Notes for Water Presentation
Waterloo, Ontario - July 2001
WaterAccording to Genesis and the creation stories of most ancient cultures, water was the original element. Water, symbol of purification and renewal, is one of the agents of our reception into relationship with God. Before birth we float in fluids. Our bodies are comprised of ....... water. Physical and emotional responses are triggered in many of us as our bodies respond to lunar and tidal pulls. Life depends on water.
The Global ContextBut fresh water is becoming scarce. Diminishing sources and worldwide destruction of the health of the aquatic eco-system are creating a global water crisis. The consumption of water is doubling every 20 years -- more than twice the rate of the increase in the human population. By the year 2025, as much as two-thirds of the world's population could face severe water shortages -- demand will outstrip supply by 56%. People in the developing world, including many indigenous peoples, make up 75% of those currently without enough water. They will make up 95% of those suffering by 2025. The World Bank predicts, "The wars of the next century will be about water." Corporate water giants consider water to be the oil commodity of the future and are pushing for privatization and commodification. Yet it is clear that commercializing water will make a handful of water transnationals very wealthy while doing nothing for people who need access to clean water. As Maude Barlow, chairperson of the Council of Canadians stresses, "Neither poor people nor those trying to protect aquatic ecosystems have the financial resources necessary to compete for water in the open marketplace."
Canada's ChoicesCanada and its citizens have the potential to play a critical role in decisions to be made soon about water. 20% of the world's freshwater supply is located in this country, including significant amounts in areas which are or should be under aboriginal title and rights.
Canada already exports bottled drinking water. But so far large-scale freshwater exports have been successfully resisted, as has, for the most part, wide-spread privatization of municipal water services.
Will Canadians insist on protecting water as a public trust for the common good or will we permit policies of water privatization and commodification to advance the pursuit of corporate profits at the cost of access, safety and sustainability?
Can we find ways to assist people or areas in need without simultaneously making ourselves available for large-scale corporate water exports by tanker or by diversion that would recognize neither Canadian sovereignty nor aboriginal title.
Trade ImplicationsAt this point, Canada has no comprehensive water policy. Much hinges on our decisions about water because of the ways in which international trade deals work... Under the provisions of the NAFTA (North American Free Trade Agreement) and proposals for the GATS (General Agreement on Trade in Services) currently being looked at by WTO (World Trade Organization) members, there is no such thing as a one-time decision. In other words, we cannot decide to privatize a municipal water system and then say, "Whoops, we've made a mistake. The price you're charging for water is skyrocketing. We want to put this back under public control." Nor can we say, "Sure, go ahead. Export bulk water from Newfoundland or from B.C. or from Lake Superior by ship - or in those gigantic plastic bags being developed to pull water half way round the globe....." and then say, "Whoops, we've changed our minds. You're not using it in the way we thought you would. You're not making it available at affordable prices to those who really need it." Or "Hey - we've got some environmental problems on our hands. You've got to back off on those water exports.
Under Trade Agreements, there are no second chances. The expression is, "Once the tap is turned on, you cannot turn it off." Nor can you slow it down. Nor can you offer preferential prices to your own citizens or companies. If you do try to do any of these things the Government of Canada is likely to find itself sued for loss of profit. In fact, that's already happening. Sun Belt Water Inc., of Santa Barbara, California, is suing the Canadian Government under the NAFTA for $10.5 billion -- you heard right - billion dollars because the government of B.C. stopped it from exporting water to California. This in spite of the fact that the Government of Canada repeatedly assured Canadians NAFTA did not apply to water. Our government is now assuring us water services won't be affected by the GATS. Are we to believe this? All evidence, including legal opinions, is to the contrary.
The Current SituationAs you're aware, a growing number of Canadian municipalities face serious health hazards to their drinking supplies. The final Walkerton Report, issued last week, highlighted both what is at stake and the high cost of the investments necessary to upgrade infrastructures.
How will municipalities respond? Will provincial and federal governments assist financially? Will the growing call for federal legislation guaranteeing safe drinking water be heeded?
The citizens of Vancouver recently got a response to some of these questions when the water board of the Greater Vancouver Regional District announced at a meeting intended to be informative, not consultative, that it would be privatizing a water filtration plant, opening to corporate bids the rights to design, build and operate a system to serve two million people. The public was outraged. In addition to the serious concerns expressed about standards, accountability and pricing, some citizens pointed out that turning over control of this system to one of the two foreign corporations in the front running would thrust the delivery of water in Vancouver into the arena of trade disputes.The specific concerns around trade were:
Under the trade agreements, the rights of corporations supersede the rights and laws of local governments, municipal governments and even national governments. This concern, as You'll hear shortly, is not hypothetical. Public pressure forced the GVRD to back down. On June 28th, the water board announced it would go the conventional route and contract out only the design and construction of the plant, not the operation of the system.
This was an important victory not only for the people of Vancouver, but for all Canadians. For when precedents are established under trade deals, it is extremely difficult, likely impossible, to resist the impacts.
Let's shift our attention now from west to east and from municipal water services to the export of bulk water. In March of this year, Newfoundland's premier, Roger Grimes, announced that he was willing to consider seriously a proposal from the McCurdy Group to export 59 billion litres of water annually from Newfoundland's Gisborne Lake. Not only will the repercussions for Newfoundland be grave if Premier Grimes is permitted to go ahead with this, but all Canada's lakes will be open to corporate access. Once commodified in just one place, water ceases to be protected.
In a paper titled, "Nothing Sacred: The Growing Threat to Water and Indigenous Peoples", The Interior Alliance of B.C. concludes: "These (trade) agreements and the ideology that everything should be for sale to the highest bidder not only threaten our rights but deny the sacred nature of water -- that it is given to us by the creator and the earth. This is the basis of our traditions and beliefs."What Can We Do To Protect The Sacred Nature of Water?
"It is wrong -- environmentally, economically and morally -- to engage in the large-scale trade of water. Water must never be regarded as a commodity for the exchange in the international marketplace.... An adequate supply of clean water for peoples' daily living needs is a basic human right and is best protected by maintaining control of water in the public sector." (Maude Barlow, chairperson, Council of Canadians)
What can we do to protect the sacred nature of water?
The Bolivian Example
Sometimes people think the implications of trade deals are exaggerated -- surely our governments would never get us into something so potentially disastrous -- let's look at what happened in Bolivia, under the same trade deals Canada is part of.
Bolivia is one of the poorest countries in South American and Cochabamba, a state and a city, is one of the country's poorest regions. Between 70 and 80% of Bolivia's citizens are Indigenous. Deforestation has polluted much of the country's water. In 1998, the World Bank refused to guarantee a loan to re-finance water services in Cochabamba unless the government leased the public water system to the private sector and passed along the costs to the consumers. Only one bid was considered: the water supply was turned over to Aquas del Tunari, a subsidiary of a conglomerate led by Bechtel, the giant San Francisco engineering company.
In December 1999 the private water company announced water price increases of much as 200% and 300%. For most people, this meant that water would now cost more than food. For those on minimum wage or unemployed, water bills now grabbed half their monthly budgets. The Bolivian Government, prodded by the World Bank, also granted absolute monopolies to private water concessionaires and refused any water subsidies for the poor. All water, even from community wells, required permits to access. Peasants and small farmers had to buy permits to gather rainwater on their property.
Polls showed that 90% of the population wanted Bechtel out. Distress turned to protest and what has been termed one of the world's first "water wars" began.
A broad-based movement of workers, peasants, farmers and other citizens -- led by a machinist - now turned union activist, Oscar Olivera -- formed a group dedicated to "de-privatize" the local water system. In the spring of 2000 hundreds of thousands of Bolivians joined them in a march to Cochabamba where a general strike and transportation stoppage brought the city to a half. Martial law was declared, many were arrested and a 17-yr. old boy was killed. But the people did not back down. Meanwhile, information about the uprising was circulated world-wide. You likely heard very little, or nothing about it in the mainstream media. But the internet and alternative media spread the message. The Government of Bolivia and Bechtel were made to realize they were being closely watched. Bechtel abandoned Bolivia, leaving behind a troubled company sagging under heavy debts. The Bolivian Government was pressured by the people into revoking its water privatization legislation. The local government essentially handed over the running of the local water service, SEMAPA, to the protestors and the coalition group, including, of course, all its debts.
The new citizen owner-operators refuse to believe the only choices available for water services are a corrupt government or a for-profit foreign corporation. They declare water to be a public good that must be provided to people on a non-profit basis. One of their first actions was to re-connect 400 communities that had been abandoned by the old company. But they face problems, financial, technical and a lawsuit. Because Bechtel is suing the Government of Bolivia for almost $40 million U.S. under a Bilateral Investment Treaty.
In December 2000 a delegation organized by the Council of Canadians and including Chief Gary John of the B.C. Interior Alliance and the Assembly of First Nations travelled to Cochabamba to meet with the coalition group running SEMAPA and with some of the communities they are trying to serve. The vision and commitment of the group are inspiring, but the challenges are significant. Members of the delegation each made commitments to raise awareness and to try to secure financial and technical assistance.
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