Reminds me of what experts label the most important political and environmental issue of the 21st Century

“Thousands have lived without love-no one without water”, W.H.Auden

With these words starts the film “Flow-for love of water” from 2008 by Irena Salina. The background for the film is the fact that today one billion people are without access to clean water. This leads to diseases and death for millions of people, but also conflicts and war. The issue of water is now at the very core of peace work. The amount of water is limited, and this raises demands to humanity that we distribute what we have more evenly.

Background- The water crisis

“Till taught by pain, men know not water’s worth.”, Lord Byron

Water is the source of all life on earth. Water is essential for earth itself, and for our lives, for bodily intake, and sanitation. As the veins and heart make us alive, rivers and oceans are the arteries and heart of earth. The earth consists of 70% water, and of this 2,5% is fresh water. In a global perspective this points to that fresh water is a scarcity problem.

Water is a prerequisite for economic growth and social development and a better administration and use of water is a prerequisite for the eradication of poverty. Due to the fact that the water we have is very unevenly distributed this have been and is a strong contributor to conflicts throughout history. Scarcity of water leads to scarcity conflicts, illness and death.

The countries that are exposed for these conflicts are where water is scarce, and they are dependent on other countries’ rivers. Only one third of development countries have access to clean water, with a result of 30000 deaths every day. 2 million people die per year of water diseases.

A result, the water crisis could be the 6th mass distinction. One of the UN millennium goals is to reduce the amount of people without access to clean water by half within 2015. I will now examine hurdles for this goal, and solutions for humanity.


Water as weapon-the slow killer

Water politics is today an own way of warfare, and a vital part of warfare. According to the prophecy of the movie ’Flow’, water conflicts can lead to the same types of wars as oil. But in comparison to oil, we cannot live without water.

Pesticides have been used in war for making large damage on the civilians. These chemicals were from the start designed for warfare. One example is the Agent Orange under the Vietnam War. Pesticides are now used in peoples drinking water to make it undrinkable. Agriculture uses 70% of water, industry 20%, and we 10%. Chemicals used in the former are also affecting us through water. Aztrazine (herbicide) is the most dangerous and most common pesticedes in the word, sold by the Swiss company Syngenta, even when it’s banned in their home country. Though it is banned it can travel 1000 km through rain water. Half a million pounds comes back through rain water. They were sued by the Natural Resources Defence Council, but the Environmental Protection Agency stated it does no harm, after private negotiations with them.

The lack of pure water is also a problem in parts of the developed world. Estimated 500 000  to 7 million get sick in the United States each year because of bugs, bacteria and chemicals in the tap water.

Some news for you:

  • Though you buy bottled water you can get these (humanmade) chemicals etc. through showering. 40% comes through drinking water, the rest through your skin, changing the chemistry in our body.
  • Also, many of the seemingly bottled water are tap water, or even more unclean. No one controls this. They are sold more expensive than gasoline.
  • The amount estimated to provide clean drinking water to the entire planet is 1/3 of what we spend on bottled water…

In “Flow”, this problem of poisoning in living organisms is illustrated with the feminization of animals. Frogs and fish actually changes sex, and certain places there are not male fishes left. Crops need five to ten times more water to dissolve the chemicals. It leads to cancer, and demasculises. And just think of the fact that fetuses live in water…This is happening today. The governments are not necessarily protecting you, though you might think so.

Privatization of ”The blue gold”

Water is supposed to be free, as it is not the same production costs with food. Still, the biggest industries today focus on primary on oil, secondly on electricity, and on third pace comes water. As we cannot live without water, making water to business is extremely smart from a business perspective. Pure gold.

Privatization of water, starting two decades ago, is stated as a strategy to provide water to more people. But it has opposite effects. There is a tendency to depoliticise privatisation as simply a standard economic and commercial transaction between users and private service providers. This is not the case. Privatisation creates a new situation, shifting utilities from governments towards the market, affecting the way civil society normally articulates its needs and affects democratic input. Privatization makes poor pay more for water than the rich. Privatisation leads to foreign control,  monopoly, undermines democratic principles, and minimize accountability to local citizens. Analysis been done in Dar es Salaam in Tanzania, Accra in Ghana, Sør-Afrika, Manila in the Philippines, Buenos Aires in Argentina, Cochabamba in Bolivia, Kerala, India and Kampala in Uganda that support this claim about the outcome of privatization of water.

Central Actors and policies

So, who has decided who owns water, and thus owns survival?

World Bank: Policies in contradiction with experiences

Since the late 1970s and early 1980s, privatisation has been put forward as one part of a larger reform package intended to stabilise economies and create growth. These reforms were based on the rationale that state planning and expenditure were often less efficient than private actors operating in a free market. Reforms were recommended by the two most important international financial institutions (IFIs) -the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF), institutions that were everything else than democratically established.

The World Bank (WB) provides loans to over one hundred developing economies, with the declared aim of helping the poor. Moreover, WB is leading in water supply and sanitation. Since 1993, the World Bank has promoted privatisation as an answer to the water supply and sanitation crisis. The Water Resources Management Policy Paper (1993) states that water should be treated as an economic commodity, despite the many criticisms.

The World Bank says it acknowledges the difficulties with privatisation, but remains wedded to its belief in the underlying rationale of private participation and continues to find new ways to encourage private investment.

Multi National Corporations:

European corporations like Thames Water, Vivendi, Suez, SAUR (the three latter French, and most of these corporations have changed their name recently-we can wonder why), all established by banks, are delivering water all over the world and are forcing poor countries to hand over the control. This includes also Coca Cola and Pepsi.

This is controlled and corrupt, mighty powerful as they are supported by institutions as IMF, WB, and WTO.

-The president in IMF uses as advisors the heads in Suez og Vivendi.

-World Bank builds dams in the privatization process, for profit. First of all, millions of people are displaced due to the building of dams. Second, organisms which would flow with the river and feed other organisms, in a natural system evolved through thousands of years, are captured and begin to rot. Methan gas is evolving-which leads to global warming. And WB cannot be sued because it has legal immunity.

Why use billion of dollars on dams when one could use some thousand dollars on a more efficient system?

Nestlé is also an ugly beast. It owns more than 70 bottled water brands. Nestlé do not pay anything for the water they pump and earn billions every day, without even paying taxes. The film Flow shows how in Michigan—because Nestlé were destroying the eco system— people went to court and launched a petition. Nestlé hired a firm with private investigators to go to people on their doors to ask if they had signed a petition against this. The Supreme Court ruled in favour of the company and they could continue pumping water.

Other reinforcing structures and institutions;

WB partnerships, Regional Development Banks, Donor Agencies (EU, bilateral agencies etc.), OECD, WTO and GATS. With the World Bank-promoted shift from public to corporate service provision and multinationals giving advice on the process of privatisation, there is a clear democratic deficit. Space for civil society to provide input is limited, allowing profit motives to decide the fate of water issues. Values of accountability and transparency are not built into corporate structures. Unlike public utilities, private companies are accountable to their shareholders, not citizens. Thus, citizens have few avenues to voice dissatisfaction with broken promises, and the other way around: The unpopularity of water privatisation has made it difficult to implement in democratic and transparent ways. We have an Apartheid situation.

Case studies-The invisible continent

The scarcity of water is worst in Africa, and here the challenge is biggest. In t2007, the Nobel peace prize winner Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) predicted that within 2020 less than 25% of the people in Africa will have food, and a far lesser percent will have water. The Nile is the world’s longest river, having the water ten countries and 160 million people are thirsting for. This of course is a source to conflict, much because of the bad administration of the Nile resources. From 1929 we find one of the reasons for this; “The Nile Waters Agreement” between Great Britain and Egypt, giving Egypt veto in all decisions concerning the water. As on one side the sea is passing through some of the worlds driest countries with a massive population growths, and on the other Egypt, who has far from been using the water in a proper way, therefore conflicts arises.

Profit-based companies will normally only provide water to those they know have the ability to pay. Developing countries have not proven profitable for multinational companies and thus there are less investment in those countries. The developing countries have also withdrawn from projects and left behind chaos and worse infrastructure. For example, this happened in Suez and in Bolivia.

What needs to be done?

More development to water

The governments in the countries with water scarcity must dedicate more work towards the water sector. The current amount of world development aid directed towards the water sector, has decreased when it needs to be doubled. So, more aid specifically to the water sector. Also, if not countries give their 0.7 BNP in development aid, the international institutions, IMF and WB will continue attracting privatization actors.

Governments must also ensure that recipient countries are not forced into privatisation, there must be consent of civil society before policies of water privatisation are promoted, and one must involve the civil society in decision-making. One must pay more attention to questions of local-level power and politics as well as local-level understandings of water and sanitation issues.

Moreover, governments must ensure that water privatisation is not made a condition of countries multilateral and bilateral aid, loans or debt forgiveness; ensure that water supply is affordable for the poor; reduce support to institutions, funds and partnerships that support private sector development in the water sector; cancel all negotiations in the WTO concerning drinking water; and ensure that governments have the right to subsidise water to secure adequate access for all.

Civil Society

The local people must be included in the processes, and we must have dialogue and cooperation between civil societies in North and South. Let’s get together. Make awareness and make a change. That they cannot take away from us.

It may work: WB forced privatization on Bolivia in 1999, with the threat that they would otherwise not get any more development loans. But after heavy protests the water was given back to the people of Bolivia in 2007.

Last but not least, we must also have an active climate politics: We take from nature but also give. We must have friendship with nature to be able to survive.

A case for development or peace-work?

What happens when millions of people are been bereaved their livelihood?

Resource scarcity has in a high degree been handled as a development question, but research by Official Norwegian Reports shows that peace work is just as important component (NOU 2008: 14) Development is about providing resources, while peacework is relationship building and how to share those resources, as resources can be both a source to peace and war. Few political decisions have caused so much civil unrest as the privatisation of water.

How can the peace-movement and the development work together for a more harmonic and holistic handling of resource conflicts?

Peace work is about raising awareness of the other’s situation. Re-establishing relations is crucial in working towards a common goal. Instead of focusing on water as a source of conflict one should see it as a source to dialogue and negotiations. As an example; still after the first and second intifada, the meetings kept going on between Israelis and Palestinians in the Water Commission. The more one cooperate towards a holistic solution, the better.

Making it the 31st Human Right

In 1948, the 30 articles of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights were ratified by all the nations of the world. These 30 articles guaranteed human rights across many human endeavors, from Life to Liberty to Freedom of Thought. Now, sixty years later, recognizing that over a billion people across the planet lack access to clean water and that millions die each year as a result, make it urgent to add one more article to the declaration, the Right to Water.

There are many issue areas that can be studied in relation to water, but my concern is that people have human rights to water. Water is a fundamental human need and therefore a basic human right. Water rights are different in that there is no substitute for water, and the commodity is seen as free in contrast to the production of food. As shown, water is not any longer a public service. Privatization of water makes money necessary to survive. It makes water out of reach for to many  people.

This is as absurd as of privatizing air. There are some things that don’t want to be owned. Water is for people, not for profit. It is a resource of life, not a property. Just as air, sun, moon, stars. Water is a right, not a privilege. A right for all.

The film “Flow” states that this is not a question of knowledge, but of political will. These issues have been known for 100 years.

On December 10th, 2008 “Flow” was invited to screen at the United Nations as part of the 60th Anniversary of the Declaration of Human Rights.

I want to thank everybody who works for humanity, and against monopoly. Stepping on someone is bad. But pushing powerful people higher up is worse. The fight against privatization of water is a fight for life.

Want to learn more or engage?


Information about the author

Line recently graduated from the University of Sydney with an MSc in Peace and Conflict Studies. She currently works as a project assistant in the Norwegian Peace Council, and writes articles for Human Rights Defence.