Mohammed Mesbahi, Chair and Founder, STWR, P.O. Box 34275
London NW5 1XT, Website : www.stwr.net
E-mail : firstname.lastname@example.org / Mesbahi@slsuk.com
Every living thing, every plant, every animal and every human being
needs water to stay alive. For centuries, possibly millennia, all
over the world, water was shared, for everyone's right to this
essential resource was recognised. For thousands of years legal
systems have accepted that running water cannot be owned. Even in the
industrialised west, up until recently, water was a shared resource.
Public utilities were set up in the industrialised world to install
complex water delivery and sewage treatment systems. People in the
first world were expected to pay for the delivery of their water, the
upkeep of the system, the building of reservoirs and other water
storage systems but the water remained a shared resource.
However, over the past half century, as the world population has
increased and water has become increasingly scarce, it has become
less and less a shared resource. By the 1970s international
organisations such as the United Nations, UNICEF, World Health
Organisation and the UN Development Plan began to highlight the
plight of the poor in the third world. By 2003 more than a billion
people, a quarter of the world's population, had no access to safe
drinking water. Every year more than five million people (mostly
children) die from water-born diseases, such as dysentery and
diarrhoea. Global water consumption is now doubling every twenty
years, more than twice the rate of population growth. The UN is now
predicting that water will become more and more scarce, and global
per capita water availability could decline by a third during the
next twenty years. The poor in the third world, who are already
suffering from lack of water, will be the worst affected.
In 1989 Margaret Thatcher carried out a huge water privatisation
scheme for the whole of England and Wales. Suddenly a precious
natural shared resource was taken from the British people, sold off
and privatised. The British people now had to pay the water
companies, not just to provide water, but to make a profit for their
shareholders and to pay huge management salaries. Water bills doubled
in less than a decade, causing hardship in many parts of the UK.
There were 50,000 disconnections during this period and water quality
By 1990 international water companies operated in 12 countries.
Between 1994 and 1998 there were 139 water-related deals. However, in
most parts of the first world, governments continued to safeguard
their water resources and to provide a public service for their
people. This got in the way of the global water companies, who wanted
to buy up these public utilities. So they began to form partnerships
with international financial institutions so that they could reduce
the role that traditional governments played in water provision.
The first two of these partnerships, the Global Water Partnership
(GWP) and the World Water Council (WWC) were formed in 1996 with
Ismail Serageldin, the World Bank Vice-President, in the chair of the
WWC. Once these partnerships had been formed water companies could
now negotiate and collaborate with multilateral banks and the United
The World Water Council held its first meeting, the World Water
Forum, in Marrakesh in 1997.
In 1998 the World Water Council created the World Water Commission,
which included all the major water corporations and the CEO of the
World Bank/UN Global Environment Facility, Mohamed T. El-Ashry. The
commission called for full deregulation of the water sector and
recommended that trans-national corporations should take over the
provision of water worldwide.
By the year 2000 private water corporations operated in 100 countries
and 10% of the world's water was privatised. In 2000 the World Bank,
the UN and some of the largest water corporations met at the second
World Water Forum, in Den Haag, Netherlands. They decided to
accelerate global water privatisation.
In May 2000 Fortune Magazine predicted that water would become "one
of the world's biggest business opportunities".
Ever since they began to collaborate with the World Bank,
trans-national water corporations have been trying to have more
influence over individual countries. A series of trade agreements
have all increased the power of the trans-national water companies.
The North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), the Free Trade Area
of the Americas (FTAA) and various World Trade Organisation (WTO)
agreements all gave trans-national water corporations access to the
water of the countries that had signed these agreements. Governments
all over the world signed away their right to control their country's
The two biggest water corporations, Suez and Vivendi, now provide
water for 230 million people, 7% of the world's population, mostly in
Europe. In the US 85% of households still get their water from public
utilities. But the water corporations are putting pressure on
Congress, lobbying for laws which will protect them from lawsuits
over contaminated water. This legislation will make it easier for the
water corporations to take over water provision. The British
parliament has already passed a law providing UK water companies with
indemnity against lawsuits brought against them by the public.
Water Privatisation in the Third World
The World Bank and the IMF are now putting pressure on third world
countries to sell off their water to multinational corporations in
order to reduce their national debt. Together with international
development organisations, they have been promoting the idea that the
only way to provide water in the third world is through the private
sector. Third world countries have huge national debts, which they
struggle to pay, so in many cases the IMF has made further loans to
these countries, on condition that they conform to structural
adjustment programmes, including the privatisation of their water
supplies. As in the west, water privatisation causes increased costs,
which in the case of the poorest people in the world, they cannot
afford to pay.
So in the poorest parts of the world, people (mainly women) are
forced to walk further and further in search of water which has not
been privatised, water which is often neither safe nor clean. In some
cases people have to choose between buying water and buying food. In
Ghana today, since water privatisation, the cost of water has
doubled, so that families lucky enough to have running water must now
pay a quarter of their income for it and a bucket of water can cost
up to a tenth of most people's daily earnings.
Protests against Water Privatisation
In Cochabamba, Bolivia water rates increased by 35% after the water
company Bechtel bought the city's water in 1999. The citizens of
Cochabamba were so incensed that they marched, protested and rioted.
Eventually the Bolivian government voided Bechtel's contract. There
have been protests against water privatisation in Paraguay, Panama,
Brazil, Peru, Colombia, India, Pakistan, Hungary and South Africa.
In 1979 Anwar Sadat said "The only matter that could take Egypt to
war again is water". His threat was directed at Ethiopia. King
Hussein of Jordan said the same thing in the same year and his threat
was directed at Israel. In the 1980s US government intelligence
estimated ten places where water wars could break out: Jordan,
Israel, Cyprus, Malta, the Arabian Peninsula, Algeria, Egypt,
Morocco, Tunisia and the Yemen. More than 200 major river systems
cross international borders.
In 1999 Gaddafi warned that the "next Middle East war would be over
dwindling water supplies". Other people say that past and present
Middle East conflicts have always been over water. Water scarcity in
the Middle East is already critical. Four and a half percent of the
world's population live in the area, which contains half the world's
oil, 2% of the world's rainfall and 0.4 % of the world's recoverable
water supplies. It is one of the world's most water-stressed regions
with deteriorating quality and dwindling water supplies. The Arab per
capita water supply is expected to drop by half by the year 2030.
Israel gets two thirds of its water from territories that it has
invaded: the Golan Heights and the West Bank. It takes water from the
Jordan and stores it in the Sea of Galilee in contravention of
international law, which states that water should not be diverted
from its catchment basin. This water is then transported to Israel's
cities, farms and industries.
The river Jordan flows from the Golan Heights in Syria and from the
Lebanon, through Jordan, Israel and Palestine. In 1949 Israel began
taking water from the Golan Heights and in 1951 invaded, driving out
the villagers and ignoring UN Truce Supervision protests. In 1953 the
Eisenhower Administration prepared a unified plan for the use of the
Jordan River, granting Israel use of 33% of it. But Israel wanted
more than that, so in September 1953 Israel began secretly
constructing a pipeline to divert the Jordan from the Golan Heights
in defiance of the US. The US found out and applied sanctions. Israel
suspended work on the pipeline briefly, US aid was resumed and then
Israel continued to work on the diversion project, which was soon
complete. Syria and Jordan protested against Israel's appropriation
of their water and the PLO attacked the pipeline. Israel subsequently
ignored several UN Security Council Resolutions and occupied the
Golan Heights in 1967.
In 1982 Israel invaded Lebanon and took control of the Hasbani and
Wazzani rivers which flow into the Jordan. They also took control of
the Litani river.
A quarter of Israel's remaining water comes from underground
reservoirs in the West Bank, which Israel occupied in 1967. This
water supplies 30% of Tel Aviv households. Israel uses 17% more than
the 1.9 billion cubic meters of water it obtains from renewable
sources, so it is causing the water table level to drop.
In 1994 Jordan and Israel signed a peace treaty in which Israel
agreed to share the water from the river Jordan with Jordan but in
1999 Israel cut Jordan's supply by 60% because there was a drought.
The 1997 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Non-Navigational
Uses of International Watercourses states clearly how these waters
are to be shared: equitably and reasonably. The Palestinian people
therefore have the right to an equitable and reasonable share of the
international watercourses situated in their land. They do not, at
present enjoy this right. Israel's severe restriction on Palestinian
use of water in agriculture limits their ability to grow food.
India and Bangladesh have been quarrelling for twenty years over
rights to extract water from the Ganges.
Egypt is totally dependant on the Nile. For the past twenty years
Egypt has been diverting water from the Nile into land reclamation
projects in the Sinai desert, in contravention of international law,
since the Nile flows through Sudan, Ethiopia, Uganda, Kenya,
Tanzania, Rwanda, Burundi and Zaire. The waters of the Nile should
therefore be shared equitably and reasonably among all these
countries and not be diverted outside its catchment basin.
In 1996 Mubarak announced that he planned to divert water from the
Nile under the Suez Canal into the North Sinai desert east of the
Suez Canal, 40 km from the Gaza Strip. Many believe that this water
will eventually end up in Israel. 86% of the Nile water comes from
Ethiopia, which desperately needs to develop water projects in order
to grow food for its own people, so Ethiopia is fiercely opposed to
Egypt's Nile diversion project. The Sudan threatened to cut Egypt's
water quota and all the other countries which border the Nile are
opposed to the project, viewing it as a violation of international
Ironically, North Sinai has plenty of underground water and rainfall
would be sufficient, if it were harvested, to support as many as a
million people in the area.
Damming trans-national rivers sometimes contravenes international
law, especially when countries upstream take more than their fair
share of water from countries downstream. And yet the World Bank and
the Asian Development Bank have promoted the building of large
numbers of gigantic dams throughout Asia. These dams displace
millions of people who live in the areas to be flooded and deprive
people downstream of the water the rivers once provided.
Turkey signed a treaty with Israel in 2004 to ship 50 million cubic
metres of water a year, for 20 years, from the river Manavgat in
Anatolia, in return for arms from Israel. Turkey is building dams on
the rivers Tigris and Euphrates, which flow through Syria and Iraq.
This is called the Grand Anatolian Project and includes a vast
irrigation scheme, seven dams on the Euphrates, six dams on the
Tigris and the giant Ataturk dam. The Ataturk dam will deprive Syria
and Iraq of most of the flow of the Euphrates. With Israel already
appropriating water from the river Jordan from the Golan Heights,
Syria will be seriously short of water when Turkey's Grand Anatolian
Project is complete.
China and the Mekong
Six countries depend on the Mekong river for food, water and
transport. The Mekong rises in Tibet, flows through China's Yunnan
province, then through Burma, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam.
The Manwan dam, built by China in 1996 has resulted in shallower
river levels and flash floods. Now China is building six more dams
and the countries downstream are afraid that this will have a
deleterious affect on their river. None of these Chinese dams have
been assessed for their social or ecological impacts on the
In 2003 the Asian Development Bank recommended building a $43 billion
electricity generation system, including major dams in Laos, China,
Burma and Cambodia. The Mekong could become one of the most dammed
rivers in the world, with more than 100 other major dams, diversions
and irrigation projects. It is hard to imagine how Vietnam, the last
country the Mekong flows through, will survive if all these projects
are carried out. The dams planned for Laos will displace 5,700
people, impoverish 120,000 and saddle the country with enormous
debts. All the electricity produced by the dam will go to Thailand.
Thousands of indigenous people have already been dispossessed by the
building of smaller dams in Laos.
International financial institutions, such as the World Bank and the
Asian Development Bank, finance a large proportion of water projects
in the third world: huge irrigation projects, without adequate
drainage, to grow crops. 70% of global water diverted from rivers or
drawn up from aquifers is used for irrigation to grow crops. It takes
a thousand tons of water to produce a ton of grain.
Powerful diesel-driven pumps draw up water from deep aquifers
previously unavailable. These pumps have only recently become
available, making it possible for countries to pump groundwater
faster than it can be replenished through rainfall. All over the
world water tables are falling and the world is incurring a vast,
largely invisible, water deficit.
China, India and the United States, which collectively grow half of
the world's grain harvest, are all depleting their aquifers to supply
irrigation projects. China is over-pumping the North China Plain,
where the water table is falling by 3 metres a year. He Quincheng,
head of the Geological Environmental Monitoring Institute in Beijing,
is concerned that the region is losing its last water reserve. In the
area around Beijing wells now have to be drilled as deep as 1,000
metres before they can tap fresh water.
Indian irrigation projects are over-pumping water in the Punjab,
Haryana, Gujarat, Rajasthan, Andhra Pradesh and Tamil Nadu. In some
places water tables are falling by a metre per year.
In the US, the water table has already fallen by 30 metres in parts
of Texas, Oklahoma and Kansas, all major grain producing states that
depend on irrigation.
In Pakistan, in the province of Baluchistan the water table is
falling by 3.5 metres per year. The capital of Baluchistan, Quetta,
will run out of water in 15 years, according to Richard Garstang,
water expert with the World Wildlife Fund.
In the Yemen the situation is desperate. Over-pumping has depleted
the country's water to such an extent that the World Bank predicts
that parts of the rural economy could disappear within a generation.
North Africa and Saudi Arabia have ancient aquifers which are never
replenished. Saudi Arabia is drawing water from its aquifers for
irrigation at such a rate that in fifty years there will be none
left. Worldwide rivers are being sucked up for irrigation, leaving
dry river beds.
When water becomes very scarce, countries sometimes stop irrigating
and producing food, in order to divert what water they still have to
their cities and industries. They then have to import grain. As
underground water becomes more and more depleted, more and more
countries will begin to rely on imports of grain. In China grain
harvests are already shrinking and it will soon have to begin
importing grain. The world water shortage will lead to a world grain
But about 80% of irrigation water is wasted through leaking pipes,
unlined channels, evaporating reservoirs and canals. One quarter of
all irrigated land has now accumulated salts, rendering it useless
for cultivation, for example two million hectares have been lost to
salinity in Pakistan.
450 cubic km of wastewater are discharged into rivers, streams and
lakes every year. This polluted water reduces the amount of
freshwater available. Groups such as International Rivers Network,
Clean Waters Network and Friends of the Earth International have been
confronting industry over the contamination of rivers.
Reducing consumption of water is essential.
Improving irrigation efficiency
Irrigation projects could cut down on the amount of water they use by
as much as 80% if drip systems were used. Drip systems deliver
exactly the amount of water a plant needs.
Water recycling, especially in industry, will also help cut down on
Rainfall harvesting projects
1,500 women from 12 Indian states met together in Rajasthan, Western
India for the National Women's Water Conference in February 2003.
They discussed ways of protecting water supplies in rural India.
Villagers in Madhya Pradesh have resolved the problem of heavy summer
rainfall followed by months of drought by building small dams and
wells, sharing both the work involved, the money invested and the
water harvest. Women in Gujarat built check dams and revived old
Women in Rajasthan have begun to green the desert through community
rainwater harvesting projects.
The women who attended the conference fiercely opposed the
Government's proposal to privatise water and resolved to fight to
protect it. "We will take our sticks and chase out those who attempt
to sell our water to us" one Rajasthani woman said.
Recycling of human waste
Recycling of human waste, rather than discharging it into rivers,
will provide valuable fertilizer for growing more crops and will
leave more clean water in rivers to be used as drinking water.
Stopping industrial river pollution
Cutting down on pollution from industrial processes will similarly
help keep rivers clean and available as drinking water.
Trees prevent soil erosion and conserve water. Village women in parts
of India, for example Orissa, have planted trees.
Water is part of the earth's heritage. It needs to be preserved for
future generations and protected in the public domain by local,
national and international law. Access to clean water for basic needs
is a fundamental human right. We cannot continue to abuse the world's
precious water resources. International cooperation over sources of
freshwater is possible and practicable. International legislation
which enshrines the principle of equitable and reasonable sharing of
water resources already exists. Similarly international legislation
already exists for the control of pollution. Water privatisation is
not the answer. A return to the principle of sharing this vital
resource is possible and essential.