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Is water becoming ‘the new oil’?

Population, pollution, and climate put the squeeze on potable supplies – and private companies smell a profit. Others ask: Should water be a human right?

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But private companies’ promises of efficient, cost-effective water delivery have not always come true. Bolivia ejected giant engineering firm Bechtel in 2000, unhappy over the spiking cost of water for the city of Cochabamba. Last year Bolivia’s president publicly celebrated the departure of French water company Suez, which had held a 30-year contract to supply La Paz.

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In her book, “Blue Covenant,” Maude Barlow – one of the leaders of the fledgling “water justice” movement – sees a dark future if private monopolies control access to fresh water. She sees this happening when, instead of curbing pollution and increasing conservation, governments throw up their hands and sell public water companies to the private sector or contract with private desalination companies.

“Water is a public resource and a human right that should be available to all,” she says. “All these companies are doing is recycling dirty water, selling it back to utilities and us at a huge price. But they haven’t been as successful as they want to be. People are concerned about their drinking water and they’ve met resistance.”
Private-water industry officials say those pushing to make water a “human right” are ideologues struggling to preserve inefficient public water authorities that sell water below the cost to produce it and so cheaply it is wasted – doing little to extend service to the poor.

“There are three basic things in life: food, water, and air,” says Paul Marin, who three years ago led a successful door-to-door campaign to keep the town council of Emmaus, Pa., from selling its local water company. “In this country, we have privatized our food. Now there’s a lot of interest in water on Wall Street.... But I can tell you it’s putting the fox in charge of the henhouse to privatize water. It’s a mistake.”

Water and war: Will scarcity lead to conflict?

Cherrapunjee, a town in eastern India, once held bragging rights as the “wettest place on earth,” and still gets nearly 40 feet of rain a year. Ironically, officials recently brought in Israeli water-management experts to help manage and retain water that today sluices off the area’s deforested landscape so that the area can get by in months when no rain falls.

“Global warming isn’t going to change the amount of water, but some places used to getting it won’t, and others that don’t, will get more,” says Dan Nees, a water-trading analyst with the World Resources Institute. “Water scarcity may be one of the most underappreciated global political and environmental challenges of our time.” Water woes could have an impact on global peace and stability.

In January, United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki Moon cited a report by International Alert, a self-described peacebuilding organization based in London. The report identified 46 countries with a combined population of 2.7 billion people where contention over water has created “a high risk of violent conflict” by 2025.

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