THE NEED FOR COMMON PRINCIPLES
from the booklet
The global water crisis and the commodification
of the world's water supply
A Special Report issued by the International
Forum on Globalization (IFG)
by Maude Barlow
National Chairperson, Council of Canadians
Chair, International Forum on Globalization (IFG) Committee
on the Globalization of Water
Watersheds come in families' nested levels of intimacy. On
the grandest scale the hydrologic web is like all humanity-Serbs,
Russians, Koryukon lndians, Amish, the billion lives in the People's
Republic of China-it's broadly troubled, but its hard to know
how to help. As you work upstream toward home, you're more closely
related. The big river is like your nation, a little out of hand.
The lake is your cousin. The creek is your sister. The pond is
her child. And, for better or worse, in sickness and in health,
you're married to your sink.
-Michael Parfit, National Geographic
Presently, the world is poised to make crucial, perhaps irrevocable
decisions about water. Except for those now deliberately seeking
to profit from the world's water crisis and those who have continued
to pollute water systems even when confronted with evidence of
the damage they have wrought, the harm done to water to date has
been largely unintentional and reactive-a combination of benign
neglect, ignorance, greed, too many demands on a limited resource,
careless pollution and reckless diversion. The human race has
taken water for granted and massively misjudged the capacity of
the earth's water systems to recover from our carelessness. Although
we now must answer for the great harm we have caused, it is probably
fair to say that no one set out to create a global water shortage
or to deliberately destroy the world's water supply.
However, lack of malice is no longer a good enough excuse.
We know too much. Forces are already established that would see
water become a private commodity to be sold and traded on the
open market, controlled by transnational corporations and guaranteed
to serve investors and private sectors through global trade and
investment agreements. If we do nothing now, this is the future
THE ETHICS OP WATER SHARING
In order to begin to develop a comprehensive sustainable water
ethic, it is first necessary to acknowledge that there is a profound
human inequity in the access to freshwater sources around the
world. Those who are water-poor live almost exclusively in the
non-industrial world; those who are water-rich live in industrial
countries, where governments and corporations have become wealthy
from the colonization and domination of the very areas now living
in water-stress conditions. We have in this situation a tragic
dilemma. It could be argued that the industrialized world has
a moral obligation to share with water-poor areas, even though
this would put great stress on already damaged ecosystems.
Those who view water as a commodity say that water flowing
into the sea or situated in what one forest company CEO calls
"decadent wilderness" is not of service to people or
the economy and is, therefore, a wasted commodity. However, environmentalists
warn that this is a simplistic analysis. For one thing, water
situated in lakes is not available for export or diversion unless
we choose to dry up those lakes. Only water that runs off from
rivers to the sea or is mined from aquifers is actually available
freshwater. Although Canada holds almost one-quarter of the world's
freshwater, for instance, most of it is in lakes or river systems
flowing north. To move large volumes of this water would massively
tamper with the country's natural ecosystems.
Scientists warn that removing vast amounts of water from watersheds
has the potential to destroy entire ecosystems. Lowering water
tables can create sinkholes and dry up wells. Huge energy costs
would be associated with large-scale water movement; one version
of the GRAND Canal scheme called for a series of nuclear power
stations along the route to supply the energy needed for the movement
of such huge volumes of water. Existing water diversions and hydroelectric
projects are causing local climate change, reduced biodiversity,
mercury poisoning, loss of forest, and the destruction of fisheries
habitat and wetlands. Imagine what damage a mega-project such
as the GRAND Canal might cause.
Scientific studies show that large-scale water removal affects
not just the immediate systems, but ecosystems far beyond. "This
work proves beyond all doubt that water is not 'wasted' by running
into the sea. It suggests that the cumulative effects of removing
water from lakes, rivers and streams for export by tanker could
have large-scale impacts on the coastal and marine environment,"
says Canadian water expert Jamie Linton.
Richard Bocking says we strike a Faustian bargain when diverting
rivers. "For power generation or irrigation today, we exchange
much of the life of a river, its valley and biological systems,
and the way of life of people who are in the way. As the cost
of the last 50 years of dam building becomes evident, we can no
longer plead that we don't know the consequences of treating rivers
and lakes as plumbing systems."
However, what of the humanitarian argument that in a world
of water inequality, water-rich areas have an obligation to share
water supplies with others? Perhaps here it would be helpful to
distinguish between short-term and long-term approaches. Importing
water is not a desirable long-term solution for either the ecosystems
or the peoples of water-scarce regions of the world. Water is
such an essential necessity of life, no one should become dependent
on foreign supplies that could be cut for political or environmental
It is also helpful to distinguish between water trading and
water sharing. In a commercially traded water exchange, those
who really need the water would be the least likely to receive
it. Water hauled long distances by tankers would only be available
to the wealthy, especially large corporations. Importing water
for only those who could afford it would reduce the urgency and
political pressure to find real, sustainable and equitable solutions
to water problems throughout the world.
George Wurmitzer, the mayor of Simitz, a small town in the
Austrian Alps, essentially captures the difference between water
sharing and water trading when he expresses concerns about large-scale
exports of water from his community "From my point of view,
it is a sacred duty to help someone who is suffering from thirst.
However, it is a sin to transfer water just so that people can
flush their toilets and wash their cars in dry areas...lt makes
no sense and is ecological and economic madness."
As Linton says, "Perhaps the strongest argument against
[commercial] water export is that it would only perpetuate the
basic problem that has caused the 'water crisis' in the first
place- the presumption that peoples' growing demands for water
can and should always be met by furnishing an increase in the
supply. This thinking has led to the draining of lakes, the depletion
of aquifers and destruction of aquatic ecosystems around the world."
If, however, we maintain public control of water, it might
be possible to share water supplies on a short-term basis between
countries in times of crisis. In these cases, water sharing would
need to be accompanied by strict timetables and conditions aimed
at making the receiving region water-independent as soon as possible.
This way, water could be used to encourage water system restoration.
This kind of resolution is not conceivable, however, if the privatization
of the world's water continues unchallenged; corporations would
not allow a non-profit system of water transfer to be established.
THE ETHICS OP WATER PRICING
Similarly, the call to place a true economic value on water-increasingly
made by environmentalists who rightly point out that in many water-rich
countries, water is taken for granted and badly wasted-must be
put in a political context. The argument is, if an accurate economic
value were to be put on water, people would be more likely to
conserve it. But in the current climate, there are serious concerns
that need to be raised about the issue of water pricing.
First, water pricing exacerbates the existing global inequality
of access to water. As we know, the countries that are suffering
severe water shortages are home to the poorest people on earth.
To charge them for already scarce supplies is to guarantee growing
The issue of water pricing will therefore exacerbate the North/South
divide. There is a sub-text to much of the handwringing over the
world's water shortage. Almost every article on the subject starts
with the reminder of the population explosion and where is it
occurring. The sub-text is that "these people" are responsible
for the looming water crisis. But a mere 12 percent of the world's
population uses 85 percent of its water, and the 12 percent don't
live in the Third World.
The privatization of this scarce resource will lead to a two-tiered
world-those who can afford water and those who cannot. It will
force millions to choose between necessities such as water and
health care. In England, high water rates forced people to choose
whether or not to wash their food, flush their toilets or bathe.
Second, under the current trade agreements, priced water becomes
a private commodity. Only if water is maintained as a public service,
delivered and protected by governments, can it be exempted from
the onerous enforcement measurements of these free trade deals.
The results of the trade agreements are very clear. If water is
privatized and put on the open market for sale, it will go to
those who can afford it, not to those who need it. Once the tap
has been turned on, by the terms of trade rules it cannot be turned
The World Bank says that it will subsidize water for the poor.
Anyone familiar with the problems of welfare, particularly in
the Third World, knows that such charity is punitive at best,
and more often nonexistent. Water as a fundamental human right
is guaranteed in the UN International Covenant on Human Rights.
Water welfare is not what the architects of that great declaration
had in mind.
Third, as it is now envisaged, water pricing will not have
much of an impact. It is generally accepted that water consumption
in urban centers breaks down at 70 percent industrial, 20 percent
institutional and 6-10 percent domestic. Yet most of the discussions
about water pricing center on individual water use. Large corporate
users notoriously evade paying the cost of their water altogether.
Finally, in an open bidding system for water, who will buy
it for the environment and the future? In all of this privatization/pricing
debate, there is precious little said about the natural world
and other species. That is because the environment is not factored
into the commercial equation. If we lose public control of our
water systems, there will be no one left with the ability to claim
this life-giving source for the earth.
Yet the need to stop wasting water is urgent. The dialogue
about water pricing is a crucial one; however, it must take place
within a larger framework. To be both effective and just, any
serious consideration of water pricing must take into account
three factors the global poverty gap, water as a human right and
water in nature.
To deal with the first, the global poverty gap, there are
several immediate actions governments could take. These include
cancelling the Third World debt, increasing foreign aid budgets
to their previous standards (.7 percent of GDP), and implementing
a "Tobin tax" ( a small, worldwide tariff) on financial
speculation that would pay for water infrastructure and universal
To deal with the issue of water as a human right, countries
must adopt constitutions such as that of South Africa, which guarantees
water first for people, second for nature and third for the economy.
Every South African is guaranteed enough free water for basic
needs; only then is there consideration of pricing.
To ensure that ecosystem survival is key to any new system
that might include pricing, revenues raised must be used to protect
the environment, restore watersheds, enforce clean water standards
and repair faulty infrastructure, which is currently the cause
of great water wastage.
Further, the focus must be on the greatest abusers of water-large
industry and corporate farming. Governments must bring the rule
of law to those corporations that pollute and waste precious water.
They must also implement a more just taxation system that captures
some of the untold billions in taxation that large corporations
now evade. These revenues would go a long way toward cleaning
up the earth's dying water systems. Clearly, the focus must be
on those who use water most and who then remove the benefits of
using this common good, this public trust, from the community
for the sake of profits, particularly in an age of mergers and
transnational corporations. Business has no right to deprive anyone
of their inalienable human rights; if that is the price of profit,
the price is too high.
None of these conditions, however, is possible if water is
not controlled in the public interest. If water is allowed to
be commercialized and controlled by corporations, the profit principle
will dominate. In this case, water-pricing would become a tool
of the market, rather than be a tool that could be used as an
incentive to conservation and to ensure that water remains a fundamental
human right for every person on earth.
PROTECTING WATER: TEN PRINCIPLES
In order to take the kind of action needed by all levels of
government and communities around the world, it is urgent that
we come to agreement on a set of guiding principles and values.
The following is offered as an opening dialogue
I) Water belongs to the earth and all species. Water, like
air, is necessary for all life. Without water, humans and other
beings would die and the earth's systems would shut down. Modern
society has lost its reverence for water's sacred place in the
cycle of life as well as its centrality to the realm of the spirit.
This loss of reverence for water has allowed humans to abuse it.
Only by redefining our relationship to water and recognizing its
essential and sacred place in nature can we begin to right the
wrongs we have done.
Because water belongs to the earth and all species, decision-makers
must represent the rights and needs of other species in their
policy choices and actions. Future generations also constitute
"stakeholder" status requiring representation in decision-making
about water. Nature, not man, is at the center of the universe.
For all our brilliance and accomplishment, we are a species of
animal who needs water for the same reasons as other species.
Unlike other species, however, only humans have the power to destroy
ecosystems upon which all depend and so humans have an urgent
need to redefine our relationship to the natural world. No decisions
about water use should ever be made without a full consideration
of impacts to the ecosystem.
2) Water should be left where it is whenever possible. Nature
put water where it belongs. Tampering with nature by removing
vast amounts of water from watersheds has the potential to destroy
ecosystems. Large-scale water removal and diversion affects not
just the immediate systems, but ecosystems far beyond. Water is
not "wasted" by running into the sea. The cumulative
effects of removing water from lakes, rivers and streams has disastrous
large-scale impacts on the coastal and marine environment as well
as on the indigenous peoples of the region, and other people whose
livelihoods depend upon these areas.
While there may be an obligation to share water in times of
crisis, just as with food, it is not a desirable long-term solution
for either the ecosystems or the peoples of any region of the
world to become dependent on foreign supplies for this life-giving
source. By importing this basic need, a relationship of dependency
would be established that is ultimately harmful. By accepting
this principle, we learn the nature of water's limits and to live
within them, and we start to look at our own regions, communities
and homes for ways to meet our needs while respecting water's
place in nature.
3) Water must be conserved for all time. Each generation must
ensure that the abundance and quality of water is not diminished
as a result of its activities. The only way to solve the problem
of global water scarcity is to radically change our habits, particularly
when it comes to water conservation. People living in the wealthy
countries of the world must change their patterns of water consumption,
especially those in water-rich bioregions. If they don't change
these habits, any reluctance to share their water-even for sound
environmental and ethical reasons-will rightly be called into
The key to maintaining sustainable groundwater supplies is
to ensure that net extractions do not exceed recharge. Some water
destined for cities and agribusiness will have to be restored
to nature. Large tracts of aquatic systems must be set aside for
preservation; governments must agree on a global target. Planned
major dams must be put on hold and some current river diversions
must be re-oriented to reflect a more natural seasonal flow or
else be de-commissioned altogether.
Infrastructure improvement must become a priority of governments
everywhere to stem the huge loss of water through aging and broken
systems. Government subsidies of wasteful corporate practices
must end. By refusing to subsidize abusive water use, governments
will send out the message that water is not abundant and cannot
4) Polluted water must be reclaimed. The human race has collectively
polluted the world's water supply and must collectively take responsibility
for reclaiming it. Water scarcity and pollution are caused by
economic values that encourage overconsumption and grossly inefficient
use of water. These values are wrong. A resolution to reclaim
polluted water is an act of self-preservation. Our survival, and
the survival of all species, depends on restoring naturally functioning
Governments at all levels and communities in every country
must reclaim polluted water systems and halt, to the extent possible,
the destruction of wetlands and water systems habitat. Rigorous
law and enforcement must address the issue of water pollution
from agriculture, municipal discharge and industrial contaminants,
the leading causes of water degradation. Government must re-establish
control over transnational mining and forestry companies whose
unchecked practices continue to cause untold damage to water systems.
The water crisis cannot be viewed in isolation from other
major environmental issues such as clear cutting of forests and
human-induced climate change. The destruction of waterways due
to clear cutting severely harms fish habitat. Climate change will
cause extreme conditions. Floods will be higher, storms will be
more severe, droughts will be more persistent. The demand on existing
freshwater supplies will be magnified. To reclaim damaged water
will require an international commitment to dramatically reduce
human impacts on climate.
5) Water is best protected in natural watersheds. The future
of a water-secure world is based on the need to live within naturally
formed "bioregions," or watersheds. Bioregionalism is
the practice of living within the constraints of a natural ecosystem.
The surface and groundwater conditions peculiar to a watershed
constitute a set of essential parameters that govern virtually
all life in a region; other characteristics, such as flora and
fauna, are related to the area's hydrological conditions. Therefore,
if living within the ecological constraints of a region is key
to developing a sustainable society, watersheds are an excellent
starting point for establishing bioregional practices.
An advantage of thinking in watershed terms is that water
flow does not respect nation-state borders. Watershed management
offers a more interdisciplinary approach to protecting water.
Watershed management is a way to break the gridlock among international,
national, local and tribal governments that has plagued water
policy around the world for so long. Watersheds, not political
or bureaucratic boundaries, will lead to more collaborative protection
6) Water is a public trust to be guarded at all levels of
government. Because water, like air, belongs to the earth and
all species, no one has the right to appropriate it or profit
from it at someone else's expense. Water, then, is a public trust
that must be protected at all levels of government and communities
Therefore, water should not be privatized, commodified, traded
or exported in bulk for commercial purpose. Governments all over
the world must take immediate action to declare that the waters
in their territories are a public good and enact strong regulatory
structures to protect them. Water should immediately be exempted
from all existing and future international and bilateral trade
and investment agreements. Governments must ban the commercial
trade in large-scale water projects.
While it is true that governments have failed badly in protecting
their water heritage, it is only through democratically controlled
institutions that this situation can be rectified. If water becomes
clearly established as a commodity to be controlled by the private
sector, decisions about water will be made solely on a for-profit
Each level of government must protect its water trust municipalities
should stop raiding the water systems of rural communities. Watershed
cooperation will protect larger river and lake systems. National
and international legislation will bring the rule of law to transnational
corporations and end abusive corporate practices. Governments
will tax the private sector adequately to pay for infrastructure
repair. All levels of governments will work together to set targets
for global aquatic wilderness preserves.
7) An adequate supply of clean water is a basic human right.
Every person in the world has a right to clean water and healthy
sanitation systems no matter where they live. This right is best
ensured by keeping water and sewage services in the public sector,
regulating the protection of water supplies and promoting the
efficient use of water. Adequate supplies of clean water for people
in water-scarce regions can only be ensured by promoting conservation
and protection of local water resources.
First Nations Peoples have special inherent rights to their
traditional territories, including water. These rights stem from
their use and possession of the land and water in their territories
and their ancient social and legal systems. The inalienable right
of self-determination of indigenous peoples must be recognized
and codified by all governments; water sovereignty is elemental
in the protection of these rights.
Governments everywhere must implement a "local sources
first" policy to protect the basic rights of their citizens
to freshwater. Legislation that requires all countries, communities
and bioregions to protect local sources of water and seek alternative
local sources before looking to other areas will go a long way
to halt the environmentally destructive practice of moving water
from one watershed basin to another. "Local sources first"
must be accompanied by a principle of "local people and farmers
first." Local citizens and communities have first rights
to local water. Agribusiness and industry, particularly large
transnational corporations, must fit into a "local-first"
policy or be shut down.
This does not mean that water should be "free" or
that everyone can help themselves. However, a policy of water
pricing that respects this principle would help conserve water
and preserve the rights of all to have access to it. Water pricing
and "green taxes" (which raise government revenues while
discouraging pollution and resource consumption) should place
a heavier burden on agribusiness and industry than on citizens;
funds collected from these sources should be used to provide basic
water for all.
8) The best advocates for water are local communities and
citizens. Local stewardship, not private business, expensive technology
or even government, is the best protector of water security. Only
local citizens can understand the overall cumulative effect of
privatization, pollution and water removal and diversion on the
local community. Only local citizens know the effect of job loss
or loss of local farms when water sources are taken over by big
business or diverted to faraway uses. It must be understood that
local citizens and communities are the front-line "keepers"
of the rivers, lakes and underground water systems upon which
their lives and livelihoods rest.
In order to be affordable, sustainable and equitable, the
solutions to water stress and water scarcity must be locally inspired
and community-based. Reclamation projects that work are often
inspired by environmental organizations and involve all levels
of government and sometimes private donations. But if they are
not guided by the common sense and lived experience of the local
community, they will not be sustained.
In water-scarce regions, traditional local indigenous technologies,
such as local water sharing and rain catchment systems that had
been abandoned for new technology, are being revisited with some
urgency. In some areas, local people have assumed complete responsibility
for water distribution facilities and established funds to which
water users must contribute. The funds are used to provide water
to all in the community.
9) The public must participate as an equal partner with government
to protect water. A fundamental principle for a water-secure future
is that the public must be consulted and engaged as an equal partner
with governments in establishing water policy. For too long, governments
and international economic institutions such as the World Bank,
the OECD and trade bureaucrats have been driven by corporate interests.
Even in the rare instances that they are given a seat at the table,
non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and environmental groups
are typically ignored. Corporations who heavily fund political
campaigns are often given sweetheart contracts for water resources.
Sometimes, corporate lobby groups actually draft the wording of
agreements and treaties that governments then adopt. This practice
has created a crisis of legitimacy for governments everywhere.
Processes must be created whereby citizens, workers and environmental
representatives are treated as equal partners in the determination
of water policy and recognized as the true inheritors and guardians
of the above principles.
10) Economic globalization policies are not water-sustainable.
Economic globalization's values of unlimited growth and increased
global trade are totally incompatible with the search for solutions
to water scarcity. Designed to reward the strongest and most ruthless,
economic globalization locks out the forces of local democracy
so desperately needed for a water-secure future. If we accept
the principle that to protect water we must attempt to live within
our watersheds, the practice of viewing the world as one seamless
consumer market must be abandoned.
Economic globalization undermines local communities by allowing
for easy mobility of capital and the theft of local resources.
Liberalized trade and investment enables some countries to live
beyond their ecological and water resource means; others abuse
their limited water sources to grow crops for export. In wealthy
countries, cities and industries are mushrooming on deserts. A
water-sustainable society would denounce these practices.
Global sustainability can only be reached if we seek greater
regional self-sufficiency, not less. Building our economies on
local watershed systems is the only way to integrate sound environmental
policies with peoples' productive capacities and to protect our
water at the same time.