Indian delegate pointed out that "the average annual income of an Indian farmer would not be enough to buy nine bottles of Perrier water". The World Bank estimates that the global market for water is worth �520 billion. Ten corporations are vying for control of it. 

They include: 

  • Vivendi. Based in France. Operates in 90 countries around the world. 
  • Suez Lyonnaise des Eaux. Operates in 120 countries. Its top executives dominate the World Water Council. 
  • Bouygues, also French. Operates through its subsidiary SAUR in 80 countries. 
  • Five of the top ten are British. Thames Water, United Utilities, Severn Trent, Anglian Water and the Kelda Group are all presently buying up "water markets" overseas. 

Virtually all have been implicated in bribery. Subsidiaries of a dozen multinationals, including British firms, are being prosecuted for paying bribes to win contracts in the Lesotho Highlands Water Project, a huge water supply scheme. In France water companies have paid politicians for water contracts. In Grenoble a senior executive of Suez Lyonnaise was jailed alongside the local mayor, who accepted �4 million in "gifts". Multinational energy company Enron has a water subsidiary, Azurix. 

It has former US government ministers from the Reagan and Bush era on its board, and donated $1.2 million to politicians between 1993 and 1997. Enron gave New Labour �15,000 for a dinner with Blair during the 1998 party conference. The aim of these multinationals, which become ever larger through mergers, is to control all water use-from tap to bottled water, water treatment and soft drinks. As one commentator puts it, "This policy fits perfectly with the rapid worldwide spread of deregulation and privatisation of basic public services: gas, electricity, urban transport, telecommunications and post." 

The World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) make water privatisation a condition of giving aid. Multinational bodies such as the World Trade Organisation use "free trade" clauses to force the opening up of water. But the multinationals can be stopped. In Bolivia mass riots and strikes last month stopped US firm Bechtel and its British partner, United Utilities, privatising the city of Cochabamba's water supply. A coalition of workers, peasants and environmentalists came together in an anti-capitalist protest to put a brake on water privatisation. 

One of the protest organisers-shoe factory worker and trade union leader Oscar Olivera-travelled to the anti-World Bank protests in Washington. Oscar told activists, "We have been fighting the multinational corporations. Bolivia is a poor country that no longer owns anything. The only thing that is ours is our air and water. We have been struggling to make sure the water continues to be ours. We formed a coalition called 'Defence of Water and Life'. It has been difficult to fight the World Bank and our government. But is has given us the opportunity to self organise and unite. We have lost our fear, and we poor people have fought off this giant Bechtel as David did Goliath."

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Article information

Sat 6 May 2000, 00:00 BST
Issue No. 1695
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