Water for Profit and the Populist Mission
noimage By Nick Biddle

The statement I have thought more about than any other in the last four months comes from the May 2000 issue of Fortune magazine.  Water, it said, "…promises to be to the 21st century what oil was to the 20th."  Current estimates are that private water management will soon be a $200 billion business.  Currently, commerce in water generates $80 billion a year.  American corporations are becoming big players in this market. 
    The first step has been the bottling and sale of nifty, 20-ounce plastic bottles filled with the colorless stuff.  One study shows that much of the water purchased in bottles comes out of a tap, but that is another story.  Americans carrying purchased bottles of water in their fanny packs and briefcases are becoming habituated to thinking of water as a product, a good for sale.  Inserted in the culture through marketing, the concept of water as a good for sale is becoming a no-brainer (America's favorite circumstance), a fact of life.  But it isn't.
    Water, second only to air, is an absolute necessity of life.  If it is self-evident, as the Declaration of Independence asserts, that all people are endowed with certain inalienable rights among which are "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness," then surely water is a right, for without it there is no life.  This logic informs legal theory dating to the Justinian Code of the Roman Empire.  The idea is that the legitimacy of the state derives, in part, from its safeguarding everyone's access to life's basic elements.  In the United States the theory has been codified into what is called the Public Trust Doctrine, under which states have the duty to guarantee access to the essential components of life (including air and water) to every human being. 
    Concerning water, then, we are confronted by a contradiction.  Is water a human right to be guaranteed to all at public expense, or is it a private good for sale?  The short answer is that, at this moment, it is both.  The problem we are facing in America is that global trade forces (i.e. the World Trade Organization (WTO), the World Bank, the U.S. government, and even the UN) are pushing onto us their definition of water as strictly a good for sale. 
    A primary method by which the global trade network is altering the legal status of water is by compelling the privatization of public waterworks systems.  International Monetary Fund structural adjustment programs and World Bank loans to developing nations are often tied to privatizing public utilities, including waterworks systems.  Several UN agencies have given way to the water industry's demand that water be treated as a human need like food, rendering it, accordingly, a product for sale.  Perhaps most dangerously, the European Union has requested as part of WTO negotiations on the General Agreement on Trade in Services (GATS) that the U.S. open its water systems to foreign competition with rules that promote corporate profit.
    Including water in the GATS has the added consequence of undermining local, state and national democratic authority to protect environmental, labor and human rights.  That is because WTO regulations overrule any local, state or federal laws that in any way impede profitable trade, in this case, in water.  Complementarily, the U.S. Congress has added a requirement to a money bill (called the Water Investment Act) that, if passed, will require municipalities to consider privatizing some component of their water and sewer systems in order to qualify to receive federal funds for infra-structural repair.  But if a municipality privatizes even one component of its waterworks system, then under GATS it must permit foreign corporations competitive access to all further contracts for that system.  These complicated maneuvers carry a simple goal -- to privatize U.S. waterworks and, consequently, shift water from a legal right to a commercial need.
    Americans are getting a one-two punch.  The glitzy marketing of bottled water combined with complex national and international machinations advancing waterworks privatization are pushing people down a narrow path.  Water is losing its nature as a human right and becoming solely a commercial product. 
    However, that holds true, so far, only in the abstract.  The Alliance for Democracy had discovered that when people face the loss of the water in their own ground--in their own back yards--to corporations in search of profits, they resist with the energy of a colonial patriot.  As reported elsewhere in this edition, Alliance chapters in northern California have joined together to fight the extraordinary scheme of the Alaska Water Exports Corporation to siphon more than a million gallons of water a day (during the seven month rainy season) from two rivers in Mendocino county for oceanic transport in gigantic bags and sale to San Diego.  It is a plan that reveals how demented contemporary corporate fantasy and environmental disdain have become.  Alliance members in the Mendocino, Redwood Coast, and Sonoma chapters are working together to turn back the Alaska Water Exports corporation and they are using the Public Trust Doctrine to do it.  Please read this important article (Alliance Helps Defeat Water-Grab) and add your support to their efforts in whatever way you can.
    Citizens in rural New Hampshire are also battling to save their water from corporate pillage. The USA Springs Corporation, the director of which lives in Luxembourg, owns 100 acres of land sitting on top of a 14-square-mile aquifer that is the sole source of drinking water for two towns, Nottingham and Barrington (and a partial source for three others).  The corporation wants to extract 439,200 gallons of water a day from that source, bottle it, and fly it to Europe for sale.  Citizens from the two towns formed an organization called Save Our Groundwater in the summer of 2001 (www.saveourgroundwater.org).  Alliance chapters in New Hampshire, Maine, and Massachusetts added their labors to Save Our Groundwater several months ago and helped delay USA Springs from gaining the local and state regulatory approval it needed to move ahead with its project.  However, court proceedings in early October overturned a decision made by the Nottingham Planning Board, and the corporation is currently moving ahead with its project.  Alliance members are hosting forums throughout New Hampshire to educate citizens and energize them for the next round of confrontation with USA Springs.
    Water is a hot issue boiling over on the political landscape.  People do not respond reticently to corporate takeovers of their water.  The European Union Water Initiative issued a report in September 2002 that estimated that it would cost $200 billion to provide clean water and sanitation to every living person on earth who lacks it.  This year the Pentagon will spend almost $400 billion to fight wars, launch weapons in space, and impose U.S. hegemony across the globe.  Clearly there is more than enough money for the state to sustain its public trust obligations.  The Alliance for Democracy is turning its sights onto the corporatization of water.  We are fighting water privatization, expanding public awareness of the Public Trust Doctrine, and working to safeguard water resources for all.  Please call or write the Waltham office for more information about water, water campaigns, and how you can get involved.