Blue Gold

Sunday, March 22 was World Water Day. The environment editor of the Sunday Herald Rob Edwards did a decent report on the growing water crisis around the world which includes interviews with my friends Tommy Kane and Kyle Mitchell, two of the world’s leading experts on water. However, the article did not emphasize how privatization is exacerbating the crisis. Here I produce in full warnings from both Tommy and Kyle, who later today will also be introducing the Scottish premiere of the award-winning film Blue Gold: World Water Wars at 7pm in Strathclyde University’s McCance Building, Lecture Theatre 1. (There will be a wine reception to follow.) The event is open to all, so if you are in the vicinity do drop by.

Tommy writes:

In Scotland despite – or possibly because of – the overwhelming rejection of water privatisation at the now famous Strathclyde referendum there has been a concerted, clever and tacit campaign by legislators, regulators, think tanks and businesses to turn Scottish Water into a private company in all but name. By changing its corporate structure, outsourcing contracts to private companies and tapping into the Private Finance Initiative a public sector body has been almost overwhelmingly commercialised. Worryingly, these changes are conducive to a future private ownership structure.

Evidence from here and around the world indicates commercialisation is bad for consumers, bad for workers, bad for democratic control and bad for the environment, because it means higher costs, poorer working conditions, decreasing citizen participation and more pollution. Sadly it reflects the kind of aggressive privatisation being promoted by water Transnationals, often helped by supranational governing agencies and International Financial Institutions, which risk worsening the world’s current and worsening water crisis.

That’s why those concerned to keep public control of water are beginning to fight back….There are now countless examples from across the world of private failures, of resistance to privatisation and new thinking and initiatives to counter the mantra of private ownership as the optimal choice in providing efficient water systems. The UN-Habitat sponsored Water Operator Partnerships (WOPS) is a manifestation of this thinking. Designed to help meet the Millennium Goals by improving the capability and capacity of public operators; it is based on notions of solidarity rather than private gain. It is an initiative that we in Scotland can learn from.

Kyle Mitchell adds:

The World Water Forum is an illegitimate forum to be discussing such pressing water issues for two reasons: one, it is a forum that is founded and facilitated by some of the most powerful players in the water industry including transnational water corporations that have a vested interest in the promotion of the privatisation of fresh water goods and services globally; second, and this is related to the first point, the world water crisis is an issue that effects people from all over the world – be it people living in water rich or water scarce regions. So by the very nature of the crisis, and the nature of water itself – that we all depend on it for survival – a closed door meeting that seeks to map out a global water privatisation agenda is by its very nature undemocratic and this is why it is illegitimate.

Tommy again:

Since the Strathclyde referendum in 1994 there has been persistent and incremental change to the Scottish Water industry that has resulted in the current provider ‘Scottish Water becoming a private company in all but name.

Its corporatised framework: encompassing downsizing, massive bonuses and salaries for management, massive penetration by private players both Water TNC’s and Financiers through outsourcing (SWS is made up of some of the biggest multi-nationals including Veolia, a French company with a very dubious reputation) and PFI (with massive monies going amongst others Pension funds and asset management funds), Economic regulation replicated from England, introduction of competition, and the ensuing detrimental impacts on workers, communities and the environment etc has resulted in a massive compromise of the public nature of the utility.

Should Scottish Water have its ownership structures changed these are modifications to the operations that are undoubtedly conducive to a private ownership structure. One aside, unsurprisingly, the World Bank has written of Scottish Water and commended the changes SW made to its set up.

Also, the competition framework is the first of its kind in the world. We are, in effect, the laboratory of the world for those who would like to see competition introduced in the water sector all over the world and in all areas of water services. The WICS would like to see it rolled out here to domestic customers, Alan Sutherland of the WICS is on record as saying so.

Also, AS was one of the main proponents of this at the time the bill was being discussed in parliament. He argued that if we didnt offer some sort of competition in the water sector then the competiton act could be used to force competiton on Scotland without us having any control over the process. The intimation was that it would be a sop to those who might want to do so and could be kept at that: this was despite water being exempt from the services directive.

However, since then, especially in the last year, A Sutherland and Sir Ian Byatt have argued (to amongst others the Regulatory Policy Institute and the European Policy Forum, both of which Sir Ian B is a member of) that this could and should be introduced elsewhere. Particulary in England where the Cave Review is recommending increased competition, not least because of the so called and unproven success of the ‘Scottish experiment’.

I should also say that the corporatised and commercialised nature of Scottish Water is something that many, most prominently the David Hume Institute, are recommending be rolled out to other public services. They recently published a report written by Jo Armstrong saying exactly this.

Finally despite the obvious changes there is still a persistent campaign by various think tanks, individuals, media, Industry bodies (Scottish CBI), Tories to privatise and/or mutualise.

Here is Rob Edwards’s Sunday Herald article.

World Water Day

THE WATER CRISIS
Without water, we die. Yet water shortages are getting worse. The United Nations forecasts that by 2030, nearly half of the world’s population will be living in areas of “high water stress”.

Climate change will cause droughts in some areas, and floods in others, scientists say. In Africa alone, between 75 million and 250 million people may experience increased water stress due to climate change by 2020, according to a UN report out last week. Areas of very dry land have more than doubled since the 1970s, and more intense droughts have been seen over the last 10 years.

Water scarcity will see as many as 700 million people displaced, the report warns. Rising demand for energy and meat will also exacerbate water shortages – it takes four times more water to produce a kilo of beef than a kilo of wheat.

Duncan McLaren, chief executive of Friends of the Earth Scotland, says: “The world’s rich countries, having caused the problems, must directly provide the money to help poorer countries adapt.”

The Bolivian activist, Oscar Olivera, says. “Water is a gift from the Earth. We need to take care of it and preserve it so the next generation can live. If we don’t, the cost is the people, it is us.”

In 2000, the UN agreed to halve the proportion of the population without sustainable access to safe drinking water and basic sanitation by 2015. We now know that this promise, one of the Millennium Development Goals, is going to be broken. A UN report, published to coincide with the World Water Forum in Istanbul and World Water Day today, confirms this.

Although progress has been made in improving sources of drinking water, there are still 340 million people in sub-Saharan Africa without access to safe water, the report says. And altogether, more than five billion people – 67% of the world population – may still be without access to adequate sanitation in 2030.

Almost 80% of the diseases in developing countries are associated with water, causing three million early deaths, the UN report says.

Rising populations, growing demand and the increasing number of supply disruptions caused by global warming are all combining to make the water crisis worse. Large amounts of water are also wasted or polluted.

WATER WARS
IN the past, countries have gone to war for many reasons – land, oil, gold. In the future it will be water.

Nearly four billion people live in countries where there is serious political tension over lakes and rivers that cross international borders. Current hotspots include India and Bangladesh; the Middle East; and China and its neighbours.

According to Fred Pearce, author of the book When The Rivers Run Dry, water is one of the defining crises of the 21st century. “As more and more countries run short of water, the threat of wars over water will grow,” he warns.

Bangladesh, for example, is downstream of India and relies entirely on water that flows through that country. But Bangladeshis are worried that they will be deprived of water by Indian plans to dam rivers to generate electricity.

In the Middle East there is a tense relationship between Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, Israel and Palestine over the limited supplies of water from the Jordan River. There has also been tension between Turkey, Syria and Iraq over the Euphrates River.

The scarcity of water has inflamed existing conflicts in Darfur and elsewhere in Sudan. And in south America, Paraguay is struggling to retain its essential water supplies under threat from developments in Brazil, Argentina and Bolivia.

The International Water Management Institute in Sri Lanka argues that shortages and rationing in cities could trigger water wars.

This Thursday an award-winning new film, Blue Gold: World Water Wars, gets its Scottish premiere at Strathclyde University. Its publicity material asks: “Past civilisations have collapsed from poor water management. Can the human race survive?”

WATER POLLUTION
WHEN water gets polluted, it gets dangerous, whether it’s affected by sewage, animal waste or chemicals. Experts say every 17 seconds a child dies somewhere in the world as a result of water-borne diseases – that makes it the biggest killer of children under five.

More than 80% of the sewage in developing countries is discharged into waterways – rivers, lakes, seas – without being treated. Many sewage plants have ceased to work because of inadequate maintenance.

“In three out of four cities in the developing world, farmers are irrigating food crops with polluted water,” says Dr Pay Drechsel from the International Water Management Institute. A survey of 53 cities by the institute showed that more than 700 million people are eating fruit and vegetables irrigated with dirty water, potentially a serious health hazard.

The UN report published last week warns that water pollution globally is on the rise. The worst problem is overloading with nutrients such as phosphorus and nitrogen from fertilisers and other sources. And in Bangladesh alone 70 million people are exposed to water containing unsafe levels of arsenic.

But the problems are not confined to the poorer countries: a recent study on drinking water in France estimated more than three million people were exposed to water quality that does not meet World Health Organisation (WHO) safety standards. In Scotland, last year 13 bathing waters were so polluted with sewage that they breached basic safety limits.

WATER WASTAGE
SOMETIMES it’s a dripping tap, or a leaking pipe. Other times it can be gushing mains or neglected waterholes. However it happens, water wastage is frustrating and potentially disastrous.

The health of millions of people in Africa has been put at risk by a failure to maintain rural water projects, according to a new report. Experts from the International Institute for Environment and Development (IIED) say up to $500 million has been wasted.

Up to 50,000 boreholes in rural areas have fallen into disrepair and deprived whole communities of water. Although governments and charities initially funded the facilities, they have ignored the need to maintain them, the report says.

Of 52 deep water borehole and supply systems built since the 1980s in Senegal’s Kaolack region, only 33 still function today. More than half the water supply points in northern Ghana needed repair, and in western Niger 13 out of 43 boreholes have been abandoned and the rest didn’t function all the time.

The IIED’S Jamie Skinner says: “Water projects needs to support long-term maintenance needs and engage local communities. Without this, it is like throwing money down the drain.”

In the Mediterranean, it is estimated 25% of water is lost in urban areas. In Scotland, more than 900 million litres a day leaked from old and decaying pipes in 2007-08.

PRIVATISATION
THE multinational water industry has been accused of running a covert campaign to privatise water in Scotland and around the world, threatening rising costs to the consumer and more pollution.

Researchers at Strathclyde University claim there has been a “concerted, clever and tacit” attempt by businesses, legislators and regulators to turn Scottish Water into a private company “in all but name”.

For many experts, trade unionists and campaigners, the encroaching influence of water corporations is the biggest problem. They fear the public will lose out to private profits.

Tommy Kane, an expert in water governance at Strathclyde University, argues that Scottish Water is being quietly prepared for privatisation.

“By changing its corporate structure, outsourcing contracts to private companies and tapping into the Private Finance Initiative, a public sector body has been almost overwhelmingly commercialised,” he says. “Evidence from here and around the world indicates commercialisation means higher costs, poorer working conditions, decreasing citizen participation and more pollution.”

Most of Scottish Water’s £2.5 billion capital investment programme is now managed and delivered by Scottish Water Solutions, a partnership involving eight major water companies. Last year, for the first time, businesses in Scotland were allowed to pay private companies to supply their water and sewerage services.

The 156-nation World Water Forum, which ends today in Istanbul in Turkey, saw delegates stress the advantages of working with the private sector. However, another Strathclyde University researcher, Kyle Mitchell, says: “It is founded and facilitated by some of the most powerful players in the water industry including transnational water corporations that have a vested interest in the promotion of privatisation.”

He is backed by the trade union Unison, which is calling for a new international forum on water.

Scottish Water points out that its ownership is a matter for the Scottish parliament. Its increasingly commercial approach was succeeding in “ensuring value for money for Scottish Water’s five million customers”, a spokesman said.

Aquafed, the International Federation of Private Water Operators, representing 300 water companies in 40 countries, defends privatisation. Creating divisions between the public and private sectors is “a waste of time and detrimental to the poor,” it contends.

Duncan McLaren of Friends of the Earth Scotland says: “It is utterly hypocritical and foolhardy to be urging privatisation and deregulation as a solution to the world’s water problems. Access to safe water must be defended as a human right, not sold off to multinational corporations.”

By Rob Edwards, Environment Editor

Author: Idrees Ahmad

I am a Lecturer in Digital Journalism at the University of Stirling and a former research fellow at the University of Denver’s Center for Middle East Studies. I am the author of The Road to Iraq: The Making of a Neoconservative War (Edinburgh University Press, 2014). I write for The Observer, The Nation, The Daily Beast, Los Angeles Review of Books, The Atlantic, The New Republic, Al Jazeera, Dissent, The National, VICE News, Huffington Post, In These Times, Le Monde Diplomatique, Die Tageszeitung (TAZ), Adbusters, Guernica, London Review of Books (Blog), The New Arab, Bella Caledonia, Asia Times, IPS News, Medium, Political Insight, The Drouth, Canadian Dimension, Tanqeed, Variant, etc. I have appeared as an on-air analyst on Al Jazeera, the BBC, TRT World, RAI TV, Radio Open Source with Christopher Lydon, Alternative Radio with David Barsamian and several Pacifica Radio channels.

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