Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Water Water Everywhere, Not a Drop to Drink


            Water is the most indispensable part of life on Earth. Life is born in water; it grows in water and seeks water every moment of its existence. Water determines how healthy one is. It quenches our thirst, refreshes us and makes us clean. In the process, water purifies itself. Freely given to anyone born on the Earth: human, animal or plant, water is our birth right. Nature makes sure that we get enough water for our needs. Water was here when man came to the Earth. Our concerned question today is, whether water would still be there when finally man disappears!

Watery Issues

            Issues regarding water came up not just in the present or past century. Since water was the central and most important necessity, it was always a concern and an issue all through human history. There were wells and community water sources even in prehistoric times where people gathered and shared information. Social ostracism was mere denial of access to the community well which meant sure death or certain punishment. In the so-called civilized modern societies, questions about water have become extremely important because of the population boom, industrialization, and the resulting non-availability of pure drinking water. In the present era, the fate of water has taken another tragic turn. Today, water is not available to everyone on the planet. It has become one of the most valuable and most traded commodities. Therefore, the powerful and the affluent make it their privilege to grab the best water on Earth.

Greed for Water

           To gather whatever is available is human nature. This nature takes us well beyond our actual needs into greed. And all the natural resources are targets of greedy exploitation. Now, when it is the turn of water, we are slowly realizing what greed can do to our race. Survival on this planet depends much on our ability to share what we get freely from nature. When this sharing is made to be based on economic terms, sharing itself becomes an empty term. What one gets freely is sold at a very high price, just because you are able to spend money to appropriate natural resources! Greed for water is the ugliest of its kind, the worst we have ever seen.

Commoditization of Water

            The world today is engaged in a mad rush towards development at any cost. When a giant population like that of China decides to make a ‘great leap,’ there are a lot of facts that go unnoticed. The Three Gorges Dam was such a leap which left a lot of unnoticed facts for us to ‘notice.’ Up the Yangtze (a documentary) is the result of such a ‘noticing.’ But even when we engage in noticing the unnoticed anomalies of our world, we miss out on the giants involved in this commoditization of water, because they act subtly, silently and discreetly. At the Yangtze, they harnessed the power of water, to generate electricity. The Chinese government successfully completed the task and even today proudly upholds the dam as a jewel of development. But when water is marketed like in the Yangtze, our race loses its humanity. Those displaced from Yangtze dam basin had to flee like birds to find a home and to fend for themselves. That is when the eyes of the government turn blind even to the rehabilitation of the displaced people.
            Therefore, I see no difference between bottled water, available at our convenience stores and the harnessed water at dams like the Yangtze. Both are instruments of marginalization and tools for making the rich, richer and the poor, poorer; that is, if we set apart the little advantages they have. Dams displace people in millions, to cater to the needs of cities. Bottling plants and soft drink industries pauperize the water reserves of the earth, to fill the coffers of multinational firms. In both cases, looting happens, in subtle ways.
Ultimately, it is our mother Earth who loses. We are blind or rather, we don’t want to/care to see. So we loot, closing our eyes.

Water Lobbies

            What is all these talk about water? Isn’t water still available for us? Isn’t water still a free commodity? No. No more. Water is the most demanded commodity in this millennium. It is said and quoted again and again that the third world war (if there is one) would be for water. Our age lives up to this saying! Big business firms have increased interest in water as a commodity. Many of our favourite brand names are involved in water business. Since multinational companies have a say in every government on earth, grabbing water resources and exploiting them is not a big deal for them. Empty promises of development are temptations enough for the comprador class to succumb to the MNCs’ deceivingly fat offers.
            It is in this context that we need to look at the amazingly shameless global firms like Bechtel and Edison which bought the whole water system of the River Cochabamba in Bolivia and Coca Cola which destroyed the organic existence of Plachimada village in Kerala, India! But for the women of these two places, these giant firms would have gone unscathed into glory, hands full of money. Merciless water-hunters would have sucked even the last drop of water out of earth’s spine. When money is involved, where is place for human qualities of sharing and generosity?

Major International Players

            The two largest water corporations in the world are French transnational Suez and German energy conglomerate RWE. Ranked 79th and 78th among Fortune's Global 100 List, these two water giants capture nearly 40 percent of the existing water market share. The French company, Vivendi, previously ranked 51st has dropped off the list, but remains a strong contender. These multinationals are now gaining a foothold in the United States, where they operate through a number of subsidiaries.
 Vivendi in over 100 countries and Suez operates in 130; their combined annual revenues are over $70 billion (including $19 billion in water and wastewater services). RWE revenues are currently over $50 billion (energy included), having acquired British water giant Thames Water. After purchasing American Water Works, RWE gained control of the largest U.S. private water utility. This expanded its customer base from 43 million to 56 million people. Other major water corporations include Bechtel, Biwater plc, Bouygues/Saur, U.S. Water, Severn Trent, Anglian Water, and the Kelda Group.
There is more. American insurance giant American International Group acquires small water utilities across the U.S. Our own Indian favourite brand name TATA is into water business (Himalayan Bottled water). There are many other companies in the race- small and big.

What do they sell?

They sell water and water related services. Even our country shops sell water based products including bottled water. What is novel in big companies selling water? There is something novel about it. It is extremely difficult for ordinary people to believe that water is sold on commercial basis, after it is stolen from people. The big water lobbies, with the consent of local governing bodies, extract water from the earth, add colour and even pesticides, and then bottle it, and sell it back to the people. People fall prey to the incredible amount of advertisement, the glitz and glamour of endorsement and buy this bottled poison and drink. That is, water- my birthright, is stolen from me and is being sold back to me! Only our ‘civilized’ society could tolerate such atrocities. Only our ‘educated’ youth could bear such crimes willingly.

How do they sell water?

All major developed, industrialized countries are facing water shortage, and all of them are on the lookout for fresh water springs. The saddest fact is that, as part of globalized privatization, all this has fallen into the hands of private players, whose sole aim is profit. With little social commitment, they will extract water and sell it to those who can afford, leaving the underprivileged at a loss. Yet another form of marginalization!
Private water firms are now setting their sights on the mass export of bulk water by diversion, by pipelines and by supertankers. Already, such devices are used to sell water to those who can pay immediately. Barges carry loads of freshwater to islands in the Bahamas and tankers deliver water to Japan, Taiwan, and Korea. Turkey is preparing to sell its water by shipping it on converted oil tankers and through pipeline from the Manavgat River to Cyprus, Malta, Libya, Israel, Greece and Egypt. Incredible! Austria has plans to sell its Alpine water to all of Europe, through pipelines. Israel is already implementing plans to import water from Turkey via sea.
This is only one way. There is another way of selling water. That is through dams. We have seen in Narmada Dam project, that the beneficiaries of the project were not the rural people, who were displaced and thrown away. City dwellers benefitted by the project. Here too, water is grabbed from its owners- people, and is sold to the affluent.
            So, here we are; at the verge of a waterless world. Very much like King Ashoka at the battlefield, looking at dead bodies. The difference is that our world won’t repent!

What can we do to save our planet?

            This is a question to be asked by every responsible citizen of the world. We are running into a trap. Privatization of water distribution systems would mean privatization of natural water resources including rivers, springs and mountain water sources. In such a case, we would not be able to draw water from our sources. Naturally, we will have to subscribe to one of the water business firms for daily supply of water, at the price 'they' fix, for our water. The developed world has already done this. There is a problem with this. This bottle-water culture will necessarily cut the connection human beings have with the earth. Human being who has now become a mere consumer, will no more have to know where from and how this product reaches his/her hands. Gradually, concern for nature, earth and its subsistence will vanish. And like a herd of goats, being led into slaughter house, we will end up killing our race itself.

        To prevent this, we need to create awareness about these problems and their possible solutions. We need development, but sustained development. We need our earth to remain as it is for our future generations. We need to extend a helping hand to each other to be firm and steady in fighting for mother earth. Its no more enough to be aware of these things and be silent. We need to act on these things. We need to gather people and spread awareness. This is when great popular movements gain importance for us. A few of such popular movements are outlined below.

Major pro-Water Agitations

            There had been some people around the world who felt the urgency to raise their voices against water theft in various ways. Some did this because they were directly affected. Some others joined this movement because they couldn’t keep quiet seeing such cold-blooded activities. Some of those projects succeeded in uprooting evil forces, some didn’t. But all of them proved to the world that when human beings come together with common and genuine interest, things can and will change.

Plachimada- Fight against a Global Giant Coke

            A thousand day long protest was staged to gain justice, in a small village named Plachimada, in Kerala, South India. Ever since the beginning of this massive peoples struggle, Plachimada was at the centre of water related forums all over the world. Plachimada gains importance because it was a struggle initiated by ordinary people who realized that Coca Cola was putting an end to their livelihood and their lives as well, through their bottling plant in the village.

            'Thousand Days and a Dream' is a documentary film directed by Sarathchandran and Baburaj, immortalizing the crucial moments of the Plachimada struggle. The dream talked about in the film is about uprooting Coca Cola plant from Plachimada. It took a thousand days to legally move the conscience of the nation to look at the problem with just eyes. Those who took part in the struggle had to give up so many comforts of life. Mayilamma, the village woman who led the struggle is an iconic figure of such concerns of today. She and thousands of other villagers stood firm against all kinds of gimmicks played by the government and Coke. But the villagers had no choice but to struggle. Their village became a living example of what exploitation of water could do to us. The ground water either disappeared or was contaminated. Land became in-cultivable because they used the fertilizer given ‘freely’ by Coke. Therefore, they had to raise their voice against this injustice. Millions of gallons of fresh water extracted daily by Coke, fetched  millions of Dollars for the company and endless misery for the villagers.
            After long, relentless and untiring struggle over the years, finally the Multinational Giant- Coca Cola had to leave the village. Recently, the court ordered the company to pay them a compensation of Rs. 200 Crores.  But justice delayed is justice denied!

Narmada Bachao Andolan

            Another episode of genuine social concern is Narmada Bachao Andolan, which drew new routes of popular struggle against corporate and anti-national interests. The whole issue began decades ago when the plan to build a dam across the river Narmada, in Gujarat was proposed. World Bank had given millions of Dollars for the project. The popular struggle against the dam went on for years. Finally World Bank had to pull out of the project. But our own leaders and bureaucrats did not want the plan to be scraped. So they persevered. In spite of the nation’s conscience, the dam happened. Its reservoir engulfed livelihoods, cultures, traditions and dreams of millions of villagers in Gujarat and neighbouring states. These victims of Narmada Dam will stand for ever as victims of unjust development. The dam catered only to urban interests. The dam has failed to fulfill promises made about rehabilitation and compensation.
        Anand Patwardhan’s film, 'The Narmada Diary' portrays the history of this movement through the eyes of the camera. It’s a video diary, kept by the filmmaker to write this great episode of people’s struggle into world history. What is intriguing about this dam project is its size. Narmada is huge in size. This is the largest hydraulic- engineering plan yet devised, with 1 super dam, 29 great dams, 135 medium and 3000 smaller dams, vast irrigation/canalization, embracing 40 million people. Its central hinge is the Sardar Sarovar high dam in Gujarat, whose headwater reservoir and associated canalization will displace over half a million locals – a great swathe of fishers, farmers, and forest-dwellers, now summoned to “make a sacrifice for the nation’. This sacrifice, forcefully inflicted on people is what goes against democracy. India’s integrity as a democratic republic is under stake here. A few powerful and influential people can decide upon the fate of millions of people, without their consent or even knowledge. The unofficial accounts say that Rs. 400 Billion is spent on the dam. This is the bate that hooked the powerful class, to hold on to the idea- you know why!

Cochabamba- Bolivian Struggle
            As mentioned earlier, a consortium of multinational water business firms signed an agreement with the government of Bolivia to undertake the public water distribution system of Cochabamba. Immediately after taking charge, they increased water prices by 35 percent, which angered people of the place. The women of the place got out into the streets and raised their voice. Soon, the movement drew international attention. Many more hands joined the struggle. Millions of emails were sent to the U.N. and other international agencies. Due to this massive resistance, the government had to scrap the project. This is another victory for people of genuine concern for nature.

Yangtze- Contradictions of Development

             'Up the Yangtze' is a beautiful account of what happened in China, when the Three Gorges Dam came up. Under the iron hands of the Red Regime, no one dared to raise their voice. But it is a fact that 2 millions lost their livelihood. The protagonist of the film is a girl named Yu Shui. The Dam submerged her home. After losing everything due to the dam, she had to work on a ship which hosted rich foreign tourists on the same dam’s reservoir! Contradictions pile up as China goes right with an indicator showing left. The luxurious boat floats over a culture that would soon vanish under water. The culture, traditions and livelihood of millions went under water, silently without protest. But today, the dam itself is a memoir of development that lost its direction.


            Water continues to be everyone’s need. But it has ceased to be everyone’s privilege.   Soon it will become the right of a particular class. That is, if we don’t come out of our comfortable corners. What happened to Cochabambinos and Narmada valley inhabitants may happen to you and me tomorrow. Tomorrow, it could be some of us who stand confused at the sight of rising water levels, like Naagi in the Kannada film Dweepa. And today’s world would tell us that such things are not too far in the future. Global warming was a myth till yesterday. Today, every city dweller and village farmer on the face of the earth would vouch for the fact that temperature is rising day by day and rainfall is coming down season by season. In the mad rush for development, we forget to keep the earth safe. We also forget that there are a thousand other generations coming after us, to inhabit our Earth. 

            Water needs to be protected. Water needs to be cared for. Nothing is impossible- says Cochabamba and Plachimada. What we need is willingness and openness. We need to act in our little ways, to safeguard the earth. We may not become Medha Patkars, Mayilammas or Anand Patwardhans. But we can genuinely be ourselves and do the little that is in our hands. Awareness needs to be spread among people who think they can make a difference. And more and more people should be made to think that they CAN make a difference. Only then can we make a difference.

World is thirsty today. But keep in mind, that everyone needs to quench their thirst.