The Privatization of the Global Freshwater Commons

“Of all our natural resources water has become the most precious. By far the greater part of the earth’s surface is covered by its enveloping seas, yet in the midst of this plenty we are in want. By a strange paradox, most of the earth’s abundant water is not usable for agriculture, industry, or human consumption because of its heavy load of sea salts, and so most of the world’s population is either experiencing or is threatened with critical shortages.”  – Rachel Carson  

Around the world, scarcity of potable water is becoming a portentous matter. Admonishing phrases like “water is the next oil,” and “wells are running dry” have percolated their way into the collective lexicon of global issues. Rivers and streams are vanishing, and the desiccation and depletion of entire watersheds and aquifers is increasing the world over. When seeking a reason for the withering away of drinkable water and the silencing of gushing streams, it becomes obvious that there is not one sole factor contributing to this dire situation, but many. Global warming and climate change, industrial modes of production, dam construction, and water privatization all conduce to the problem of water scarcity.

The supply of freshwater on this planet is only 2.5 percent of the world’s total water. Considering the amount that is frozen up in ice and snow, roughly one percent is left for human use. Water consumption has grown twice as fast as the world’s population.

We are often told that we’ve exceeded our carrying capacity here on Earth (or are arriving at that calamitous denouement of the story of civilization in no time soon), and water – a finite resource – is being exacerbated at an alarming rate in tandem to population growth. It is very true that we’ve reached our carrying capacity, this planet cannot healthily sustain so many people living in current arrangements, but anyone who has closely studied the conflation of civilization, agriculture, and capitalism understand well that human population booms are endemic to the aforementioned social formula. And in all honesty, to blame the problem of water scarcity upon an increasing global population is sneaky as hell. Ninety percent of human water use is for industrial purposes – 70 percent being used exclusively for large-scale agriculture and factory farming. If the dominant economic mode were to shift gears, to one that wasn’t defined globally, and predicated upon the funneling of resources to the producer rather than the community, the availability of water would be much different. If community-scale projects and strict environmental protection policies were implemented to define our economic behavior, then I’m pretty sure billions of people would not be facing such dire water related plights. However, in a world where market theory has greatly influenced the dominant praxis of economic intercourse, the privatization of the planet’s water has been pitched as the panacea that will solve our troubles.

Such pernicious tropes like “blue gold” used to describe water have motivated many corporations to privatize water with much alacrity. In Vermont, where I live, I quickly got wind of the contentions surrounding the privatization and commercialization of water. Like sprouting cowslips that push their way through marshy soils in the springtime, private water-bottling operations were popping up left and right along Vermont‘s pristine springs. These enterprises have set up shop with the intent to siphon the state’s fresh water from age-old springs and commercialize it.

There was the New Jersey resident, East Montpelier landowner, and chief executive officer of Montpelier Spring Water Company, Daniel Antonovich, who initially pitched forward the Montpelier Spring Water Company in May of 2007 to the East Montpelier select board.

Antonovich envisions constructing a subterranean pipeline that will transport the water over several miles from the East Montpelier site to a bottling factory (yet to be erected) alongside U.S. Highway 2 in Montpelier, where the water will then be bottled, capped – ready for shipment, and consigned to its mercantile fate.

Following the proposal, many citizens became skeptical and concerned that the Montpelier Spring Water Co. could follow suit of other companies and someday sell out to a larger corporation that would aggrandize the water-bottling operation. This had already occurred in Randolph, Vermont with Vermont Pure; ClearSource, being a leviathan in the commercial bottled-water industry, bought them out.

ClearSource has a history of violating their traffic violations, as well as transgressing their sewage discharge limits. According to its permit, ClearSource’s sewage discharge is restricted to 2,960 gallons of sewage on a daily basis. Currently, ClearSource pumps out 8,000 gallons a day – a considerable decrease from 23,000 gallons only a few years ago – but still, ClearSource is over its limit, and well – rightly so, any company that can’t tolerate administrative precepts implemented to carefully manage human ordure scores a big fat zero with concerned citizens.

In accordance with their permit, ClearSource must maintain no more than 120 roundtrips per day for all vehicles into the bottling plant. As a response to the guidelines, ClearSource’s CEO Jay Land stated that if the company were to suddenly follow this requirement “the result would be a mass layoff this morning in the plant,” and that, “I’d have to tell [employees] that if you go home for lunch you have to stay home…But I will not do that to the people in the plant.” Geez Land, ever think about offering incentives for carpooling, or having your employees pack a lunch?

In October of 2007, Ice River Springs (aka Aquafarms and Aquafarms 93) one of Canada’s paramount “private label bottled-water companies” announced that it would be opening two new bottling plants in the U.S., one of those plants being constructed on the New Hampshire/Vermont border in Claremont, New Hampshire. The company further announced that 75 percent of its water would be extracted from a Vermont source in Stockbridge, Vermont, while the remainder would be retrieved from Claremont‘s municipal water supply, alongside manufacturing the plastic bottles at the plant.

According to an article titled “Ice River Springs/Aquafarms 93 Exposed” at “…the company locates plants in small rural communities that are desperate for economic development and jobs…” and that “…Ice River Springs uses paid lobbyists to put pressure on politicians to push for or against policies that effect [sic] the company’s profit.” I thought of all the other water privatization injustices, sanctioned in tandem by the IMF, World Bank, and transnational corporations like Nestle, Bechtel, Suez and Coca-Cola, ad nauseam, that have occurred throughout the world in places such as Belize, Buenos Aires, Atlanta, Georgia, Manila in the Philippines, Cochabamba, Bolivia, Jakarta, Indonesia, Nelspruit, South Africa, and The United Kingdom. The article goes on to expose that Ice River maintains a plant located in Morganton, North Carolina, an area of the state suffering from one of the worst drought conditions ever recorded, and that it hasn’t curtailed its production and has made no indications that it will be doing so.

The precipitating trend of privatizing and commercializing Vermont‘s freshwater is a microcosm of a larger corporate zeitgeist to seize control of much of the world’s fresh water.

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), more than 1.2 billion people worldwide go without access to clean drinking water, and approximately 2.5 billion people don’t have access to “adequate sanitation services.” Over five million – mostly children in Africa and Asia – die annually from preventable, water-related diseases. The following countries (population provided) consume only contaminated water: Sudan (12.3 million); Venezuela (5 million); Zimbabwe (2.7 million); Tunisia (2.1 million), and Cuba (1.2. million).

Proponents of water privatization argue that privatization of water in developing nations, where millions are subjected to abject poverty, would be a boon, delivering clean water for drinking and sanitation to many who go without. Conversely, many posit that these nations are not equipped to negotiate contracts and the poor bear the brunt of fee increases. The ensuing information will corroborate the latter allegations.

In 1999, the people of Bolivia did not choose to privatize their water – it was forced upon them. Bechtel’s subsidiary, Aguas del Tunari, went into Bolivia, enforced a forty-year contract that privatized much of their fresh water, and not soon after, rate increases quickly doubled and tripled for most of the poor water users. The private investment relied stringently on market-rate pricing.

The contract was so draconian that protest broke out in the streets of Cochabamba, the people demanding an immediate rescinding of the water contract. The protest led to martial law to save the companies’ contract, which led to the death of a teenage boy, and the wounding of more than a hundred people. In recent years in Bolivia, there have been various citizen revolts decrying the privatization of their water. In the end, the people were victorious and Bechtel’s contract was indeed cancelled.

By the end of 2000, more than 93 countries worldwide had partially privatized water or wastewater services. The larger the company, the more control. According to research done by Elizabeth Brubaker at the Energy Probe Research Foundation, at the largest scale, private water companies construct, own, and run water systems around the globe, raking in revenues of more than $30 billion – excluding revenue from the sales of bottled water. Most of this money does not make it back into the communities, but is rather transferred to the transnationals.

The largest players in water privatization are two French transnationals: Veolia Environment (owned by media conglomerate Vivendi) and Suez Lyonnaise des Eaux whose water and wastewater businesses are run by its subsidiary Ondeo. These two companies have interests in water projects in over 120 countries and provide to roughly 100 million people. Suez alone is active in more than 100 countries, and has become the second largest overseer of municipal systems in the U.S. – right behind American Water Works.

In 1993, Suez and Buenos Aires consummated a privatization deal (lauded by the World Bank); over the years the results were: drastic increases in consumer water prices; more than 95 percent of the city’s sewage dumped into the Rio del Plata river, to name but a couple. In 1998, Atlanta, Georgia signed a 20-year, $428 million contract with United Water, a Suez subsidiary. The results? Rate increases of sewer bills – 12 percent annually. According to a report procured by Public Citizen, the company also charged “an extra $37.6 million for additional service authorizations, capital repair, and maintenance costs.” The denizens of Atlanta paid about $16 million of these costs, and then an additional $1 million to hire investigators to verify United Water’s reports. Which turned out to be fishy. How’s that for venality – as if selling people water isn’t enough of a depraved iniquity.

As for abroad, the U.K. has used a large private system since the late 1980s.  A 1994 study purported to show rates of dysentery ascending in a majority of the urban areas. And according to the Public Citizen report, in 1998, “the major water companies in the U.K. were ranked as the second, third, and fourth-worst polluters.” And, “…ten water companies were prosecuted a total of 260 times between 1989 and 1997.”

Other noted effects of water privatization include: Improper protection of water quality; ecological destruction of downstream habitat; failure to protect public ownership of water and water rights; wasted water and neglect of conservation; and the transfer of assets of local communities to transnationals.

Despite corporate claims (which are fallacious beyond a doubt), the privatizing of water heavily increases the price of water. According to, “International corporations can easily expect to make a 20 percent to 30 percent margin of profit from investment in water service… In 2006, Veolia made a consolidated net income of €759 million (nearly $1.12 billion), according to its 2006 annual report. In addition, 35 percent of Veolia’s total revenue came from water, with 10 percent from North America,” and “In the same year Suez earned a gross operating income of €7,083 million (nearly $10.38 billion), and RWE had a net income of €3,847 million (almost $5.66 billion). Some €689 million ($1.02 billion) of RWE’s EBITDA (earnings before interest, taxes, depreciation, and amortization) came from its water division, known as U.S. water provider American Water.”

All of this money is funneled out of the community and into the pockets of the shareholders. There is virtually no case in which the privatizing of water has benefited everyone in a specific community. Kendra Okonski, editor of The Water Revolution, observed, “In most poor countries today, governments perpetuate water scarcity – which harms both people and the environment. They fail to provide water to the poor, but provide massive subsidies for water use by vested interests, such as big landowners.”

Conflicts over water issues arise as well. Along the Tigris and Euphrates River System, the countries of Iran, Iraq, and Syria face problems. As early as 1974 Iraq mobilized troops along the Syrian border, threatening to destroy Syria‘s al Thawra dam along the Euphrates. In India, Arundhati Roy claims, “…over the last fifty years in India alone big dams have displaced more than thirty-three million people.” And according to the World Bank’s “Water Resources Strategy,” the World Bank will continue its policy of funding big dams.

In 1992, Hungary and Czechoslovakia took a dispute over Danube River water divisions and dam construction to the International Court of Justice. Other conflicts include disputes between: North and South Korea, Israel and Palestine, and Egypt and Ethiopia, to name a handful.

Dams, big or small, are deleterious to entire riparian ecosystems, disrupting sediment flow and fish populations, alongside uprooting people from their communities. They must go. There are over 75,000 dams, most inoperable, within the continental U.S. alone. If we were to take down a dam-a-day, it would take over 215 years. Meanwhile, salmon, steelhead, and trout are disappearing at an inexorable rate. For the Coho salmon, the apocalypse has already begun.

As for climate change and the latter’s effect on the world’s water systems, warmer climates will conduce to the desiccation of Himalayan glaciers as soon as 2035, as claimed by many reports. These glaciers are the sources of Asia‘s largest river systems, i.e. Ganges, Indus, Brahmaputra, Yangtze, Mekong, Salween, and the Yellow. Roughly 2.4 billion people live in the drainage basin of the Himalayan Rivers. Much trepidation presides over these folks with the morbid knowledge of likely being inundated by glacial melt, and the subsequent disappearance of their sacred, nascent glaciers.

Australia, too, faces desperate conditions in the near future. As a result of an epic drought, there is severe ecological damage done to the Murray-Darling basin, which provides for 40 percent of the country’s agricultural produce. In the opinion of environmentalist Tim Flannery, unless there are drastic changes, Perth could become the world’s first “ghost metropolis” – virtually no water to support its population.

I recently had a chat with environmentalist Annette Smith from Vermonter’s for a Clean Environment (VCE), over the issues of water privatization, and the reprehensible bottled water industry. She explained to me that “large extractions of water, the size at which commercial bottled-water companies operate, can taper stream channels, alter temperatures fish rely upon for their life cycles, and can expend aquifers and other nearby water sources.

“Furthermore, the impact goes far beyond the actual water extraction.” Smith explained that, “the plastic bottles have their environmental impacts as well. For one, the plastic bottles contain phthalates, which are chemical compounds that are added to plastics to increase their flexibility. Phthalates have been known to be culpable for organ damage, adverse hormonal activity, and birth defects.”

Plastic is a polymer, which is a very complex molecule. When plastic is disposed of in a landfill, it takes thousands upon thousands of years for that polymer to break down. In the U.S. approximately 60-70 million plastic water bottles are discarded every day.

The industrial process of manufacturing plastic bottles is very intensive as well. It uses the equivalent of four pints of water to manufacture one plastic bottle. A quote taken from the Chicago Tribune pretty much sums up a brief but comprehensive analysis of the water-bottle industry’s uses: “The 1.5 million barrels of crude oil used each year to manufacture plastic water bottles in the U.S. could fuel 100,000 cars for a year [or just stay in the ground and mitigate our military involvement in the Middle East]. Thousands of tons of greenhouse gases are emitted transporting bottled water around the world. Just 23 percent of all plastic bottles are recycled, meaning 52 billion end up in landfills or littered.”

Did you know that there is a trash vortex in the Pacific Ocean larger than the continental United States, and that there is now more plastic by weight than plankton? Phytoplankton populations are in inexorable decline. Whale populations are also in inexorable decline.

This is what I do know: People manufacture plastic while sea otters choke to death on polyethylene rings from beer six-packs. People buy plastic while nylon nets strangle the lives out of great gulls. People discard plastic into the land bases and oceans while toy trucks get lodged in sea turtles – killing them. Fulmars wash ashore, lifeless, their stomachs distended with plastic. Whales, too, have been found dead along shorelines, autopsies revealing stomachs bloated with plastics.

As we’re all aware global warming is a consequence of green house gas emissions, especially CO2 emissions, and the water-bottling industry clearly isn’t helping the situation. I was curious to hear what Smith had to say about the impact global warming will have on watersheds. Her response was sharp: “Drought is the equalizer, because you can have water extractions that do not seem to be having an impact, but in drought the impacts can turn a neighborhood from barely having enough water to having no water at all.” I was beginning to see some irony here, as the song goes: “You don’t miss your water ’til your well runs dry.”

Annette was also kind enough to forward me information she had retrieved herself when she attended a symposium at the Omega Institute in upstate New York in 2003, addressing the condition of the planet’s fresh water resources. The conference included some venerable thinkers such as John Todd, Robert F. Kennedy Jr., Ralph Nader, Winona Hauter, Maude Barlow, and the prolific, left of center author, Kirkpatrick Sale. Annette was so impressed by Sale, that she attached a piece he had written following the conference. I agree with Annette, so I’d like to include an excerpt: 

Of all the social and natural crises we humans [and nonhumans] face, the water crisis is the one that lies at the heart of our survival and that of our [sic] planet Earth. No region will be spared from the impact of this crisis which touches every facet of life, from the health of children to the ability of nations to secure food for citizens. Water supplies are falling while the demand is dramatically growing at an unsustainable rate.

In an article written last year by John Walters, in Montpelier’s The Bridge, as a response to Montpelier Spring Water Co.’s proposal “…skeptics circulated a petition calling for a three-year moratorium on any large-scale withdrawal of East Montpelier – anything over 10,000 gallons a day.”

The idea of the petition began with the lone voice of East Montpelier resident, Carolyn Shapiro. She became outraged two years back after getting wind of the Montpelier Spring Water Co.’s proposal in a local paper that “covered a request from the fledgling water company for Montpelier City Council’s approval work in the city’s right-of-way.” She had harangued the select board for “not informing the public of the company’s application to the town and for not granting an information meeting after she presented the board with a petition signed by 60 East Montpelier residents.”

Eventually, after much public concern, the petition came under Article 15 at East Montpelier‘s town meeting on March 4, 2008. Dean Hedges, the town water manager, opposed the moratorium, stating: “permitting by the State Agency of Natural Resources, Act 250 and oversight by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) would suffice enough to protect the town’s water.” The idea of leaving this issue exclusively in the hands of the state to be dealt with legally did not seem like the best of ideas, considering how much influence corporate lobbyists have over politicians. Moreso, I recalled Annette stating: “The Clean Water Act required Zero Discharge and we [the state] are not doing that at all. In Vermont, an attorney at ANR told me the other day that in his position it is legal to contaminate the groundwater under your site. I asked another attorney in private practice and he said no it isn’t.”

At the town meeting, Paul Earlbaum proposed an amendment to the moratorium, stating the select board and planning commission should “take all steps necessary to realize the intent of…a three-year and three-week prohibition on withdrawing water…for the purpose of allowing citizens adequate time to gather information.” The meeting adjourned and the amendment was passed. The citizens’ voices proved not only to be loud, but effective, and there seemed to be a realization that this was more than just a fight against private industry – it was about preserving Vermont‘s pristine watershed.

As a result of East Montpelier‘s victory, Vermont Natural Resources Council was inspired to push for legislation that would enact law making it so Vermont‘s groundwater be mapped and accounted for; to much success, the initiative received a great response and a write-up in the New York Times.

However, the issues surrounding water access around the world still remains dire and demanding. Mexico City has sunk more than thirty feet into the ground due to their extracting from the underlying aquifer. Routine shutting off of taps has become compulsory as they are over 50 percent below their water table. The same conditions exist in Beijing and Shanghai, China, as well as in many regions of India, Africa and the Global South.

Between 1970 and 2000, virtually all vegetation of Madagascar‘s highland plateau had been lost to deforestation for irrigation and agriculture. The endeavor transformed the country’s biomass into a wasteland. The detrimental effects are widespread erosion that produce heavily silted rivers that “run red;” the loss of ecosystems, and species driven to the brink of extinction; as well as the loss of fresh water, and coral reef reformations.

We’re told this is an issue that is commensurate with a growing global population. But the truth is, it is the result of social arrangements. Ninety percent of the use of water is for industrial agriculture and the commodification of nature, viz. for the industrial production of consumables and energies. Population growth is not responsible for the desiccation of fresh water as much as capitalism is, as much as industrial civilization is (it is self-evident that cities do not have a clean source of fresh water – fluoridation does not count, to find out why, go buy some rat poison at your local grocer and read the ingredient – there’s only one: sodium fluoride).

If we want to preserve our fresh waters, it is imperative that our modes of production change radically, that the dams the world over come down – immediately, and by any means necessary; and that water is not viewed objectively as a catalyst for generating financial wealth, meaning no more commercial bottled water.

Every river, stream, and brook in the continental U.S. is tainted with carcinogenic material. There are approximately 41 million Americans drinking water that has traces of pharmaceuticals in it – in India the waters contain 150 times the highest levels of pharmaceutical contamination than in the U.S. The reasons for this abuse to our watersheds and fresh waters runs deep folks, but if we want to preclude further devastation we must act now, we must engender what the residents in East Montpelier had last year, this time on a global scale.

In April 2000, after weeks of civil disobedience and vehement protest in the streets, the president of Bolivia was forced by the popular upheaval to terminate the 40-year water privatization contract granted to Aguas del Tunari. This victory shows that if we align voices with actions, then community agency can direct what’s in our best interest, and that is to preserve the natural world – especially its freshwaters.  


Photo by Keith Bacongco

Caption: Employees of the water district in Davao City, Philippines gather outside the city hall Saturday to protest a proposed P100-million loan from the Local Water Utility Administration that would lead to the privatization of the city’s water system.