Argentina just experienced its worse drought in thirty years; California recently suffered its worse drought since the 1400s according to ring tree research carried out by the University of Arizona; Oregon Governor Kate Brown just signed an executive order over the dire conditions of drought in the Klamath Basin, agriculture disaster was recently declared by the US Department of Agriculture in four states (Louisiana, Mississippi, Arkansas and Texas) due to drought, concentrated in to a total of 25 parishes and 124 counties; last week Iranian farmers in Isfahan protested the government’s failure to act on a drought that has plagued the region for over a decade; farmers in Maharashtra, India protested over loan waivers, prices, and land rights with state ministers due to the growing problem of drought in the region; on Tuesday, Kansas Governor, Jeff Colyer, signed a drought declaration for all 105 counties in the state of Kansas; and also on Tuesday the South African government declared that the drought afflicting Cape Town and other parts of the country is a national disaster.
These are just a few facts regarding the mounting problems of water supply around the world with Cape Town being one of the more serious cases. Aside from the obvious problems of climate change where drought poses a threat to green spaces and wildlife, to the local economy, and tourism, the more obvious danger is to agriculture as well as to health and sanitation. In its third year of consecutive drought, Cape Town residents are limited to 50 liters of water per day and ‘Day Zero’, said to arrive on 9 July of this year, is that moment when the water supply is so low that three-quarters of the population will have its water shut off.
While droughts are a natural phenomenon in the Western Cape, climate change has exacerbated the conditions for inhabitants of this region and it is widely believed that climate change is playing a principle role in the devastation. While global warming has already resulted in extreme conditions in this region and beyond, scientists underscore the need for humans to adapt to this new reality where, for instance, in the Western Cape, the weather is expected to warm by around 0.25C over the next decade. This fact alone means that the likelihood of drought will increase sevenfold and affect the state of health, hygiene, and food insecurity in the region.
One strange player that has come to the ‘rescue’in the Western Cape is Coca-Cola Peninsula Beverages, in partnership with the Coca-Cola Foundation and suppliers. Attempting to provide millions of liters of water to the Western Cape and the City of Cape Town during the water crisis, providing free ‘prepared water’ in 2-liter recyclable PET bottles marked “Not for resale.” South Africa is the only country in the world which has a Constitution that guarantees the right to water in the Bill of Rights but this right is not only being denied to millions of residents of the country. In the Western Cape and other provinces, over 1 million people have been affected by water shortages and water restrictions with many having to walk tens of kilometers to source drinking water. So the protection of South Africa’s constitutional guarantee of water has become especially dear to many.
Back in the early 2000s, townships surrounding the cities of Johannesburg and Durban became politically mobilized in protesting water privatization given the fact that at the time over 10 million residents had their water cut off by the government’s implementation of a World Bank-inspired ‘cost recovery’ program. This program made water availability dependent on a company’s ability to recover its costs plus a profit and more than 100,000 people in Kwazulu-Natal province became ill with cholera after water and sanitation services to local communities were cut off for nonpayment.
In their brilliant exposé of this situation in South Africa and beyond, “Who Owns Water?”, Maude Barlow and Tony Clarke give a scathing explanation of what was at stake back in 2002, the situation far more aggravated today. They identify the ten major corporations making a profit from freshwater beginning with France’s Vivendi Universal and Suez whom they label the ‘General Motors and Ford of the global water industry’. Barlow and Clare go on to characterize how these two and other companies: “deliver private water and wastewater services to more than 200 million customers in 150 countries and are in a race, along with others such as Bouygues Saur, RWE-Thames Water and Bechtel-United Utilities, to expand to every corner of the globe.” In the United States, Vivendi operates through its subsidiary, USFilter; Suez via its subsidiary, United Water; and RWE by way of American Water Works.
But what about the World Bank and its’ ‘cost recovery’ programs? Aren’t they working? The short answer is yes: they are working to help increase the coffers of the World Bank and the IMF as poor countries continue to become poorer.
In a country where the minority of white farmers (six hundred thousand) consume 60 percent of the country’s water supplies for irrigation, it is no surprise that the country’s 15 million black citizens have no direct access to water. Labor unions like the South African Municipal Workers Union have collaborated with township activists to organize neighborhood actions where citizens are connecting water up themselves and ripping out water meters. The injustices of foreign-owned companies coming into South Africa are being addressed but all too slowly as residents’ water is cut off, rarely is it the water of white South Africans.
This article has been excerpted from: ‘The Privatization of Water and the Impoverishment of the Global South’.