Monday, March 12, 2012

An immoral obsession with privatising water

Water is not chocolate. Provided you have access to other types of food, giving up chocolate will not kill you. The same cannot be said for water.

Needless to say, these truths are evident to anyone who has not yet taken leave of his or her senses.  The reason why I feel it necessary to spell them out is that they jar with the extremist ideology prevailing in the European Union.

As water is essential to life, it follows automatically that access to clean water should be regarded as a fundamental human right. And yet when the United Nations’ general assembly voted to recognise it as such two years ago, 41 countries could not bring themselves to support the motion. Eighteen of these abstainers were EU governments, including Britain, Poland, Sweden, Denmark, the Netherlands and Ireland.

The big political event over the coming week will be the World Water Forum in Marseille (12-17 March). Don’t be duped by the neutral-sounding name of this “forum”; its agenda has been set by corporations who regard water as a commodity that should be treated as no different to Easter eggs. Indeed, it is no accident that some of its participants – such as NestlĂ© – are making profits from both bottled water and confectionery. (Adding to the deception, NestlĂ© is supporting a front group called Project WET, which masquerades as a “water education” charity).

Pragmatic approach?

The orientation of the forum was summed up in a report published by its sister organisation, the World Water Council, in 2003. That document was the work of a panel chaired by one-time International Monetary Fund chief Michel Camdessus and featuring  representatives of private firms like Thames Water and Suez, a few investment  banks and a token anti-poverty campaigner. After observing that “the ownership of the water industry generates passionate debate,” the report advocated a “pragmatic” approach. While it acknowledged that some difficulties had been encountered, the report claimed that “most private operations had achieved real progress in efficiency”.

For a less upbeat assessment – one far less influenced by corporate spin – I’d recommend that you read a 2011 report on the French utilities giant Veolia, by the watchdog Food and Water Europe. It contains a litany of examples of where water privatisation has proven disastrous in this continent and beyond.

In both Bulgaria and Romania, Veolia’s subsidiaries have dramatically increased water bills paid by households and either turned off the taps for those unable to pay or threatened to do so. In Australia, the Veolia-owned firm United Water lost a contract for supplying the city of Adelaide that it had originally won in 1995; the company had to pay back $14 million to overbilled customers between 2001 and 2006. Another firm in the Veolia empire has left whole districts in Libreville, Gabon’s capital city, without water. And Veolia has been forced out of deals in Argentina and Brazil because of dissatisfaction with the quality of its services.

The European Commission announced in January that it has begun proceedings over alleged price-fixing by Veolia and Suez in France. The action won’t stop EU officials from availing of their hospitality. No fewer than four EU commissioners are scheduled to attend the World Water Forum, which is generously sponsored by both of the firms under investigation.

Drumming up business

Andris Piebalgs, the development aid chief, will be among the Commission’s quartet. In 2010, he appeared to recognise that water is not chocolate when he unveiled plans for a 40 million euro “water facility” for countries in Africa, the Caribbean and the Pacific. It explicitly reserved assistance for supporting partnerships between public water providers and other public authorities on a not-for-profit basis.

More recently, Piebalgs has reverted to promoting private-public partnerships, where firms motivated purely by greed are put in charge of providing essential services. Piebalgs praised this model – embraced with gusto by Britain’s Conservative government in the 1990s – during trips to Lesotho and Somaliland last year.

Piebalgs will be throwing something of a birthday party in Marseille for the earlier EU Water Initiative, which was set up ten years ago. One of its core objectives was to help find new opportunities for Europe’s big utilities firms. That was in keeping with the thrust of efforts made by EU trade officials to pressurise more than 70 countries worldwide to open up their markets to major water corporations. It was only when details of these efforts (made via the World Trade Organisation) became public in 2003 that the Union stated its intention to exclude drinking water from its demands.

Despite the abundant evidence that water privatisation is immoral and impractical, the EU’s power brokers remain committed to it. Before Italy was taken over by an unelected prime minister last year, it was told by the similarly anti-democratic European Central Bank to undertake “large-scale privatisations” to local services. As part of the counterproductive shock therapy being introduced in Greece, the water provider in Thessaloniki, EYATH, has been targeted for sale by this coming September.

We should not be under any illusions about the effects of these measures. Some services are too important to be run by fickle entrepreneurs; that is why they must be kept in public hands, even though they are expensive to run. When put at the whim of market forces, the quality of those services inevitably declines, prices go up and human rights are denied. Why should corporations control every aspect of our lives?

●First published by New Europe, 11-17 March 2012.

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