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Paying For A Drink

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Beware The Corporate Theft Of Public Water

By James Donahue

As if big corporations haven’t done enough to control our lives and rob our wealth, now they are busy seizing control of world water supplies. Some cities and local governments are fighting back.

Taking the spotlight in this remarkably silent battle has been Stockton, California, where citizen have risen up against a movement launched by former Mayor Gary Podesto to give control of the water system to global water corporations. A Citizens Coalition, the Sierra Club and League of Women Voters joined forces to file a lawsuit to stop not only the privatization of the city’s water, but wastewater and storm water utilities. They won the battle in Superior Court but the Stockton City Council has appealed the ruling so the fight goes on.

Alarmingly, similar battles are going on in Lexington, Kentucky, Holyoke, Massachusetts and Mecosta County, Michigan.

There has been a strange coalition between governments and corporations in the promotion of the privatization of a wide range of services that have long been the function of government. This has included the operation of prisons, nursing homes, and even fighting our wars. The concept of water privatization under the guise of efficiency has been quietly creeping into the picture as well.

Beware! There is nothing efficient or cost effective about a corporate takeover of public services, and especially the sale of basic resources like drinking water. Take the example of Felton, California, where the local regional water utility was purchased in 2001 by California American Water. This company is a subsidiary of American Water, which in turn is a subsidiary of Thames Water of London, which in turn is a wing of the German corporation RWE. One resident of Felton saw a monthly water bill jump from $250 to $1,275.

A recent report by Fred Pearce for Alternet noted that something has been going on in the world “that has hardly been mentioned, and that some believe is the great slow-burning, and hopelessly underreported resource crisis of the Twenty-First Century: water. Climate change, overconsumption and the alarmingly inefficient use of this most basic raw material are all to blame.”

Pearce warned that major world rivers are being sucked dry to irrigate food crops and provide drinking water for heavily populated areas. “We are also pumping out underground water reserves almost everywhere in the world.”

One of the worst examples of wasting precious fresh water resources I have seen was occurring in the high desert of Arizona when my wife and I lived briefly on the Navajo Reservation in 2006. The Peabody Coal Company was heavily involved in strip mining of coal on the Navajo and Hopi Reservation lands, and drawing high volumes of water from a giant fresh water reservoir known to exist several hundred feet below. Instead of trucking the coal, the company was using that precious resource of fresh water to move the coal along large slues to electric generating plants operating sometimes hundreds of miles away. The power plants were generating electricity for big metropolitan areas in California.

The Navajo and Hopi knew that water was there. They used pumps operated by windmills to draw this water into watering troughs for the livestock that grazed on the open range. When driving on the open roads across the miles and miles of high desert, we could see the many windmills standing like sentinels across the landscape. But even when we were there, the natives were expressing concern because their water wells were running dry and the cattle were thirsty.

Now, as the world water crisis grows worse, the move by private corporations to seize control of the last great water resource is gaining steam. Alan Snifow and Deborah Kaufman, in a recent PBS documentary “Thurst,” warn that  “climate change is a warning that uncontrolled abuse of the earth’s natural resources is leading toward planetary catastrophe. Who is to set the necessary limits to the abuse of the environment? Private companies fighting for market share are incapable of doing so.”

Adding to the growing water crisis has been the recent economic collapse which in turn is stressing the budgets of states, counties and local cities. Our dinking and wastewater systems, most of them designed a century ago, are in serious need of replacement. Without the money to do this costly work, many communities find themselves on the brink of disaster. Water main leaks and contamination issues are becoming common problems everywhere. In many areas, people are turning to bottles of purchased drinking water rather than trust the water coming out of their taps. The ubiquitous plastic water bottles are so common we see them almost everywhere, including our corporate board rooms, city council meetings and in our cars.

Corporations have not missed an opportunity to seize the financial advantages of getting involved in “helping” solve the water crisis. They are offering public officials an easy way out. They will make the improvements, run the aging water and sewer plants and save the cities millions of dollars. And they will pass the costs on to consumers, along with a demand for corporate profits.

Pearce summed up the water issue when he wrote: “For too long we have seen water as a cheap and unlimited resource. Those days are coming to an end – not only in dry places, but everywhere. For if the current world food crisis shows anything it is that in an era of global trade in ‘virtual water’ local water shortages can reverberate throughout the world.”