Water and sustainable development

01 July 2008

- French

I wrote this quite long paper at the request of the organisers of the vast International Exposition of Zaragoza of 2008 which took water as its theme. They assigned me the title, which is not exactly riveting but the paper takes in much more than “sustainable development” [whatever that may mean] and I hope shows why water is sure to be one of the great battlegrounds of the twenty-first century. The paper has been published in English, French and Spanish under the imprint of the “Expo” in its “Palabras de Aqua” collection, in a very beautiful edition. I’m pleased to post it here now that the Expo has closed its doors [but kept, I’m told, its pavilions, some of which were extremely imaginative].

I. Water: the perfect capitalist product(1)

We live in a capitalist society and water is the ideal product for capitalism. The word “product” is used intentionally as one of the objectives of capital is to transform everything, including nature, into a commodity that can be turned into money in the marketplace. One need not be a Marxist to see evidence of this tendency everywhere. Water—if the market could capture it completely—would be the ideal product for reasons which illustrate perfectly classical economic theory from Adam Smith onwards.

- Water is rare and scarce. Although 70 percent of the earth’s surface is covered with water, virtually all of it is saltwater. Only one percent is available fresh water; a further two percent are also fresh but locked up in the polar ice-caps or glaciers and therefore unavailable. This resource is also growing scarcer and scarcity is the condition for putting a price on anything—abundant resources are low-cost or no-cost. Price is a way of rationing scarce resources, so the scarcer the good, the higher the price—for classical theorists, this is the vital function of the market.

-Water is indispensable. Nothing alive can do without water because living things are all largely made of it. Most plants are 90 percent water and you yourself, depending on how much fat your body carries, are between 45 and 75 percent water. Women have an extra supply of subcutaneous fat, so their proportional water-weight is less than that of men. None of us, male or female, could think, see, speak, feel, and so on without water because our brains, like our skins, hearts and other vital organs are at least three-quarters water. Because their tiny bodies are 80 percent water, babies are particularly vulnerable to water loss and in poor countries, thousands still die of dehydration. Educating mothers and supplying them with oral rehydration salts packets to combat this particular risk has been one of the longest and strongest campaigns of UNICEF. Courageous politicians and activists like Gandhi may win major battles by going on hunger strike, but no one has ever attempted a thirst strike because they would be dead before they could get their political point across.

-The supply of fresh water cannot be increased. No human ingenuity can add to the supply; what we have is all we have—in fact, we are reducing our supply in various ways. We can invent evaporation techniques to capture more water from the atmosphere, but we cannot increase the total moisture content of that atmosphere nor augment the fresh-water cycle of evaporation / precipitation—indeed the spread of deserts and of mega-cities is impairing it. . The planet may have accumulated a great amount of water underground, but there, too, the supply is finite and we are constantly “mining” ground-water and aquifers, many of which will not be replenished by nature before hundreds or thousands of years, if ever. In such a context, greater demand due to irrigated agriculture, industrial development, more affluent life-styles or simply expanding populations will automatically lead to greater scarcity and therefore higher prices—not just for the water itself but for all the foodstuffs, energy supply and industrial products that depend on it.

-There are no substitutes for water. This trait alone shows how unique water is compared to other goods. Classical economic theory teaches that when the preferred product X is not available, people will fall back on product Y. This remains true for foodstuffs, energy and other vital goods but not for water. Although one can joke that the French and perhaps the Spaniards too would like to believe we can substitute wine for water, this remains only a joke—water is in a class by itself.

Let us imagine an economist trained in the classical liberal capitalistic mode and a capitalist entrepreneur who have no prior knowledge of the good or service under discussion. They would take one look at these different attributes—inbuilt rarity and scarcity, indispensability, no possible additional creation of the resource, no substitutes--and conclude that this “product”, whatever it is, is a dream come true.

As soon as they could carry out a marketing study, they would be even more enthusiastic. They would note that from the commercial point of view as well, no other product has the same characteristics:

  • The market for this good is permanent, as the indispensability argument makes clear and other arguments make clear.
  • Demand for this good will increase regularly, even exponentially, due to agricultural and industrial development, as well as population growth, no matter what the available supply.
  • Price increases will logically follow. The number of “consumers” is necessarily equal to the number of people on earth, not just for each person’s physical survival, but for all kinds of ancillary needs like personal hygiene, keeping one’s clothes wearable and one’s dwelling habitable.
  • Consumers can be charged virtually any price for the product, because life itself is at stake. In the context of necessarily increasing scarcity, consumers will be obliged to reserve a substantial part of their income to secure it.

These rules will apply so long as this product remains in private hands. The only other option for “consumers” is revolt and violent appropriation of the resource —a question we will have more to say about later.

I have consciously chosen to introduce the question of water in this perhaps unfamiliar way in order to support the argument I intend to make throughout this contribution: If humanity wants to achieve sustainable development and provide a decent and dignified life for everyone on earth, then water must be considered a universal public good under public control, understood as including not just government but also democratic, popular citizen participation.

We cannot count on the willingness of capitalist entrepreneurs not to take advantage of the incredible characteristics of water as a “product”. If they can gain control over such a resource; if they can dictate the terms, they will use their advantage to the fullest extent to secure private profit. This cannot be helped, nor should anyone expect this to change: it is “the nature of the beast”.

We cannot count on all governments either—some are not elected at all, and even elected ones can be subject to corruption, favouritism, collusion with commercial interests and the like. The European Union negotiates all its trade agreements with the interests of water companies [and other transnational corporations] in mind, with no regard for local populations. The presence of the people in matters regarding the supply and distribution of water is indispensable.

Please note immediately that the argument for water being a universal public good does not mean that water should also be free. I will argue to the contrary that it should cost something, at least above a certain basic daily supply for individual consumers, but with a price, or differentiated prices, that are determined politically, not by purely economic forces of supply and demand. I will further argue that precisely because water can be seen as the capitalist’s dream, water capture, management and distribution must be under democratic control that includes robust and enforceable price mechanisms.

A scarce, valuable, indispensable resource must be conserved and carefully managed and allocated; that is, there must be democratic mechanisms for making decisions regarding which groups should pay how much for water use. Should one private person be able to fill a swimming pool at the same rate per m3 that another domestic user pays to take a shower? Should farmers using notoriously wasteful methods of irrigation be able to pay particularly low prices no matter how much water they use ? Should water for cooling thermal power plants be factored in to the cost of energy coming from one source, for example nuclear power, with regard to another? These are the kinds of questions any democratic water system will have to become used to answering in the future. Economic incentives and prices are part of the tool kit for water management and allocation.

II. Water allocation: unequal and "unfair", whether naturally, economically or socially

-Natural or distributional inequality: Although it may seem unreasonable to speak of nature as “unfair”, the natural distribution of water really is shockingly disparate on our planet. Some countries are richly endowed, others have almost none. Nine countries possess 60% of the world’s available fresh water supply: Brazil, Russia, China, Canada, Indonesia, U.S., India, Columbia and the Democratic Republic of Congo. Contrary to the case of global warming [you contribute to it with CO2 emissions no matter where you live] you cannot alleviate water shortages in Algiers, Australia or Atlanta by turning off your taps in Madrid, Paris or Vancouver.

If you consult the official tables, produced through a joint statistical effort by several United Nations agencies and the World Bank, you will find that the cubic meters available per person per year in various countries stand in stark contrast to each other. At the extremes of the supply-per-capita continuum, every citizen of Iceland is theoretically blessed with an incredible 566,667 cubic meters of fresh water per year, but the average inhabitant of Kuwait has access to only 7m3. In other words, the theoretical Icelander has access to 81.000 times as much water as the Kuwaiti.

Those are the extremes. As with any statistical distribution, most countries are not out at the edges but lie closer together towards the middle of the continuum that stretches between them. The tables still give us a good indicator of where to look for stresses, high prices and conflicts. For example, the high-income, developed countries boast an average of 9,245 cubic meters per person per year; the low income countries average only 5,102 m3 [although this is quite enough to live on comfortably is properly distributed].

A good rule of thumb is this: Below 1700m3/person/day, a country or region will suffer occasional water “stress” while availability of less than 1000m3 /person/day can be defined as water “scarcity” with a large probable impact on human health and economic development. Several authoritative sources foresee that by 2030, two-thirds of the world’s population will live in water-stressed countries. An enduring feature of the Israel-Palestine conflict revolves around access to water. The two constantly dispute the supply because both are badly served by nature; the Israelis have access to only 240m3, whereas the Palestinians are even worse off with only 203m3 per person per year. River basins shared by many nations are frequently conflict zones. On the more positive side, Latin America is exceptionally well off in terms of water endowments: Argentina is at the low end with “only’ 20,500m3 per person, while Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Ecuador, Paraguay, Peru, Uruguay all have upwards of 40,000m3.

Most people think of regions like the Sahel and the Middle East as especially water-deprived, but this is not uniformly the case. For example, while Jordan, Libya, Qatar and the Emirates are parched, Iraq [2,489m3] has almost the same amount of water per person as Spain [2,558m3]; and Iran [1,930m3] has more water available than Germany [1,861m3]. North Africa is much worse off than the Sahelian countries of Sub-Saharan Africa. Morocco has only 894m3 and Tunisia and Algeria both less than 450m3/person/year. In the Sahel, even Niger, which recently experienced a severe famine, has 2257m3. When people lack water in Sahelian countries, it is generally not due to absolute shortage but to poorly organised, biased or corrupt distribution mechanisms. Water shortage and/or lack of access can be identified as one of many “push factors” contributing to immigration pressures on Europe coming from North or Sahelian Africa.

But even abundant water, properly managed, can be in the wrong place and droughts can still hit hard locally. They may also have immediate political consequences. Poor Australia theoretically has almost 24.000m3 of water per person, but its heavily populated East and South have undergone a decade-long drought, the worst in its history. Agricultural production has plummeted and many farmers have given up and left the land. The 2007 election sanctioned a conservative government unwilling to tackle climate change. The United States [6800m3/person, very unevenly distributed] is trying to force Canada [88.000m3] to export its pristine, underground water, using the US-Canada free trade agreement and the NAFTA [North American Free Trade Agreement] as their attack weapons. Many Canadians are resisting and this is a subject for permanent conflict over the question of resource sovereignty.

-Inequality of distribution between sectors of economic activity. However many swimming pools you may see if you fly over Southern California or the Balearic Islands, comparatively little water goes to private domestic consumption. Individual or domestic consumption varies between about 8 and 11 percent of total consumption worldwide and the trade-off between industry and agriculture is determined by wealth levels and politics. Agriculture, however, takes the lion’s share of water worldwide. The most reliable estimates for the overall world situation show 70 percent going to farming, 22 percent to industry and only 8 percent to domestic use, but these are averages. Vast differences exist, depending on the level of development and also the place given to agriculture in some highly developed countries like the US. The following chart, derived from UN studies, shows the main differences.

Water use


High income

Low/mid income













The United States is the big exception among the high income countries—it allocates fully 80 percent of all water consumption nationally to agriculture. In some Western states, more than 90 percent of the water goes to farming. Irrigated agriculture represents just 16 percent of the cultivated farmland in the US but according to the Department of Agriculture, these irrigated farms produce half of the total harvests. Plenty of US environmentalists point out that this irrigated agricultural model cannot continue indefinitely, particularly in semi-arid states like Arizona where farmers draw on shrinking aquifers, but faced with powerful farm lobbies, they have little influence.

Spain has fared better environmentally, partly because the Ecologistas en Accion [several hundred associations] carried out successful protests and mobilised huge numbers of citizens against the National Water Plan proposed by the Aznar government in 2001. This plan would have diverted substantial water from the Ebro river system to the southern and Mediterranean areas of Spain at enormous cost. Other Spaniards, particularly from Aragon, resented the draining of “our Ebro” to irrigate Mediterranean golf courses and fill swimming pools for tourists. On his first day in office in April 2004, newly-elected Prime Minister Zapatero suspended the Aznar water plan and since then the government has begun developing a national irrigation grid which 200.000 farmers had joined by the end of 2007. The government hopes to sign up half a million Spanish farmers by 2010—the vast majority of those who practice irrigated agriculture. The plan is based on much more efficient methods [drip irrigation that reduces evaporation rather than flooding or spraying], better management and efficient use of wastewater. The environment minister Cristina Narbona has said that Spain loses 60 percent of its water before it ever reaches the tap and that only 1.5 percent is recycled, so the country still has a long way to go. It also charges far too little for irrigation water which does not take future scarcity factors into account. What is certain is that Spain cannot continue to use nearly five billion cubic meters of water every year for irrigation alone.

Industry is the runner-up to agriculture in water use. Although as a whole industry demands far less than farming [22 percent versus 70 percent world-wide but a much higher percentage in most industrialised countries], some industries are especially thirsty. The cooling of electric power plants, especially nuclear plants, is a huge water user [second only to irrigation] and can cause damage to marine or fresh-water aquatic ecosystems because the water rejected after cooling operations is substantially warmer than the ambient temperature.

The microchip industry uses tons of pristine water. We used to be told that technological progress would reduce the amount of resources needed to produce goods through a process called “dematerialisation” but research done at the United Nations University shows that every tiny computer chip requires 32 kilos of water [plus 1.5 kilos of fossil fuels]. A single silicon wafer producer in the US state of Washington, where Microsoft is headquartered, uses 7.6m3 of water every minute, drawn from a pristine aquifer some 300 metres below the surface.

Some amazing instances of water-use are these: Two and a half litres of water to produce a litre of petroleum; 2700 litres for a cotton T-shirt, 4000 for a kilo of beef and 1000 for the cereals needed to produce a single litre of so called “bio-fuels” and a good argument against them. Well-off people probably “consume” indirectly about 3000 litres of water a day!

Some industries are doing their best to reduce water consumption through more efficient production technology, intelligent use of waste water and attention to the whole supply chain. The SABMiller corporation is one of the world’s leading brewers, producing 216 million hectolitres of beer a year, sold under 200 different brand names in 60 countries, as well as bottling many Coca-Cola products. Little by little they have they have reduced their water consumption and are now well below the international average of five hectolitres of water for every hectolitre of beer. We should encourage industries trying consciously to reduce their ecological, and specifically water footprints: why not develop a footprint ratings system visible on the label and buy our beer or soft drinks [plus a host of other goods] from the most conscientious suppliers?

-Social inequality of distribution. The worst inequity is, however, neither natural or activity related but, alas, the familiar and well documented disparity between rich and poor. As in every other sphere of life, the poor are far worse off in terms of water than their more affluent compatriots. United Nations figures show that over a billion people still lack access to clean drinking water and, as a result, millions die of water-borne, preventable diseases. As we have known since the nineteenth century, anywhere on earth, infant and child mortality rates only begin to fall when a community can provide people with clean water.

The situation was exactly the same in the now-wealthy countries until public health reformers were taken seriously and water and sanitation measures were put in place, drastically reducing mortality rates. Thousands of people died of cholera in England and Scotland, particularly during the major epidemic that began in 1849, until Doctor John Snow, the “father of epidemiology”, intervened. Snow was a public health pioneer; he mapped the locations of cholera victims in the poor Soho neighbourhood of London, questioned the families and found they had all had taken water from the Broad Street pump. He stopped the epidemic through the simple expedient of removing the handle of the pump. He also established that the well beneath it had been contaminated with the feces of a baby that had died of cholera. Until Snow published his findings, the predominant belief among ordinary people and the medical establishment alike was that cholera was transmitted by noxious “vapours” or “miasma”.

For more than 150 years, we have known that a safe water supply and personal hygiene are the only ways to combat cholera. In the 1980s, a cholera outbreak struck a poor suburb of Lima, Peru. The Lima area is notoriously short of water and the stricken community depended on cistern-trucks to bring in its water supply. Structural adjustment privatisation programmes enforced by the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund had raised the price of water and its transport largely beyond the reach of the poor, so they purchased as little as possible and never “wasted” it for washing their hands. Any public health worker could predict the results.

Dirty water is responsible for other ills. The campaign in favour of breast feeding and against companies like Nestle supplying powdered baby milk in poor countries has been going on for more than thirty years and it has never claimed that the milk itself was of poor quality, but that it is still dangerous because mothers mix it with polluted water. Baby milk companies continue, however, to distribute free samples in clinics and hospitals and discourage mothers from breastfeeding.

Cholera and infant death by bottle-feeding are not the only threats. The World Health Organisation lists over twenty water-related diseases, most of them completely unknown in the rich countries—with diarrhoeal diseases alone responsible for over two million deaths a year. WHO also deals with water from several other points of view. It shows, for example, how the distance a woman has to travel and the time it takes her to collect water will have a measurable impact on her family’s health. Any quantity of water lower than 20 litres per person per day constitutes “basic” or “no” access in the WHO vocabulary and will have a “very high” [negative] health impact—over a billion people remain in this category. Fifty litres/person/day are needed to insure what WHO calls “intermediate access” with a “low” impact on human health. Only half the world’s households [52 percent according to latest available figures] have a household connection to tap water, guaranteeing “optimal” access of 100 litres/person/day and thereby a “very low” health impact.

III. Human interference in water systems: new and newly recognised dangers

As an illustration of the old, only half-humorous observation that the cause of problems is solutions, WHO also points to other water-related causes of preventable disease due to the way water resources are developed and managed. “In many parts of the world the adverse health impacts of water pollution, dam construction, irrigation development and flood control cause significant preventable disease”. Most governments of poor countries still believe that pollution is unimportant so long as industry thrives; that large dams are desirable for energy and water management, that wasteful irrigation and flood control measures are all part of “development”. Pollution of Chinese rivers is a major problem [as is the exhaustion of its aquifers] and in heavily industrialised Chinese districts, rivers are used as dumps. It is not entirely a joke to say that it’s enough to throw in a lighted match to set the river on fire.... In every case, whether of pollution, misguided development schemes or problems of access, it is the poor who suffer first and most.

China presents particular problems and over the last three decades has “laid waste to her resources” as Elisabeth Economy puts it in her 2004 book, The River Runs Black. Water scarcity is a growing threat, a quarter of Chinese land is now desert, parts of river systems have dried up and massive schemes for river diversion have created millions of environmental refugees, dams have mushroomed and waste-water and sanitation systems in large cities like Shanghai are under serious stress. Although China has four times the population of the United States, its central bureaucracy is one-twentieth the size--and the United States under the Bush administration is hardly a model of environmental concern. China is making only feeble attempts to curb global warming.

The country’s water problems pose other dramatic threats as well. Deutsche Bank runs seminars for its corporate clients that are, or intend to become investors in China to alert them to the water problems they are likely to encounter. One is that Chinas uses 7 to 15 times as much water to produce one unit of GDP than developed economies and its water prices are completely unrealistic and do not reflect scarcity so they encourage further depletion. Bankers and brokers who sell a financial stake in Chinese projects should disclose whether the project has proven access to renewable water supplies or they could face litigation later on..

Scarier still, more than half the Chinese population, 700 million people, have no access to clean drinking water. Their supply is below WHO quality standards and is often contaminated by both industrial and human and animal waste. Lack of water for animals is a source of disease passing from poultry to pigs to people—that is, it could provoke the pandemic of avian flu WHO fears. These DB seminars were held in early 2005 and the pandemic hasn’t happened yet, but as WHO experts say, “The question is not If but When?”. Not a pleasant thought and a reminder that water shortage far away can have disastrous impacts elsewhere.

Instead of keeping what remains of our water safe, we are massively polluting it. “We” in this case means particularly large farms that discharge irrigation water loaded with pesticides and fertilisers into local water systems. This is true from Green Revolution India to Brittany, in France, where much of the water has become undrinkable due to farm chemicals and to waste from massive industrial pig-farms [although citizen, not government, action has alleviated the problem in Brittany to some extent]. “We” also means industry, particularly thermal plant cooling, chemicals and paper industries. Water-pollution control and waste-water recycling has suddenly become a multi-billion dollar industry, so it is no wonder that these additional reasons for water scarcity have attracted corporations as light attracts moths.

One of the major reasons humans are changing the climate for the worse and creating a cycle of man-made droughts is because they are also changing the water cycle. For the first time in human history, over half the world’s population now lives in cities, often mega-poles of ten to twenty million people which, especially in the global South, act like deserts made of cement. To encourage rainfall, we need more parks, green roofs and green belts around urban areas and much less concrete. Many cities are mining ground water so fast that one hears stories of over-pumping that has caused sink-holes to open up in parts of Florida and swallow houses, or entire streets. This phenomenon is called subsidence : it is already affecting Mexico City and Beijing because the water under the city has been pumped out. The huge US aquifer called the Ogalalla reservoir is disappearing and the Great Lakes are beginning to be drained because, every year, four times as much water is taken out of them as nature can put back in.

Not nearly enough people—not even enough scientists--see global warming as a water problem as well as a fossil fuel problem, but in fact the two are intimately linked, as Maude Barlow shows in her important book Blue Covenant. The more deserts we create [whether those deserts are made of sand or of concrete] the more heat will be reflected back from the earth’s surface. Preserving fresh water where it is, in lakes, rivers and watersheds, would be an enormous contribution to reducing global warming because it is the hydrological cycle that cools the temperature.

Furthermore, as the New Scientist reported in July 2007, “for the first time we have proof that greenhouse gas emissions have already begun to alter how much rain falls around the world, and the effect will become more extreme over the coming decades”. The unwelcome message of this research is that dry regions will become even dryer and some tropical areas –plus Canada, northern Europe and Russia--will get wetter. In places where agriculture is already marginal, it could well become impossible. As the scientists who collected the evidence of this phenomenon point out, people are more immediately and drastically affected by the absence of water than they are by temperature, and the deleterious effects of changing rainfall patterns are likely to cause major upheavals and massive migrations.

The Southeastern United States may become one of the first of those places, following Australia, where “exceptional” drought becomes the rule and too obvious for even the Bush administration to deny. There was near-panic in October 2007 as news reports announced that Atlanta, Georgia, a city of five million people, had water for only X days [estimates varied, but were all alarming]. Since some rain fell at the end of December, the people and the press seem to have gone back to their normal pursuits, but some reports suggest that the man-made Lake Lanier, Atlanta’s reservoir, is still 10 to 15 feet below safe levels. During the crisis, the Baptist governor of Georgia brought people together by the hundreds to pray to God “can and will make a difference”. He is not, however, counting on God alone, and has enlisted the Army Corps of Engineers to prevent water from “his” state going to Alabama or Florida. This is a harbinger of water-conflicts to come, whether intra- or inter-State.

Further west, Lake Mead, the huge reservoir that straddles the Arizona-Nevada border is at its lowest level in forty years and less snow is falling on the Rocky Mountains. And elsewhere in the world, according to the WWF, major river systems are threatened by over-extraction, climate change and dams; including the Danube [Europe], Rio de la Plata and Rio Grande [the Americas], Nile [Africa], Murray-Darling [Australia] and five in Asia—the Ganges, Indus, Mekong, Salween and Yangtze.

Although it does not take a genius to predict trouble on the horizon, governmental authorities do not seem to have devised any plans for what happens if the taps in, say, Atlanta [or anywhere else] actually run dry. The data is well-known and US federal officials have declared that 43 percent of the US is in a state of “moderate to extreme drought”—but they seem to have no contingency plans. What about agriculture? ranches? tourism? hospitals? What about—if it comes to that—Coca-Cola, which is the best known corporation in Atlanta and happens to be in the water business? In Georgia, even religion has been affected—not only does the governor pray in public for rain, but full immersion baptisms have been suspended—this in a state where Christian Evangelicals are the majority.

We can ask the same questions about any number of places in Europe, including Eastern Europe, Greece and parts of Spain, not to mention various other places further away from the Expo of Zaragoza like Ankara. We have already seen some of the consequences: out-of-control wildfires, soaring death rates among elderly people, crop failure, dead animals.... We can imagine others, however little we may like to: New “dust-bowls” as witnessed during the Great Depression in the United States, mass migrations, epidemics, collapse of certain economies in certain regions. What about the drastically falling water tables in India where some land is already turning to to desert? How will China continue to feed itself when the Yellow River basin, the country’s breadbasket, already unable to support any more people, is effectively exhausted? Is all this simply too horrible to contemplate, with the result that public officials refuse to do so and hope, in some sort of “magical thinking”, that the drying-up will conveniently disappear? As the French saying goes, “gouverner c’est prévoir” [to govern is to foresee] and all the signs point in the opposite direction.

IV. Water rights, water fights and the struggle for governance

Contrary to officialdom, there are some groups thinking very hard indeed about water and water-shortages: among them the corporations and the military. Because the rest of this contribution will be devoted to[1] the corporate attempt to gain control over water and [2] likely future strategic conflicts; let me repeat that, given water’s unique economic characteristics, its skewed distribution, its mistreatment by humanity and the demonstrated negligence of governments; the only way to manage it fairly is to consider it a universal public good and to promote democratic control over water supply, treatment and allocation.

Another group taking water issues seriously is the community of Non-Governmental Organisations and social-movement experts and activists. Some of them speak of water as a “human right”. I prefer “universal public good” because this concept encompasses the economic aspects whereas the word “right” tends to convey, at least to some, the notion of an unlimited free resource. I share, however, the same basic view as these colleagues: Everyone needs water for survival; therefore defending life means defending water. Although these social forces may not have the same weight as the companies and the military, the reader must not become discouraged as we proceed! We shall also be hearing some remarkably hopeful news about victorious popular struggles for control over water, of exactly the kind recommended here. The more public awareness of the problem and of these success stories, the more they are likely to spread.

Corporate mouthpieces

No one will be surprised, given what we already know about water as an ideal capitalist product, that some very influential, business-oriented bodies do not share the view that water is a human right or a universal public good. Their tactics, however, have changed over the past two decades in particular. Following major tragedies and corporate scandals like Bhopal or Enron, transnational corporations [TNCs] have learned that they cannot do “business as usual” because many civil society groups are monitoring their actions and the environment has become a major citizen concern.

The corporate reaction has been two-fold: first to use much more skilful public relations and communications to defend private enterprise in general; second to stress the notion of “Corporate Social Responsibility” or CSR and to push for “voluntary measures” and for “self-regulation” by companies. One of their goals is to defend and encourage the privatisation of previously public sector companies, particularly in the fields of public services, telecoms, transport and utilities like water. Another is to prevent meddlesome government regulators from intruding in the corporate sector and inquisitive lawmakers from inventing new regulations. Thus it is not surprising that CSR has become not only a major industry in its own right but also a concept with many interpretations and loopholes. Some companies—like the brewers mentioned above—do seem sincere and ahead of the field in improving their environmental impact.

Others, however, use the notion of CSR as a convenient fig-leaf: this is why many NGO observers were furious to see that even the United Nations has succumbed to the fashion, setting up in 2000 an in-house shelter for corporations called the Global Compact. All one needs to do to join this new UN body--largely encouraged by Nestlé and other TNCs—is sign a declaration of ten principles concerning human rights, labour and the environment. Once a member, a company can drape itself in the blue UN flag. In 2007, the Global Compact launched its “CEO Water Mandate” which has the laudable aim of helping them reduced and improve their water-use along the lines of the brewery mentioned above, whose CEO has signed on. So have the Chief Executive Officers, who must endorse the mandate, of Suez, Coca-Cola, Nestlé, Unilever and other famous TNCs.

NGOs in India have complained bitterly that Coca-Cola is a member of the GC, because several Indian communities have accused the company of draining precious water resources as well as polluting the land and water. One of Coca-Cola's largest bottling plants in India has been shut down since March 2004 as a result and it is interesting to note that Coke only joined the Global Compact in 2006 as its reputation was plummeting. The UN does not seem to have asked the company any embarrassing questions. In solidarity with Indians, an international campaign has spread and succeeded in removing Coke products from over 20 colleges and universities in the US, UK and Canada. Coca-Cola has also been dropped from the socially responsible investment fund of TIAA-CREF, the largest pension fund in the world.

The World Business Council for Sustainable Development is another private sector endeavour that specialises in pushing for PPPs, or Public-Private Partnerships. The siren-song they sing over and over to the public authorities is "Private Enterprise can provide you with better technology, better service, greater efficiency and lower costs”. The song—as in the Greek myth—actually leads to disaster: one can find stacks of evidence, starting with the dogmatic privatisations of Margaret Thatcher’s Britain, showing that privatisations have instead almost always resulted in lower quality, higher prices and little or no service to neighbourhoods inhabited by people unable to pay the new, inflated rates. The neo-liberal privatisation mania has been with us for some three decades now and we know what the consequences are. Privatisation means nothing more than handing over the results of the work of thousands of people over decades with virtually no guarantees. The word is itself a lie and the phenomenon should be called, rather, “alienation” or simply a sell-out” or a “give-away”.

The World Water Council (WWC) is an international public-private think- tank and event organiser founded in 1996, with headquarters in Marseille. It claims to be "dedicated to strengthening the world water movement for an improved management of the world's water resources." It is, however, well on its way to being a quasi-official international organisation although it has no mandate from the UN, is clearly biased towards industry which provides a good part of its funding and is a strong advocate of PPPs. Since 1997, it has organised the World Water Forum every three years, with both government and corporate presence. The Hague Forum attracted 5700 participants, but both Kyoto [2003] and Mexico City [2006] boasted more than 20,000. The Ministerial Declarations that emerge from these Forums have become almost the official international agenda for water and in between Forums the WWC is busy promoting neo-liberal “solutions” to the crisis.

The World Economic Forum better known by the name of the Swiss Alpine village where it meets, Davos, Switzerland, came out with another please for PPPs in its 2008 meeting, co-signed by its founder and chairman, Klaus Schwab and the President of Nestlé, Peter Brabeck. They call for “new forms of cooperation between governments and corporations” in order to respond to the coming crisis and to “improve the political and economic image of water”. One was not aware that this “image” was in need of improvement.... In any case, the Davos objective for 2008 is to set up an “unprecedented and powerful public-private coalition which will help to find solutions so that we can together managed future water needs....”.

However one looks at it, water is big business, beyond supplying it or treating it. Crisis, as the Chinese saying goes, offers both danger and opportunity and the opportunities for some will be enormous. Financial analysts are quick to point out that some thirteen Arab countries, many of them rich oil producers, are officially “water-stressed”. A conference held in November 2007 by the Saudi Water and Power Forum brought together energy and water specialists from all over the world to whom the Saudi government announced its intention to spend 100 billion dollars over the next twenty years on desalinisation plants and water treatment facilities—all this for a country which will still have a population of less than 40 million in 2020. Drought or desert, plus mountains of cash, seems to many industrialists a marriage made in heaven.

Public institutional support for corporations

These various public-private international bodies have been set up in order to create an intellectual and media climate favourable to private enterprise in general and to public-private, or simply private water management in particular. They would not be so successful, however, were it not for the ideological and financial support of major international, inter-governmental, entirely public institutions that continually push the neo-liberal line on water, with all the considerable power and prestige at their disposal.

The World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, often referred to by social activists as the Terrible Twins, have made privatisation a condition for their loans to indebted countries and have applied their Structural Adjustment programmes in over a hundred of them. Every year for decades anyone curious enough to read the Bank’s Annual Report has come across the densely printed pages listing, in microscopic type, the privatisations accomplished for that year. A couple of times I counted 1300 to 1400. The beneficiaries are both local elites and transnational corporations. All public services have been fair game, so that now, private ownership of previously public services has flourished.

The European Union has proven particularly corporate-friendly, going out of its way to place the interests of European transnationals above the public good under all circumstances. The Trade Directorate is the most flagrant example and the position of successive Trade Commissioners [Leon Brittain, Pascal Lamy, Peter Mandelson] in the negotiations concerning the General Agreement on Trade in Services [GATS] provides a vivid illustration. The GATS is one of many agreements under the auspices of the World Trade Organisation, and since services now make up about 80 percent of European Union’s GNP, they are an important vehicle through which the Commission tries to force all countries, but particularly the poorer ones, to open their service sectors, including water, to the investments and penetration of EU companies. The Commission negotiates for all the member States and does so on behalf of corporations like Veolia, Suez, Générale des Eaux, Thames Water and Aquamundo.

The European NGO Corporate Europe Observatory obtained correspondence sent by the Commission to these European water TNCs in which the former asked the latter to provide detailed requests for the GATS negotiations: What countries do you want opened up as a priority? For what aspects of the water business? Treatment? Distribution? Bottling? [We did not have access to the replies of the companies]. As a result, the EU placed on the table requests to more than 70 countries, including some very poor ones, to open the sectors most important to the TNCs.

The “Doha Round” of WTO negotiations has been at a standstill for more than two years, largely because of agriculture, not services and the Commission is now putting great efforts into bilateral and pluri-lateral free trade agreements destined to obtain the same or superior results by other means. These deals are called Economic Partnership Agreements. The Commission’s demands go further than they can under the rules of the WTO/GATS; they concentrate in particular on what Commissioner Peter Mandelson calls “behind borders barriers”. These “barriers” are defined as any measures a government might take to regulate foreign direct investment, protect its own industries or insist on safeguards for consumers and the environment. [It is worth noting that all the now-advanced countries in North America, Europe or Asia protected their industries for decades before lowering tariff and non-tariff barriers but these methods are now denied to developing countries].

The EU is negotiating in particular with the 78 African-Caribbean-Pacific [ACP] countries; some of them among the poorest in the world, which it has divided into six groups. West Africa, particularly Senegal, is holding out, but some of these groups [Eastern and Southern Africa for instance] have already accepted EU terms. As these EPAs move to completion, they will rob ACP countries of sovereignty and the capacity to raise revenues through tariffs. The question immediately arises “If EPAs are so potentially harmful, why do ACP countries sign?” The answer is that the Commission threatened them with greatly reduced purchases of their goods and at least a billion euros less in foreign aid if they refused to sign—or so our NGO informants in the concerned countries tell us. Since the texts of these arrangements are secret, we do not know in detail what they specify for water or other sectors but given the Commission’s past performance, there is reason to fear the worst.

Why does the privatisation of utilities like water nearly always have negative outcomes? Classical economics explains clearly why these poor results are to be expected, especially when the private service provider enjoys a monopoly, as is almost always the case with water. If, until recently, water has generally been a public monopoly in capitalist, free-market countries, it is for good reasons. Water treatment and distribution do not benefit from competition as ordinary manufacturing or service businesses would, and therefore they do not fit the capitalist truth that competition is healthy because it generates innovation, greater efficiency and lower prices. In the case of water, it is logical to have a single authority overseeing the whole of the network and in command of its various components, because in cases that economists call "natural monopolies", a single authority is the best way to arrive at the greatest efficiency, best quality of service, optimum fairness in price and so on.

A “natural monopoly” means that one firm can produce the given, desired output at a lower cost than two or more firms could do, because a single firm can create more “economies of scale”. This is why most market economies have opted for water networks managed by public authorities—at least this was the case until neo-liberalism became the economic religion. The choice had nothing to do with “socialism” or with a bias towards public over private. It merely showed concern with efficiency and maximum cost-benefit advantages.

However, when a private, profit-oriented corporation gets its hands on a "natural monopoly", it behaves exactly as one would expect. It goes after profit, the higher the better, and it cuts costs, often by massive lay-offs of personnel but also by often neglecting maintenance and infrastructure. Poorer neighbourhoods get worse service or none at all. More money goes into paying high salaries for the managers, often foreigners in the case of TNC management. Water is never subsidised or free, as for example in the case of Hong Kong, where the government provides the first 12m3 free to households every four months. If a public entity truly needs help in improving its water distribution and treatment, instead of looking to the private sector, it should seek out a public-public partnership as has been done, for instance, in South Africa and Malaysia.

None of this is to say that public water provision is perfect and has never encountered any problems anywhere. Of course it isn’t; of course it has. Sometimes public administrations are inefficient, unaccountable and corrupt. Sometimes the infrastructure is not maintained. But when that is the case, popular struggles should be directed at fixing the problem, not at destroying a public service in favour of privatisation. As one of the officials of the Public Services International [the Union of public service trade unions worldwide], Mike Waghorne, is fond of saying, if your sink leaks or your paint is peeling, you don't burn down or sell the house-- you fix the sink and repaint.

Popular participation, meaning local involvement is the key, and here Spain can teach the world a great deal about water justice. Although many visitors to Valencia may have looked at the Tribunal de las Aguas as a mere tourist attraction, this Tribunal is a serious model which could be reproduced in any number of countries and circumstances, even though it is literally a thousand years old. Dating from the Moorish jurisdiction over Spain, it still sits every Thursday at noon.

Until the recent government decisions and initiatives, Spanish irrigation systems remained based on traditional Moorish methods and consisted in flooding land with water from a complex system of canals. The judges of the Tribunal de las Aguas are all farmers themselves, they hear both sides of a dispute and their judgment is final. The main threat to the Tribunal is that it could become irrelevant. New government regulations will quite sensibly favour drip irrigations methods which are far less wasteful than flooding which squanders precious water. With government help, about 200.000 Spanish farmers have already joined the new national grid irrigation systems; the government hopes for half a million by 2010. This is no reason the model of the Tribunal itself could not be usefully reproduced and used in Spain and elsewhere.

The best contemporary collection of hopeful stories about water is to be found in Reclaiming Public Water: Achievements, Struggles and Visions from Around the World published by the Transnational Institute and the Corporate Europe Observatory in 2005.(2) In this book one can find over twenty cases of popular struggles over water—they come from developed and less developed countries on every continent, from large cities and small villages and they supply valuable documentation showing how privatisation schemes can be defeated and public control over water re-established.

The World Bank, which is full of economists, was apparently not aware of, or not interested in, the basic, first-year-student facts about natural monopolies as briefly explained above. It forced dozens of indebted countries to become more “market oriented” and it interfered with water management from Eastern Europe to Argentina, Manila to Jakarta, Buenos Aires to Cochabamba, trumpeting everywhere that “there is no alternative”. The “Public-Private Partnerships” it insisted on were inevitably controlled by the private partner, because room had to be provided for that partner to make a profit and the public “regulators” lost control over corporate behaviour. But even so, the companies did not find the financial returns up to their expectations and since 2003, some of the largest including Veolia, Suez and Thames Water have withdrawn from major contracts—but not without making legal claims demanding tens of millions of dollars in “anticipated profits”.

Let us put water privatisation and corporate control in perspective. Despite all the pressures, in many places, public systems are still the norm, although not in France, Britain and parts of Spain, which is why these countries are home to the major TNC water corporations. Privatisation did not become a global threat until the 1980s and 1990s, along with the rise of the neo-liberal religion. Companies see water as a kind of final frontier, and one executive was heard to say “We’re going to do for water in this decade what we did for telecoms in the 1990s—get complete deregulation”. So we know where the adversary is and what he wants. This also means that the targets of social movements must include the improvement of public regimes to make them more responsible and more responsive to public needs so that people will defend them.

There are many ways to keep water under public control. The “participatory budget” of Porto Alegre, Brazil, well known as a pioneering exercise in popular control over municpal money, also applies to the publicly owned municipal water company. The health results have been outstanding [zero cases of cholera when the rest of Brazil was undergoing an epidemic] and the pricing system escalates exponentially so that rich people filling their swimming pools effectively subsidise the basic consumption of the poor.

In the state of Penang, Malaysia, the Penang Water Authority adopted a “commercial outlook with a social obligations strategy” which has resulted in universal access, but also high efficiency and profitability which covers investments and also allows the company to make interest free loans to poor communities for improved connections. It offers the lowest water prices in the country and its employees are imbued with the ethos of public service. One would like to recount the success stories of many other communities: the main thing to remember is that PPPs mean “profits for the companies, risks for the public sector and costs for the people”. That is what they say in Grenoble, France, which has re-municipalised its water regime, improved maintenance and supplies water that is pure without treatment at the lowest cost of all French cities with a population greater than 100.000.

People willingly come together in broad coalitions to protect water. In example after example, broad fronts of interest groups that have never worked together on any other issue can be found fighting water battles, including environmentalists, trade unions, political parties, women, indigenous communities, human rights advocates, and so on. Sometimes consumers can become members of the water authority body with voting rights. Sometimes the citizens control the budget [Brazil is champion in this league]. In some poor communities in Ghana or India, local people participate in construction and maintenance, reducing costs and providing employment and income within the community. In Argentina and parts of Dhaka, Bangladesh, the water workers and their union manage the company as well.

The World Bank and the World Water Council, in a good example of the homage vice pays to virtue, now talk all the time about “public participation”, usually as a way to smooth the road towards privatisation: their version has nothing to do with democratic accountability and genuine citizen control. It is generally preferable that popular coalitions not get involved in party politics but it obviously helps if the local, regional or national government is ideologically on their side, as in Venezuela, where the Caracas water system has been overhauled under the Chavez government. At the very top of the victory tree is the passage of a constitutional amendment—in Uruguay—making water privatisation unconstitutional.

Water struggles often succeed because water is a local issue and coalitions are also local. People understand instinctively what clean water means for their health. At the international level, problems are more difficult to solve because of the total lack of democracy, but even on the international scale, water activists can make their points. They should try to focus on taking water off the WTO/GATS lists. In France, our Attac campaign for “GATS-Free Zones” resulted in more than 800 municipal, departmental and regional governments declaring themselves symbolically GATS-Free, and they were often convinced by arguments about water, since the GATS, once accepted, becomes law for every level of government. Activists should also concentrate on the European Commission to make it stop serving the interests of EU transnational corporations above the needs of poor populations in poor countries. Nor should we forget that the World Bank and the IMF still make privatisation, including water privatisation a condition for their loans. These are all long-term goals.

Water wars

Beyond the public-private fights in local setting lie the strategic battles over water that generate mayhem and death in civil or inter-state water conflicts. The enterprising scholar Dr Peter Gleick of the Pacific Institute for Studies in Development, Environment and Security has established a long and detailed chronology of water conflicts beginning with the Biblical Flood—a conflict between God and man--and the border dispute between Lagash and Umma in 2500 BC in which the King of Lagash diverts water from the canals to deprive Umma of its water supply. His chronology ends in 2006 when Hezbollah rockets damage a wastewater treatment plant in Israel and Israel retaliates, attacking water systems throughout southern Lebanon “including tanks, pipes, pumping stations and facilities along the Litani river.” There is even one incident in this chronology that pits apes against humans. In the year 2000 in rural Kenya, tankers deliver water to a drought-stricken area and thirst-crazed apes attack the villagers to get their share. Score: eight dead apes, ten wounded villagers.

Gleick takes into account many conflict-influencing factors and ways of using or targeting water; including the ambition to gain control over supply, using water as a weapon or a political tool [flooding, diverting, poisoning, threatening to do all these]. Water supplies and waterways are frequent military targets and water terrorism means using water as a tool or target of violence by non-state actors. There are any number of ways water and conflict can be linked and the phenomenon is both ancient and modern. Sometimes the conflict can be solved without violence through the rule of law, as in the United States where Kansas is threatening to take Nebraska to court for using more than its allotted share of water from the Republican River [yes, that is its name] and is asking for tens of millions of dollars in compensation. Or it can erupt into armed struggle: many fear such violence will become more frequent and more severe as both scarcity and populations increase.

In 1991, the then Secretary General of the United Nations, Boutros Boutros Ghali, warned that the next wars would be over water. In 2008, the present SG, Ban Ki-moon, told both the people in Davos and the UN General Assembly that water wars already exist, laying particular stress on the crises in Kenya, Chad and especially Darfur, which some have begun to call the “first climate change war”. The Nobel Peace Prize Committee took a quantum leap in recognising environmental warfare by giving the 2007 prize to Al Gore and the Inter-Governmental Panel on Climate Change. So the environment/conflict link is now boldly, almost routinely asserted. But how solid is the evidence?

One scholar who is making the case scientifically to demonstrate the water/conflict link is Marc Levy of the Center for International Earth Science Information Network—CIESIN—at Columbia University. In his work with the International Crisis Group, he is combining databases on civil wars and water availability, to show that “when rainfall is significantly below normal, the risk of a low-level conflict escalating to a full-scale civil war approximately doubles the following year”. Among other cases, he cites the areas of Nepal where there was heavy fighting during the Maoist insurgency of 2002 after severe droughts; whereas there was no fighting in other parts of Nepal that had not suffered drought. Levy’s case studies suggest that that drought causes food shortages and promotes anger against the government. Sometimes “semi-retired” armed groups start fighting again in these cases.

The International Crisis Group has 70 locations on its “watch list” and Levy is in process of compiling rainfall data for all of them to see if this evidence can help predict increased conflict. His approach is likely, Levy believes, to flag the Ivory Coast as a renewed conflict hotspot. Later on, it may be possible to add other water data to the conflict prediction data-base, on flooding and storms, for example. For the moment, Levy says that the data supports the finding that for internal conflict [that is, not between States] “Severe, prolonged droughts are the strongest indicator of high-intensity conflict”, defined as conflict involving more than 1000 battle deaths. “I was surprised”, he adds, “at how strong the correlation is”.

Military strategists are acutely interested in the probability of water conflicts. Already in 1997, the Professor of Political Military Strategy at the US Army War College, Kent Hughes Butts published a long article in the Army’s scholarly quarterly journal Parameters entitled “The Strategic Importance of Water”. Outside of the large, democratic countries, the world offers precious little water law. Where rivers are concerned, de facto usage favours the upstream country. Obviously, many downstream countries are less than happy with this situation. However, since there is no enforcement mechanism, arbitrator or competent international jurisdiction, conflicts that arise are likely to continue. Now consider that 20 percent of the world’s population is supported by the world’s 200 largest river systems; that 150 of these systems are shared between two nations and the remaining 50 are shared by three to ten nations. Further note that among these last, particularly important river systems have a great many nations with an interest: the Nile [9]; Congo [9]; Tigris-Euprates [3] Mekong [6]; Amazon [7]; Zambese [8].

The Middle East is especially fragile because of climate and rapid population growth and the longstanding water conflicts in the region are unresolved. The basic strategic water facts are its dependence on four water sources—three rivers, the Nile, the Tigris-Euphrates and the Jordan; plus the West Bank ground water aquifer. So in the Tigris-Euphrates river system, for example, Turkey—which controls less than 20 percent of the river basin’s landmass--claims that it has “absolute state sovereignty over the river waters because it is the upstream state”. Iraq and Syria, which together control two-thirds of the landmass, demand a equitable apportionment of the waters. Turkey continues to build dams and to take the headwaters for irrigation and downstream they are worried about run-off of agricultural chemicals. The former president of Turkey said “We do not ask them to share their oil. Why should they ask us to share our water? We can do anything we like”. And what Turkey likes is to finish its development plant involving the construction of 22 dams and 19 major irrigations works to turn Anatolia into a breadbasket. This conflict will doubtless not be solved without outside mediation and it is not clear what impact the America occupation of Iraq will have on the situation.

The Jordan is central to the Israel-Jordan-Syria-Lebanon-Palestine dilemma. Because of territory captured in the 1967 war, Israel is the de facto upstream state for most of the river basin and in control of the water. Since 1967 and its occupation of the West Bank, Israel has “heavily exploited the water from the [Mountain Yarquon-Taninim] aquifer”, counts on it for a substantial part of its water supply and restricts Palestinian access. One need not point out the importance of control over this aquifer to any future peace agreement and indeed as one observer stated, “Israeli strategists always name control over water sources as one critical factor making necessary, in their view, retention of at least a part of the occupied Arab territories.” As for Egypt, it is the last downstream nation of the Nile and has made quite clear that it is willing to go to war against any of the eight upstream states to preserve its access to the waters, on which it depends for 97 percent of its water.

In Asia, the Indus river is an element of India-Pakistan conflict and the Ganges plays the same role in India-Bangladesh relations. The combination of water scarcity and nuclear weapons does nothing to ease the minds of military strategists in the region or elsewhere. Thailand and Vietnam are increasingly displeased with China’s unilateralist moves at damming the Mekong River.

Even if we recognise, as we should do, that complex events like conflicts can never be ascribed to a single cause, there is no doubt that water is and will be an exacerbating factor. Not only is it indispensable and scarce, it is also territorial in the sense that competitors for it need to control the ground on which or under which it flows. It is intimately connected to other vital national needs, like food, and in 2007-2008, grain prices have escalated dangerously, leaving poor countries open to shortages. The law concerning water is fragile at best because it is generally dealt with in a fragmented way, with no single central authority in charge. International law on fresh water is either absent or ineffectual. Conflicts can be expected to escalate as scarcity and population pressures grow.

Having said all this, water scarcity should never be allowed to become a convenient excuse for despotic governments like that of Sudan, for example. As a New Scientist journalist pointed out last year, “President Bashir’s administration, with its huge oil wealth, had the responsibility and the means to offset drought [in Darfur] through serious investment in hydrology, climate forecasting, irrigation, drought-resistant crops....It was politics that caused the rift between the ‘Arab’ and the ‘African’ communities in Darfur, not climate change”. It is also quite legitimate to point out that Kansas has not considered going to war against Nebraska or that the Rhine Commission established in Europe is quite adequate to settling water disputes in Europe. There is a difference between rivers flowing through democratic, stable countries and those that flow through poor nations or those riven with ethnic tensions. Better distribution of wealth is also a factor in allowing the world to reduce the number of its water conflicts.

Thus dealing with water conservation and its intelligent, negotiated use, as well as eliminating man-made global warming factors in the rich countries particularly, goes hand in hand with promoting world peace and internal security. We need no further proof that water scarcity and poor water quality threaten both economic and social stability. The only way forward is through cooperation.

Whether one is a religious believer or not, water should be seen not merely as a strategic resource but as sacred because it is the source of all life. It is not by chance that all religions include rituals founded on the physical presence and the symbolism of water. Baptism is a rite of initiation and of inclusion in the community of the faithful. The ritual ablutions of Moslems before participating in worship signify respect and the desire for purity before God. Water can be a symbol of love and service, as when Christ washed the feet of his disciples. Bathing in the Ganges links the Hindu to “Mother India” and to the whole of creation. We need to recover our sense of awe and wonder in the presence of the clear, fresh, life-giving miracle of water and refuse to allow it to be degraded, polluted and reduced to the vulgar level of the marketplace.


(1) For reasons of space, this paper will deal only with fresh water, although some of the problems for ocean ecosystems [pollution, overfishing and so on] have obvious similarities with those of fresh water systems.

(2) Here, even in a contribution which is not supposed to be footnoted, I really must declare an interest! I am the Chairperson of the Board of the Transnational Institute and I’m very proud of the TNI team that produced this remarkable publication, which now exists in over a dozen languages [ have written prefaces for the Japanese and Chinese editions]. In Spanish it is called Por un modelo public de Agua: Triunfos, Luchas y Suenos, El Viejo Topo, 2007

Susan George is Chair of the Board of the Transnational Institute. Her latest books are Hijacking America: How the religious and secular right changed what Americans think , and We the peoples of Europe.