Blue gold: the privatizing of a 'common good' resource

This Friday, "Flow: For Love of Water" will open at the Varsity Theatre. It explores what may be the most important political and environmental issue of the 21st Century: the global decline in the availability of fresh water.

Directed by Irena Salina, and made over a five-year period, the film demonstrates in the most alarming way that while water is essential to life, some 1 billion people do not have daily access to potable water. Worldwide we are depleting, polluting and diverting water at an alarming rate with demand far outpacing supply. Consider that freshwater represents less than one-half of 1 percent of the world's total water supply. And yet, our oceans and lakes and waterways are the repositories of factory run-off and unregulated dumping.

We are contaminating the wellspring of life, ignoring the reality that freshwater is finite and that waterborne illnesses kill more people yearly than do AIDS and war. Every eight seconds a child dies from contaminated water. In America we still use the pesticide Atrazine (banned in the European Union), a suspected carcinogen, now turning up in our water supply.

Embedded in Salina's film is a concept that is used more and more frequently by environmentalists and public officials: "the common good" or "the commons." The commons is that realm which is distinct from the marketplace and is held in trust for all of us. Ethicist John Rawls defines the commons as "certain general conditions that are equally to everyone's advantage." Religious tradition teaches us that the commons is a sum of all those conditions which work in a manner that benefits all people.

Freshwater is part of that global public trust and it is the fiduciary duty of governments to protect the world community's access to water in the same manner governments defend and protect the public use and enjoyment of parks, wildlife preserves, wilderness areas, libraries, monuments, museums and even the sky.

In stark contrast to the idea of water as part of a worldwide commons is the growing global movement — supported by the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund and World Trade Organizations — to privatize fresh water, turning it into a for-profit commodity, available only to those who can pay whatever the market will support.

In a recent article in The Nation, Maude Barlow and Tony Clarke pose the question: "Who Owns the Water?" They frame the question in terms of those market forces which are now being brought to bear regarding freshwater.

In today's business climate, everything is for sale — to include national water rights. Even those areas of life, write Barlow and Clarke, such as social services and natural resources that were once considered the common heritage of humanity are being privatized.

"Governments around the world are abdicating their responsibilities to protect natural resources in their territory, giving authority away to companies involved in resource exploitation."

This is one of the central points Salina makes in "Flow." Transnational corporations are taking over management of public water services in countries around the world, currently serving more than 250 million customers. Five percent of the world's water is now in private hands. The motive is profit, and billions are at stake. These companies have found the ultimate human need and are prepared to fill it — profiting from those global areas which are desperate for fresh water.

Today water reserves are vanishing in northern China, Mexico, Bolivia, the Middle East, California and two dozen countries in Africa. It is only the beginning.

Barlow and Clarke call fresh water "blue gold." Salina points out that one of the most obvious water-for-profit examples is bottled water. It is one of the fastest growing and least regulated industries in the world and is, according to Barlow and Clarke, "expanding at an annual rate of 20 percent. Some 90 billion liters of bottled water were sold around the world — most of it in nonreusable plastic containers — bringing profits of $22 billion to this highly polluting industry." Companies like Nestlé, Coca-Cola and Pepsi are in a worldwide hunt for freshwater, buying rural lands and wilderness tracts, depleting the resource and then moving on. It's not hyperbole to say that convincing people in the first world to drink bottled water instead of tap water — which is far more regulated — is one of the great marketing coups of the last 25 years. Put more unkindly, it is one of the great scams of the last 25 years.

"Corporations are now involved in the construction of massive pipelines," write Barlow and Clarke, "to carry fresh water long distances for commercial sale while others are constructing supertankers and giant sealed water bags to transport vast amounts of water across the ocean to paying customers. One way or the other, water will be moved around the world as oil is now."

Blue gold. More vital to our existence than oil and soon far more valuable. Ultimately, the world can be weaned from oil dependency. But every living organism on planet earth must have water. The question is, will fresh water be part of the global commons or will it be controlled by meta companies, as is oil, and sold to the highest bidder? What will be our answer to this inconvenient truth, and can the world community be convinced that water should be now and forever part of the common good?

If history is instructive, the odds are not in our favor.

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