Ruth Rosen: Who should own our water?





[Ruth Rosen is Professor Emerita of History, U.C. Davis.]

Is water a human right or a commodity to be marketed for profit? Should water be run by local governments or by distant corporations in order to make a profit? Why do we pay more for a six-pack of bottled water than for a gallon of gasoline?
These are some of the tough-minded questions Alan Snitow and Deborah Kaufman first asked in their provocative and memorable 2004 documentary, also titled "Thirst." In that film, they exposed how foreign corporations are privatizing water all over the world. Among the stories they recounted was the rebellion of Bolivian citizens against Bechtel, which privatized water and then raised its price. "Water for life, not for profit!" local residents chanted at demonstrations. Eventually, after riots and too many deaths, Bechtel was forced to leave.

In their new book, "Thirst: Fighting the Corporate Theft of Our Water," the authors focus on our own country and investigate how the growing "water business" is trying to privatize water systems in cities scattered across the United States.

For the past century, the quality of American water has been the envy of the world. But the infrastructure of both our sewer and water systems is crumbling and in urgent need of costly repairs. The federal government, however, has stopped providing block grants to cities and counties for such construction. As a result, local officials don't have enough funds to invest to repair this infrastructure.

Enter multinational corporations, many of which are based in Europe and extremely eager to fix the problem -- for a price. Even when local officials are not corrupt and don't take kickbacks from these corporations, these multinationals offer such huge investments because they expect a profit, money that almost always results in higher prices for water.

This is the cautionary tale the authors tell through their vivid descriptions of eight conflicts over water -- from Stockton to Atlanta, Ga. Like oil, there is a scarcity of water and the "water business" is growing rapidly. "Eager investors," write the authors, "are bidding up water industry stocks and lining up at industry-sponsored forums to get into the 'water business.' " Since local governments own most of the water services, corporations "ally with the financial industry, which also wants to open up the market." Corporations want to privatize "urban water systems, either by outright purchase or operating them under long-term contracts euphemistically called 'public-private partnerships.' The aim in both cases is to siphon profits from the flow."
If such corporations produced cleaner and better water, maybe privatization wouldn't be such a bad idea. But the authors make a convincing argument, drawn from these eight battlegrounds, that private water companies mainly seek a profit, not an improvement in service or in the quality of the water.
Water, they argue, should not be sold as a product for profit because it is necessary to survival. Why, they ask, should a corporation make a profit from what we all view as a basic necessity?

The reason is that for 25 years, we've been repeatedly told that government is the problem, not the solution. The irrational belief that markets can, and should, solve all our problems has made us forget that the profit motive does not always produce better results and that, moreover, there is still such a thing as a common good that should be protected from markets.
More often than not, local citizens don't even know their water is being sold to a distant corporation; the deal just goes through. But when people do know what's happening, as the authors show, they form powerful coalitions, fueled by indignation and outrage, and fight the local officials who are tempted to sell their water to a private company. In the process, citizens rediscover some of the basic principles of democracy, namely, that they should have a voice in their government.

Should we worry about these new water wars? Yes. Water is not only a limited resource; it is also necessary for biological survival.

"The current conflict between corporations and citizens movements to control this precious resource," they write, "will be decided in the years to come. Whether clean and safe water will remain accessible to all affordable and sustainable into the future, depends on all of us. The stakes could not be higher. The outcome of the conflict will surely be a measure of our democracy in the 21st Century."

They're right. See their film. Read this important book, which is an early warning to us all. Then decide if you agree that public control of water is essential for our health and the health of our democracy.


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