The Next Big Thing In Industry: Water Profiteering

Last week I was in Berlin at the Global Water Summit 2011, a meet up for corporations that want to profit from water as it becomes scarcer. Sponsored by all the bad actors in the water industry, from Veolia to General Electric, the conference URL was Even the Koch Brothers' empire was represented (Koch Industries helped pollute water with its fossil fuel operations, so why not profit also from cleaning up the mess?)

My colleague, Anil Naidoo from the Council of Canadians, and I were invited to the meeting to debate the libertarian economist David Zetland and William Muhairwe, managing director of Uganda's national water company. Both Zetland and Muhairwe are big proponents of full-cost pricing and dismissive of the government's role in providing water.

Some may wonder why Anil and I would go there to debate, especially when the audience was comprised of people employed in the water industry. The truth is that there is no better place to really figure out what they are up to. An hour debate was a small price to pay for free entrance to the $2,500.00 event that gave us real insight into the newest plans of the global water cartel.

The conference started on a sour note with a keynote address from Michel Camdessus, former Managing Director of the IMF. Camdessus is one of the masterminds behind the scheme to force the 1.44 billion people who make $1.25 a day to pay for the full cost of water. It was also disappointing that Kofi Annan appears to be running interference for the water corporations, basically saying in his speech that the time for protest is over and that we all need to get along.

One of the most distasteful moments of the conference, which was held in a Five Star hotel in Berlin, was when Sanjay Bhatnagar, CEO of WaterHealth International, took the mic to brag about how his investors were making piles of money selling water in villages in Africa and India. WaterHealth issues smart cards that are used to fill jugs with water -- a 21st century "innovation" for redistributing wealth from the poor in the developing world to the "global investors" of the company. He is a vocal proponent of the poor paying for water, even as the audience used the hotel's excellent plumbing facilities that are linked to Berlin's sewage system -- a system built using public tax dollars. The irony seemed to escape the 400 plus people attending the meeting.

Another major theme of the meeting was making money from water technologies for mining. During a session chaired by John Veil, the audience heard how producing water for mining and cleaning it up after it's destroyed will be the promised land for the industry. They discussed with glee how fracked gas, known in Europe as shale gas, uses millions of gallons of water that can be produced through desalination or provided in other ways. And after it's horribly polluted, the industry can benefit from "processing" it so that it can be "reused" by the public. Sounds like a science fiction nightmare.

The industrialized food industry was represented as well. It's kind of scary to see Nestlé, Pepsi and Veolia team up to talk about how they are saving water. It was the same old talk about water footprinting, a dishonest attempt to disguise their real water usage. It should include the whole life cycle of their products -- from growing thirsty commodity crops like corn (think high fructose corn syrup and corn oil for junk food) to transporting the packaged food around the world.

On the bright side, our allies from the German water justice movement were outside defending the global commons. The activists are well organized and have had a recent victory. Twelve years ago part of the Berlin water system was privatized under a secret contract with Veolia and RWE, which resulted in a 35% rate increase. At the same time, service deteriorated. The citizen's initiative called the "Berliner Wassertisch" began challenging this and successfully organized a winning referendum aimed at obtaining the publication of the secret contracts that violated German law. Anil and I joined the demonstrators during the time that the attendees left in big buses for a "Gala Dinner."

The last event of the conference was the debate, which was a real set-up because the attendees got to vote on who won. Now really -- is it any surprise that we lost 75% to 25%? Anyway, Anil and I knew we won the debate on the merits and ethics of our arguments. Meanwhile, William Muhairwe, who has instituted a full-cost recovery program in Uganda, had to defend the fact that the poor under this regime don't really have access to adequate water. They only get on average 20 liters of water a day -- a fifth of what the WHO says is necessary.

In the end, the real losers are poor people. Pricing water like a widget is inhumane, inappropriate and subjects the essential human need for water to the indifference of the marketplace. The only long-term solution for achieving universal access to water is to make it a public service and to use tax dollars to finance water infrastructure. It's an appropriate, necessary, and common role for government. And the global justice movement believes it's worth fighting for.

Wenonah Hauter is the executive director of Food & Water Watch. This was originally posted at Food & Water Watch's blog.

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