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Water: Commons or commodity?

Today, I am honoured to present at the Water Justice global conference hosted by Trinity Institute in New York City and webcast all over the world.

Economist Richard Sandor, the “father” of carbon trading, predicts the near-term launch of a global water futures market. He says water will replace oil as the number one commodity of the 21st century and that it will be bought, sold and traded on the open market.

Sandor is not alone. In business schools across the world, students are taught that the solution to the global water crisis is to commodify water and let the market settle who gets water and how.

Nestle Chairman and World Bank Advisor Peter Brabeck says that he would give 1.5 % of the world’s water to the poor but allow the market to determine the fate of the rest of the planet’s water resources.

Is water a commons or a commodity? A human right and a public trust or a private asset like running shoes and cars? How shall we address the world’s water crisis? This is a central question of our time.

All my experience working with communities in crisis around the world and fighting for the human right to water tells me that we must fiercely protect water as a commons. There are some areas of our lives and of Mother Earth that should not be determined by the market and water is one of them.

This is not to say that the private sector does not have a crucial role to play in helping to deal with the water crisis, such as laying pipes, building infrastructure and helping to find new, more appropriate and local clean water technologies.

But the central question around commons or commodity is who owns water itself; who shall determine who has access to it and who does not. This is the heart of the debate.

Here is why we must reject the commodification of water.

First, because the world is running out of accessible water.

The UN reports that demand for water will increase by 55% over the next 15 years.

By that time, global water resources will meet only 60% of the world’s demand.

This is a recipe for disaster.

The water crisis could affect as many as 7 billion people by 2075.

Africa, India, the Middle East, and Australia are in crisis but so are “water rich” countries.

In China, since 1990, over half the rivers have disappeared.

In Brazil, there is terrible drought in Sao Paulo due to the destruction of the Amazon and the disruption of the mighty “flying rivers” that carry massive volumes of water vapours released by the rainforest on air currents to the South.

Parts of North America are also in crisis, including many US states. The Ogallala aquifer is being depleted. A major international study on groundwater mining says that the Great Lakes could actually disappear in 80 years.

If you think this impossible, consider the once mighty Aral Sea, the fourth largest lake in the world, now all but gone from over- extraction.

If we accept the argument that the best way to deal with this crisis is to take water into the market economy and sell it like oil and gas, we move the care and protection of water out of the hands of people and their governments and into the hands of private capital where the profit motive must take precedence.

Martin Luther King said “Legislation may not change the heart but it will restrain the heartless.” We need the rule of law. Without the rule of law, protection of the planet’s dwindling water will further plummet.

The protection of America’s water heritage is already in serious trouble with President Trump’s deep cuts to funding for the Great Lakes, his plan to dismantle the EPA’s Clean Water Rule and his intention to allow every form of extreme energy exploration and pipeline construction anywhere in the country.

Second, we must reject commodification because the lack of access to clean water and sanitation is the greatest human rights abuse of our time and about to get much worse as the water tables decline.

Currently almost 1 billion people have no access to clean water and 2.5 billion have no access to adequate sanitation. I was in one slum in India where 5,000 people technically “shared’ a toilet.

Close to 3 million people – mostly children under 5 – die of waterborne disease every year and more than half the hospital beds on Earth are filled with people suffering from this condition.

Lack of clean water kills more children than all forms of violence, including war.

In 2010, the UN General Assembly finally recognized the human right to water and sanitation – an historic breakthrough in which the human family took an evolutionary step forward.

The campaign to have water recognized started at least two decades ago but it was a fierce fight.

There was a huge backlash, from big water and food companies, the World Bank, the World Water Council, and some powerful first world governments, including Canada, the US, and Great Britain.

But people waged a relentless campaign and now all countries, including the US, recognize this right.

As well, almost four dozen countries have either enshrined the right to water within their national constitutions or framed the right within national legislation.

All of this is fragile and all of it is threatened if the control of water and decisions about access to water are turned over to private transnational corporations whose role is not to provide water for the poor but to make profit for their shareholders.

And don’t think for a minute that all these problems are far away.

We are all facing a “perfect storm” of declining water supplies, rising poverty levels and climbing water rates.

This has brought the issue to North America where hundreds of thousands of inner city poor in cities like Detroit and Baltimore have had their water cut off.

The World Bank and the big water utilities are still aggressively promoting private water services in the global South.

And global bottled water sales are skyrocketing. The industry will sell over 115 billion gallons (465 litres) a year by 2020 – enough to reach to the moon and back a hundred times.

Water trading is growing here in the US. Water trading allows water permits to be converted to water property that can then be bought and sold on the open market.

Water trading promotes speculation and diminishes the right of the public to know where local water supplies are going and gives a small group of people and corporations undue control over water resources. And it drives up the price of water, already a huge human rights issue.

Water pollution trading is also growing here in the US. Water pollution trading allows polluters to continue to pollute by paying for or trading the right to maintain their current levels of pollution.

Finally, we must keep water in public hands because this “perfect storm” threatens to bring deep global conflict around water. A world in which water is controlled by private capital would be a disaster for international diplomacy in water-conflicted areas.

In a February 2017 statement, Pope Francis reiterated his passionate support for the human right to water but added a dire warning: “I ask myself if, in this piecemeal third world war that we are living through, are we not going toward a great world war for water?”

There is great potential for growing conflict, competition and even violence in our world as clean water supplies become scarcer. Water disputes are looming – between nations, between rich and poor, between small farmers and agribusiness, and between thirsty megacities and rural communities and indigenous peoples.

If governments lose control over water, ceding authority to the private sector, how will these conflicts be negotiated? How will peace prevail?

But just as water can be a source of division, it can bring people, communities and nations together in the shared search for solutions.

Water survival will necessitate more sustainable and collaborative ways of producing energy, growing food, and trading across borders. It will also require maintaining water as a public trust.

People and their governments around the world are taking water back into public hands. Two hundred and thirty five municipalities in 37 countries – including Paris, Berlin and Atlanta – have been brought back under public management after failed privatization experiments.

Many municipalities are becoming “Blue Communities” where they pledge to recognize water as a human right, maintain their water services under public control and promote tap water over bottled water where clean tap water is available.

This project started in Canada where 19 cities have become Blue Communities but has spread to Europe where cities like Berne, Switzerland and Paris, France have gone “Blue.” So too have a number of universities and faith based communities.

Last spring I had the honour of presiding over a ceremony in Geneva when the World Council of Churches, representing 500 million Christians around the world, became a “Blue Community.”

This is what the World Council of Churches says: Because water justice requires the ethical management of water as a gift from God that must be available to all future generations and to preserve biodiversity, universal access to water and sanitation is a core right.

This in turn requires the democratic governance of water and that water be considered a common good. “Economic exploitation of water is unethical…No compensable private rights in water should be created.”

Two decades ago, I asked Oscar Olivera, the leader of the first “water war,” what it was about water that inspired the kind of courage he and others had displayed in standing up to the army in his country.

At the direction of the World Bank, Cochabamba, Bolivia allowed Bechtel to privatize and run its water services. The company tripled the price of water, making it too expensive for the majority of this largely indigenous, poor population. It even started fining people for capturing rainwater.

The people rose up against terrible odds; many were hurt, some were killed. But they did not back down and Bechtel was forced to abandon Bolivia.

Oscar was a shoemaker by trade and had never done anything like this before. But his anger at the injustice of this situation gave him courage he didn’t know he had.

“Why water?” he said, knowing I meant that there were many other terrible injustices his people, the Aymara, had endured over time. “Because water is life. Local water is personal. Mine, ours. How dare they claim it for their far away investors? And because I would rather die of a bullet than of thirst.”

We have a major global ecological and human water crisis on our hands.

What we do now matters.

We need a new water ethic that puts water protection and water justice at the heart of all policy and practice. Everything we do and every policy we create must ask the question: what it the impact on water? If it has a negative impact on water, we must go back to the drawing board.

This water ethic must be based on the principles of water justice, water sustainability, water sharing and public trust.

Quite simply, water is the common heritage of all people, future generations and the planet.

Because it is a flow source necessary for life and ecosystem health and because there is no substitute for it, water must be regarded as a public trust and a commons and preserved as such in law and practice for all time.

If we do it right, water will be nature’s gift to teach us how to live more lightly on the Earth and in peace and respect with one another.