Karen Piper has written a powerful book about how water privatization threatens people around the world. Connecting the subject to the world’s colonial past, she demonstrates how a handful of multinational corporations working with global financial organizations like the World Bank have ridden roughshod over the world’s people in order to turn a profit off the substance of life. Piper visited nations around the world where water privatization and access connect to larger issues that threaten the globe, including Egypt and Iraq to connect water access with Islamic extremism and Chile to understand how the issues going on with privatization in that country are connected to climate change. Ultimately, she makes a convincing case for taking water privatization more seriously in conceptualizing the world’s biggest problems.
Of course water privatization isn’t something that most activists are completely unaware of. Most significantly was the Bechtel attempt to privatize the water of Coachabamba, Bolivia in 2000 and the grassroots protests against this that paved the way for the rise of Evo Morales. But by and large, it’s not an issue most of think about much. Yet we should.
Central to Piper’s argument is the relationship between water privatization on one hand and colonialism and imperialism on the other. She begins her book by profiling a visit to the World Water Forum, a big international event that brings the UN together with international development specialists, the IMF and World Bank, and water companies to promote water development. But really the extraordinarily elite event does little than promote the interests of the big water companies such as Suez, Veolia, and Agbar. In fact, 5 companies controlled 73 percent of the world’s privatized water in 2001. Of course grassroots activists are not allowed to participate in these big wig discussions of global water, even though (and really, because) they are the ones who will suffer in the attempt to turn water into a commodity.
These companies originated in the history of European colonialism. Veolia is a French company that evolved out of an 1853 Napoleon III decree that opened up water as a profit-making enterprise for many of Europe’s wealthiest men. Suez, another French company, was founded by an imperialist who was later involved in the failed French attempt to build the Panama Canal and the Belgian conquest of the Congo. The company was long run by colonial officials in North Africa and continues to see Africa as a prime place for Europeans to profit off of water. Today these companies are the world’s prime pushers of water privatization.
Water privatization in Chile began with the tight relationship between Milton Friedman and the Chicago Boys with Augusto Pinochet during the economic plundering of Chile after the 1973 coup. The privatization regime of Pinochet largely remains in place today, while the conflation of indigenous rights with “terrorism” pioneered by that coup also retains power. The Pehuenche and Mapuche are resisting Chile’s attempts to dam the Bío-Bío River and Baker River and they face significant harassment from the government for doing so. In South Africa, she argues for integrating traditional understandings of water to push against the capitalist practices of both the apartheid and post-Mandela governments that have had widespread ecological damage for the sake of profit.
Meanwhile in the Middle East, where water supplies are already sensitive, water privatization can cause significant instability, including Islamic extremism. Piper notes how the 1991 American bombings of the Iraqi infrastructure permanently undermined what was once a very good water infrastructure. In Egypt, water privatization in 2005 doubled the price of water in some parts of Cairo and led to public protests that never really went away. She argues this led directly into the movement against Hosni Mubarak, whose family was heavily involved in water profiteering in the country. Meanwhile, Egypt’s elite classes had more water than they knew what to do with, with water inequality mirroring other forms of inequality. Briefly analyzing the post-revolutionary period, Piper notes that while the nationalization of water supplies would have benefited Egypt’s people, the water companies saw the nation as a future gold mine. The World Bank and IMF offered Morsi $4.5 billion in loans for recovery, but of course that came with the strings of continuing the privatization regime. When Morsi began cancelling some of the corrupt deals over water and other sectors of Egypt’s society, the foreign corporations began to panic and she argues this led to Morsi’s being forced to resign as the economy collapsed. I do however think the decline of Morsi is a lot more complicated than this given Piper ignores the religious tensions within Egyptian society entirely. But at the very least, it’s worth thinking of water as a central player in such events.
Piper also notes the dangers of calling water a “human right.” It’s not bad per se to do this but it opens space for corporations to co-opt this relatively meaningless language to say that they are privatizing the world’s water because they believe in human rights. Companies like Suez and Veolia have embraced the language of water as a human rights because now they could demand international funding to promote this human right so beneficially provided through them. Corporations could now sue foreign governments to make water payments using such language as a justification.
The coming chaos of water is real enough with or without privatization. Pollution, overextraction and depletion of ground water, salinization, and climate change all threaten the world’s fresh water supplies. If nothing is done to ensure the ability of all citizens to have access to some water in order to survive, global disasters will result. But for corporations, this is all a chance to profit, which means that those who can pay will access water and those can’t won’t. That will exacerbate global inequality, could create wars, and will likely lead to the increased marginalization and oppression of indigenous peoples and racial minorities. None of this bothers corporations of course.
In the end, Piper hopes to “help return cultural diversity to the management of the world’s water supplies,” aiming for an anti-colonial view of water that pushes back against the post-colonial multinational corporations. Mostly she succeeds in her arguments. One can argue that the challenges of finding clean water for billions of people is something that can’t really rely on romanticized notions of local control. On the other hand, the current system of privatization and profit isn’t working either for the world’s poor. We in the U.S. might see the water system as fundamentally successful, although if you live in Detroit you probably don’t. Unfortunately, Detroit more represents what corporate water has done to most of the world. Piper effectively challenges this system and should make us think harder about the relationship between water and colonialism at the very least.