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Can You Swallow This?


Multinationals are poised to profit from the privatization of Canada's domestic water supplies.

Multinationals are poised to profit from the privatization of Canada's domestic water supplies. And despite proof that privatization and deregulation have compromised human and environmental health in other countries, many Canadian provinces are seriously considering them.

Canadians are now acutely aware that powerful multinationals have their eyes focused on bulk water shipments from our lakes and rivers, but an even greater threat to this precious public resource is emerging. Our domestic water supply and wastewater systems, which are under provincial and municipal control, are also on the endangered list. Privatization and deregulation of these services are high on the wish lists of huge water companies like Suez Lyonnaise of France.

Privatization and deregulation of public resources and services don't work because corporate interests in our resources and associated services are fueled by greed. These companies view water and wastewater systems as golden business opportunities, veritable cash cows. As greed takes over, cost-cutting measures such as subcontracts to unqualified personnel, reduced inspections and slashed staff may be implemented, along with raised rates, to the detriment of services and quality of product.

Remember Walkerton. The Ontario government thought that privatization of various water services would cut government costs, and that was its only priority. This single-mindedness resulted in tragedy. The final report from the public inquiry found the Ontario government responsible for the Walkerton tragedy because it dismantled the provincial water management system, turned the safety of the water supply over to private laboratories that tested water on the ability of the customer to pay, and placed incompetents in charge of water management. While the tragic aftereffects of this move toward corporate efficiency" remain, it would seem that no actual lessons have been learned; other provinces are poised to make the same mistake.

What if you turned on your tap and nothing happened? Or you turned on your tap and the water was discoloured, foul-smelling or otherwise unfit to drink? What if your water rates rose to such an extent that you couldn't afford this life-giving resource?

This has already happened in other parts of the world where privatization of water and wastewater services has been permitted. In Cochabamba, Bolivia, the huge Bechtel Corporation took over the public water system in 2000, raising rates about 50 per cent far beyond the ability to pay for many poor families. A city-wide revolt resulted, in which a 17-year-old boy was killed and hundreds of people were injured. Bechtel left the country, returning the water supply to public hands. Now Bechtel is suing Bolivia for $25 million a portion of the $14-billion-a-year profits the corporation hoped for, but was not permitted to gain.

Other countries serviced by private water corporations, like Argentina and Uruguay, have had many problems with their water supply and services, including an enormous increase in charges and contamination of the water itself. Communities are now pressuring their governments to cancel these contracts. Whether they will be successful remains to be seen, given that huge profits are at stake and negotiation processes are often flawed.

In various places across South Africa and in Swaziland, water companies have dreamed up a "cost recovery" mechanism to increase their enormous profits. Instead of a regular faucet that switches on and off, there is a large metal box with a slot for a plastic card and a tap below. You pay a certain amount of money to the water company, and the card is computer-coded to allow a designated amount of water to run through the tap. When the amount of water you have purchased runs out, you are cut off until you can pay again no billing, no collecting, no face-to-face confrontations with poor and desperate people corporate efficiency at its deadliest.

This privatization involves a resource that should always remain in the public common. We humans cannot live without water, yet in developing countries millions of people have no access to safe water and are dying each day from water-borne diseases. Since prepaid meters were installed, millions more are dying of cholera, and reliable research has placed the blame for this firmly on the shoulders of the water companies and their insidious "cost recovery" programs. Thirsty people will drink anything even filthy run-off water if they are denied access to anything better.

Don't think that this couldn't happen here in Canada. A huge "water rat pack" of multinationals has already privatized all or parts of the water systems of Atlanta, Berlin, Bolivia, Casablanca, Ghana, Houston, New Orleans, San Francisco, Ontario and many other places, with disastrous effects on consumers. A major powerhouse lobbying outfit called the National Association of Water Companies is determined to gain access to Canadian water, and we can expect to hear glowing words regarding the benefits of privatization and "corporate efficiency" from the corporate-sponsored media. Don't be fooled; remember Walkerton. It could happen to any of us if privatization of our water and wastewater services is allowed.

The United Nations Secretary General Kofi Annan identified water as one of the top five priorities at the Johannesburg World Summit on Sustainable Development (WSSD) in September. It was felt that, should the conference fail to deal effectively with water issues and corporations be allowed to continue their commercialism of this necessary resource, the conference would be doomed to failure. By this criterion, the summit failed miserably.

Shielded from Africa's sprawling slums by thousands of police, business leaders from around the globe gathered in the elite Sandton Convention Centre, the site of the WSSD, where they pitched their corporate agendas to the 100-plus gathered heads of state, lobbying for "free trade" and further liberalization of the service sector. Meanwhile, thousands of ambassadors representing a wide range of important issues were denied access to the forum. These ostracized spokespeople represented the voices of the people this summit was supposed to help. Since their voices could not be heard, the summit was doomed to fail in its supposed promise of sustainable development.

This lopsided representation resulted in questionable "partnerships" among governments, businesses and civil society organizations. For example, the 300-strong US delegation, in a backroom deal at a late-night session in Johannesburg, held the future of our planet and its people at ransom, forcing delegates to accept the fact that the US would only agree to free up money for clean water projects if the world gave up on renewable energy. "Big Oil" called the shots, once again.

This brings us to the real powers behind the summit: the multinationals and their complex power tools, the World Trade Organization (WTO), International Monetary Fund, (IMF), World Bank and that golden bit of legislation, the General Agreement on Trade and Services (GATS), worded to give the corporate elite access to everything nations hold sacred within the public common. The pressure is on, both from the US and the European Union, for further liberalization of services.

In November 2001, WTO ministers met at Doha, Qatar, to relaunch the process of liberalizing services, such as water access, covered by the GATS. They decided each member state would have to inform the WTO, and the countries concerned, of its bids in the service sectors, with the hopes of liberalization by other member states by June 30, 2002. Now each member state has until March 31, 2003 to inform the WTO and other member states of its own offers of liberalization.

This is where we come in. Resistance to the selling-off of public services is increasing around the world as the disastrous results of privatization and deregulation become apparent. What is Canada offering up for liberalization? Provincial/municipal initiatives can be overruled by federal policy. If our water and waste services are on the table at the national level, they must be removed at once, before the March 31 deadline.

Time is running out. If you have not yet signed a petition or written your MP and the Prime Minister regarding this matter, now is the time to do it. If you don't know where to begin, contact the Council of Canadians at 502-151 Slater St., Ottawa, ON, K1P 5H3. For more information on their "Save Our Water" campaign, phone: 1-800-387-7177or visit their Web site, Other excellent sources of information include and

If we, the people of Canada, value our water, we must take direct action to protect it at every level of government, and we must act NOW.



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