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Thirst while firms profit

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Issue 1745


Thirst while firms profit

By Charlie Kimber

THE INTERNATIONAL Monetary Fund (IMF) is forcing poor African countries to privatise the most basic service of all-water. The result will be more disease, more deaths, and profit for a few. More than five million people worldwide, most of them children, die every year from illnesses caused by drinking poor quality water. Some two million of these are in Africa.

Yet during the last year the IMF has forced 12 African countries to accept water privatisation or “market pricing” for water as a condition for getting debt relief or loans. In Ghana at present only a third of the rural population have access to safe water and 11 percent have adequate sanitation. The World Bank says that the incredibly poor people in these areas must pay up to 10 percent of the capital costs of water supplies and the running costs-including “reasonable profit”.

Water is also scarce in the Ghanaian capital, Accra. In typical working class areas of Accra such as Medina it would cost a family 3,000 cedis to use ten buckets of water a day if prices rise, as planned, to “market tariffs”. The normal daily wage is 7,000 cedis ($1).

As water becomes more expensive, tens of thousands more people die from water-borne diseases such as cholera and dysentery. The Shigella bacilli, which cause dysentery and diarrhoea, are rampant in many parts of Africa and cause around one million deaths a year, mainly children. Shigella flourish in contaminated water. They are easily wiped out where people have clean water, and basic sanitary and sewage facilities.

But higher water costs mean people desperately try to use less water or use the same water for, say, preparing food and personal washing. “When water becomes more expensive and less accessible, women and children, who bear most of the burden of daily household chores, must travel farther and work harder to collect water. They often resort to water from polluted streams and rivers,” says Sara Grusky, who has written a study on African water privatisation.

While ordinary people suffer, a few giant firms are making a killing from water contracts. As the US business magazine Forbes said last year, “Companies are rushing to privatise water, already a $400 billion global business. They are betting that water will be to the 21st century what oil was to the 20th.”

The multinational Vivendi (whose British subsidiaries include Bristol Water, Folkestone and Dover Water, North Surrey Water, Three Valleys Water and Connex rail) now has water contracts in Ghana, Gabon, Gambia, Djibouti and Burkina Faso.

The World Water Forum recently brought together the water multinationals, representatives of the World Bank and other businessmen. They agreed on a worldwide plan of full deregulation of water, an end to any trade restrictions against multinationals taking over public water supplies, “investor rights”, and a “cultural shift” so that water should be seen as an “economic good” rather than a human right.

There is resistance. The uprising in Bolivia which defeated water privatisation last year is an inspiration to many activists in Africa. Thousands of people have joined strikes and protests in South Africa over the decision to hand the Johannesburg water contract to French multinational Suez Lyonnaise.

The marchers had placards with slogans such as “Privatisation causes cholera”. The SAMWU municipal workers’ union says, “This company has raised water charges in every city or town where they have a contract. Why must a post-apartheid South Africa have such a basic resource rationed between rich and poor, and between black and white?”

In Ghana there is also a campaign against the “market rate tariffs”. The same multinationals which rip off people in Britain are making money while people die in Africa. These multinationals are as guilty and murderous as the giant drug firms which were so justly humiliated in the South African courts last week.

Rwanda: 40 percent of the population do not have access to safe water. IMF condition: Water and electricity under private management by June 2001 to be followed by full privatisation.

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