Saturday, 11 August 2007

Which water will the Prime Minster choose?

By America Vera-Zavala

On Sunday Prime Minister Reinfeldt will hold the opening speech at Stockholm Water Week. I wonder which kind of water the prime minister will choose. I myself always drink clean and fresh water from the tap. I specifically ask for it when speaking at public events. It is a political choice. Each year over 100 billion liter of bottled water is sold. Most often in non-recyclable plastic packaging; this is bad for the environment. Moreover, bottled water is part of the ongoing move towards privatization of water. The prime minister must clarfiy about his vision on water. Is water a commodity or a human right?

There is a clear pattern in the sell-out of water in countries around the world, following the implementation of neoliberal scenarios. The public sector takes the economic risk whereas transnational corporations cash in profits. When water is privatized, the corporation that bought up the utility makes profit out of what was build up collectively with tax payers' money. Public ownership is rolled back and those with capital, whether financial or cultural, hold bigger sway. Those without are left without water.

This is not the way it should be, say the water activists from different parts of the world who will gather in Stockholm at the occasion of the Nestle-sponsored water conference. Their goal is to present a different picture than the one promoted by large corporations. They bring with them many good examples of public-public partnerships, for instance the cooperation between the water company from Buenos Aires and a municipality in Peru. Among these activists are Nila Ardhianie from Amrta Institute, Indonesia and Luis Padron from the public water utility of Buenos Aires.

In the spring of 2002 I was traveling in Latin Ameica to write my book about participatory democracy ("Deltagande demokrati"). I spent two months studying the participatory budgeting process in Porto Alegre. I remember having lunch with a municipal civil servant working with the city's water supply. He shared his concerns about the International Monetary Fund, IMF, which demanded that Brazil would open its water market to allow transnational corporations to enter the market. The IMF's demands result in privatization, he said. The decision was to be made that spring by the parliament and the IMF's pressure was intense. During three weeks in the turbulent Argentina I observed how the water bills were a big problem for the crisis-hit population. Everything was privatized, also the water. But the problems with paying the water bills must be due to the the crisis, I thought at the time. The last three weeks I traveled to Chile to meet my father. During some days in March 2002, the main news in the Chilean media was that between 35 and 45% of the population couldn't afford to pay the water bills. Chile is
seen as one of Latin America?s leading economies.

It remains to be seen what Stockholm's mayor Kristina Axen Olin and development minister Gunilla Carlsson, who are also both speaking at Stockholm Water Week, will say about water privatization. For now, let's watch what kind of water the Prime Minister will be drinking during his speech.

(First published in Swedish in 'Efter Arbetet' -

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