Eduardo Galeano, Uruguayan writer and journalist, is author of The Open Veins of Latin America and Memories of Fire
Mail and Guardian, 02 October 2005 11:59
Wars give noble reasons for why they occur: international security, national dignity, democracy, freedom, order, the mandate of Civilisation, or the will of God. Not one has the honesty to confess: I kill to steal.

No fewer than three million civilians died in the Congo during the four-year war that has been on hold since the end of 2002. They died for coltan, though they didn't know it, a rare mineral that is, like its odd name, a combination of colombo and tantalite, two rare minerals. Coltan was virtually worthless until the discovery that it was indispensable in the manufacture of cellphones, spaceships, computers and missiles. Since then, it has been worth more than gold.

Almost all of the known reserves of coltan are in the sands of the Congo. More than 40 years ago, Patrice Lumumba was sacrificed on the altar of gold and diamonds. His country continues to kill him each day. The Congo, an extremely poor country, is rich in minerals, and this gift of nature keeps on turning into an historic curse.

Africans call oil the shit of the devil. In 1978 oil was discovered in southern Sudan. Seven years later, it was learned that the deposits were more than double what had been thought, and that the largest quantities were located in the west of the country, in the region of Darfur. It was here another slaughter recently occurred, and continues. Huge numbers of black peasant farmers -- two million, according to some estimates -- have fled or succumbed by bullet, knife or hunger, to the advance of the Arab militias that the government has supported with tanks and helicopters.

This war has been disguised as an ethnic and religious conflict between the Arab Islamic herdsmen and the black, Christian, animist farmers. But it just so happens that the towns that have been burned to the ground and the crops that have been razed stood where oil wells now stand.

The denial of the evidence, a practice unjustly attributed to drunks, is in fact the most notorious characteristic of the president of the planet, who thank God doesn't drink a drop. He continues to maintain, day after day, that the war in Iraq has nothing to do with oil.

A certain Lawrence of Arabia wrote from Iraq in 1920: "The people of England have been led to Mesopotamia into a trap from which it will be difficult to escape with dignity and honour. They have been tricked into it by a steady withholding of information.''

I know that history never repeats itself, but sometimes I wonder.

And the obsession with Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez? Does oil have nothing to do with this frenetic campaign to kill in the name of democracy the dictator who won nine clean elections? And the continuous alarms raised about the nuclear threat from Iran, are they unrelated to the fact that the country has among the largest natural gas reserves in the world? And, if not, how can this fixation on this nuclear threat be explained? Was it Iran that dropped atomic bombs on Nagasaki and Hiroshima?

The Bechtel company, based in California, was granted a 40-year concession for the water of Cochabamba. No sooner did it take charge than water prices tripled. The people exploded and the company had to pull out of Bolivia. George W Bush took pity on the poor firm and, to console it, granted it the water of Iraq. Such generosity on his part.

Iraq deserves annihilation not only because of its fabulous oil wealth but also because, irrigated by the Tigris and Euphrates, it is the richest source of fresh water in the Middle East.

The world is thirsty. Chemicals poison the rivers and droughts exterminate them, consumer society uses more and more water, as water grows less drinkable and less abundant. Everyone is saying it, and everyone knows it: wars are fought over oil today, and water tomorrow.

In reality the water wars are already being waged. They are wars of conquest but the invaders don't drop bombs or disembark troops. They are waged by international technocrats in civilian clothes who impose a state of seige on poor countries and demand privatisation or death. Their weapons -- extortion and punishment -- make no noise and take up little room.

In recent years, the World Bank and International Monetary Fund, two nails of the same claw, imposed water privatisation in 16 poor countries, including Benin, Niger, Mozambique, Rwanda, Yemen, Tanzania, Came-roon, Honduras and Nicaragua. The logic was crystal clear: either hand over your water or receive no debt forgiveness or new loans.

The experts had the patience to explain that they weren't doing this to dismantle their sovereignty but to help modernise countries that had fallen behind because of the inefficiency of their governments. And if the majority of the population couldn't pay the new water bills, so much the better: this would awaken their dormant capacity for work and personal advancement.

Who is in charge in a democracy? The international functionaries of high finance who no one voted for? At the end of October last year, a plebiscite decided the fate of water in Uruguay. The vast majority of the population voted overwhelmingly that water is a public service and a right of all.

It was a victory for democracy over the tradition of impotence, which teaches us that we are incapable of managing water or anything else, and over the defamation of public property, disparaged by politicians who used and misused it as if that which belongs to everyone was nobody's.

The plebiscite made no waves in the international scene. The major media did not cover this battle in the war of water, lost by those who always win; and Uruguay's example did not spread to any other country. It was the first plebiscite on water and, who knows, may prove to be the last. -- IPS