The New “Conquest of Water”

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Between March 17 and 22, 2000, the second World Water Forum […], organized by the Dutch government on the initiative of the World Water Council (WWC), will be meeting in The Hague. […] It is important to know what the WWC is. It was set up in 1994 with the assistance of the World Bank, the governments of a number of countries (France, Netherlands, Canada, etc.), and the private sector (for instance the Suez-Lyonnaise des eaux group). In 1996 it set about drawing up a long-term “global vision for water,” which might serve as a basis for analysis and for drafting a “global water policy”. The World Bank (WB) has been pushing such a policy in recent years, and has had the support and collaboration of all of the organizations within the United Nations that are directly affected. In order to achieve its objective, the World Bank also supported […] the creation of a Global Water Partnership (GWP), with the aim of encouraging closer relations between public authorities and private investors.

The Blue Gold of the 21st Century

Since the work of the WWC and the GWP had not been entirely satisfactory—partly because of their lack of coordination—the World Commission on Water for the 21st Century was set up in August 1998 to stress the urgent need to promote the famous “global vision”. To this end, the commission embarked on a massive international consultation exercise towards a new version of the “2020 Vision,” and instructed the GWP to accompany this “vision” with an operational plan entitled “A Framework for Action.” The “vision” and “framework” in question are to be presented at The Hague. The participating members in the ministerial conference (at which more than 100 countries will be represented) are expected to approve a declaration which should provide legitimacy for a “global water policy” for the next fifteen to twenty years.

The 1990s saw the setting-up of a kind of global high command for water. Although, in formal terms, the private sector is only represented in these various structures by the president of Suez-Lyonnaise des eaux (as a member of the Commission) and by senior personnel from Vivendi-Générale des eaux, business and financial interests are widely represented by “experts” who in most cases have connections with these two worlds. Private capital is thus firmly implanted at the heart of the decision-making process.

What are the arguments and proposals that will be presented—and if possible — imposed at The Hague? Judging by the provisional documents that have been made available prior to the opening of discussions, they fit into the framework of this new “Conquest of Water” that has been pursued since the early 1970s. Three main principles provide the driving force: commodification, privatization, and global oligopolistic integration between the various sectors, i.e. drinking water, bottled water, water treatment and purification, and soft drinks. All this takes place in a context of fighting for market hegemony and power struggles between national governments.

For those in charge of the global water resources, water must be treated as an economic commodity. It is argued that this is the only effective way to fight shortages and rapidly rising prices. Water has become expensive, and it will be even more expensive in the future, which will make it the “blue gold” of the 21st century. According to the draft ministerial statement, only the setting of a market price in line with total supply costs (the so-called “fair price”) will guarantee a balance between supply and the rapidly growing demand, and thus limit the conflicts between rural populations and town-dwellers; between farmers and industrialists, as well as environmentalists and responsible consumers; between “rich” and “poor” regions, and between countries located in the same hydrographic basins. The export and marketing of water within the rules of free trade and open competition would make it possible not only to generate large profits, but also to eliminate conflicts!

These are the main ingredients of the “integrated water resources management” (IWRM) which the GWP is proposing as the key to policy development at the various different territorial levels of interest and competence. The privatization of all of the services (water sourcing, purification, distribution, conservation, and treatment) fits perfectly with the direction being taken by the IWRM, which is to ensure rational management of a scarce resource by a “fair” return on investment, which would then make possible, so we are told, to reduce waste and to fight pollution and contamination. Within this perspective, direct public management is increasingly seen as being inadequate and ineffective. Thus, management should be transferred to private companies, preferably following the French model of delegated management. This policy is perfectly in line with the rapid worldwide spread of deregulation and privatization of basic public services: gas, electricity, urban transport, telecommunications, and postal services.

Of course, it is being acknowledged that policy also has to take into account social, cultural, and ethical considerations. […] This accounts for the significant place devoted to ethics in the preparatory documents and in the programme of events for the World Forum. But when it came to choosing between a definition of access to water as a basic human and societal right, rather than merely as a basic human need, the officials drafting the ministerial statement came down on the side of need. From their point of view, considering water a right would impose obligations and restrictions that would be too limiting to “freedom” of the key players, particularly the private sector.

The commodification of water leads to the third dynamic of global water policy, which is less advanced than the other two: the integration of all water-related sectors, in a context of a battle for survival and hegemony within the world water oligopoly. Each of theses sectors—drinking water, bottled water, carbonated water and the processing of wastewater—currently has its own players, skills, markets, and conflicts. Drinking water (“the faucets”), for instance, has Vivendi, Suez-Lyonnaise des eaux, Thames Water, Biwater and Saur-Bouygues (and their respective subsidiaries). Bottled water (mineral water) features mainly Nestlé and Danone, which are the number one and two bottling leaders respectively. These two companies, which include Coca-Cola and Pepsi-Cola, are entering into competition with the “faucets” through the development and marketing—even through drinking fountains—of water which they are calling synthetic, purified water, which is supposed to be healthier than tap water.

For their part, the companies operating in the providing of drinking water are increasingly active in the processing of wastewater, which brings them into the field of synthetic water and purified water. In the future, they may decide to seek market openings in the soft drink sector, where Coca Cola and Pepsi Cola are the “dominant presence.” The emergence of “multi-utility” conglomerates at the global level is bound to intensify both integration and competition, if the major national and international public bodies decide to abandon water to the “laws” of the market and competition.

A Heritage Asset

In such a situation, what will happen to the right to life, as represented by access to water for every person and human community? Also what will be left of the general interests of society and social and territorial cohesion? Needless to say, the state control of water by governments that are dictatorial, expansionist, militarist, and corrupt must be opposed as much as commodification, privatization, and the global creation of oligopolies. That is why it is so urgent to draw up a global contract to define a new concept of public service, at the various territorial levels, for this resource which is so fundamentally part of humanity’s shared heritage. […] It is crucial that we begin to regain control of knowledge, expertise, skills, technologies, and the ability to evaluate choices—something that will require the strong mobilization of society.


Le Monde Diplomatique, Mars 2000

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