By Lisa Sorg
When Howlin' Wolf sang, "I asked for water, she gave me gasoline," it's unlikely he knew that one day they would cost — and in some cases, taste — about the same.
Population density and trends, farming practices, and even climate change, have strained the world's most important resource — water. Recognizing a short supply and a high demand, corporations are profiting from the inequity by privatizing water supplies. Yet, corporate control over such an essential natural resource — humans can live only about four days without water — raises fears that it will become a private commodity, like oil, rather than a human right and public good.
P.O.V.'s Thirst examines the global fight over privatization of water. It airs July 13 at 10 p.m. on KLRN Channel 8 and Cable Channel 10, and will be re-broadcast on July 15 at 2:30 a.m.
The program takes viewers to Stockton, California, where residents are fighting City Hall to prevent Thames-OMI from usurping the public utility; Cochabamba, the third-largest city in Bolivia, where citizens beat back the Bechtel Consortium's takeover of the water supply; and Rajasturan, a desert city in India, where women are the leaders of the anti-privatization movement.
In the United States, cash-strapped city governments are facing millions of dollars in infrastructure improvements for aging water mains and storm sewer pipes. Nationwide, that debt is estimated at $2 trillion. (By 2010, 40 percent of San Antonio's pipes will be 50 years old. The San Antonio Water System, our publicly owned utility, estimates it will spend $110 million annually through 2089 to upgrade the infrastructure.)
Stockton Mayor Gary Podesto saw Thames- OMI, a British-German conglomerate, as a way to escape the city's mounting debt, and ostensibly pass along the savings to rate-payers. "Think of our citizens as customers," Podesto said. Yet, when a group of concerned citizen-customers lobbied for a referendum on privatization, the city council denied their request. (That tactic should sound familiar to PGA Village activists, for whom water quality and quantity are also an issue.) The citizens were worried not only about job loss for public employees, but also the city's water quality. After Atlanta privatized its utility, one Stockton activist pointed out, water running from taps was not only expensive, it was brown.
Abroad, the World Bank provides much of the impetus for privatization to supposedly help lift developing countries out of debt. The Bank pressured the Bolivian government to privatize Cochabamba's water, resulting in rate hikes of 30 to 300 percent.
In India, water has become a feminist issue, as women are in charge of gathering water for the family. Conservation has helped extend the arid area's water supply — and women's backs, which were injured from leaning over to hoist heavy buckets of water from wells. Privatization threatens the people's self-sufficiency. "What if you build a pond to collect rainwater?" asks a Rajasturan citizen at a public meeting. "That belongs to them."
Meanwhile, water mining by Pepsi and Coca-Cola depletes India's groundwater supply; ironically, at the Stockton City Council meeting, a bottle of Dasani, a Coca-Cola product, sat on the dais.
"If you think you have problems with oil, wait until multi-nationals own water. Be prepared to pay gas prices," noted one Stockton resident. Indeed, before the summer spike in gasoline prices, a gallon of Poland Spring cost about $1.69; the same amount of 87 octane went for $1.39. If privatization is the wave of the future, water quantity and quality is threatened. We won't have the right to quench our thirst. •
By Lisa Sorg