Market Forces Seek to Control the Essence of Life — Water
The Tlatokan Atlahuak Declaration

April 4, 2006

Market Forces Seek to Control
The Essence of Life – Water

Deborah Kaufman and Alan Snitow

Wednesday, March 22, marked World Water Day, an international observance that grew out of the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development more than a decade ago. It's a day for repeating the terrible numbers: More than a billion people on the planet don't have access to clean water. Nearly 2 billion don't have adequate sewage and sanitation. Dirty water kills two children every minute.

These heart-rending statistics are driven home with images of thirsty children and intense warnings about future water wars and the coming water crisis.

Like so many dire warnings and images, these are designed to provoke a charitable, uncritical, mass response: Because things are so bad, let's all pull together to provide water and sanitation.

But don't look behind the curtain where the promotional strings are being pulled by major multinational water companies with a very specific agenda: to make water an economic commodity that is bought and sold on global markets and is managed by transnational companies that claim to be more efficient, flexible and cheaper than public water agencies.

Arrayed against this corporate-planned water future is a growing citizens movement of community groups and nongovernment organizations. These people believe water is a human right. They want to work toward solving the world's serious water problems not by empowering corporations, but by empowering local people. It's a conflict of ideologies with little room for compromise, and the players are facing off at the fourth World Water Forum in the world's largest metropolis, Mexico City, where ancient pyramids and colonial churches crack slowly as the earth settles from the depletion of its aquifers.

The World Water Forum, a corporate-sponsored triennial event, has attracted more than 20,000 participants from around the world. Its sponsors hope to convince them that technology, new dams and privatization -- so-called public-private partnerships -- can solve global water problems. Outside the forum, critics have also amassed by the tens of thousands to participate in street demonstrations, a mock trial of corporate water "criminals" and an alternative conference that celebrates successful models of community controlled, sustainable, public water services.

In the US, the fight over our water future has become more acute as city after city, gutted by a conservative agenda that is intentionally starving public services, seeks to solve its water problems by contracting out to private companies. Communities such as Stockton, Lexington, Ky., or Holyoke, Mass., are rapidly being overwhelmed by this new politics of water. As prices rise, service declines and consumers are locked out of the decision-making process.

Although water is generally a local issue, growing networks of water activists, such as Food and Water Watch in the US and the Council of Canadians, are publicizing privatization disasters not only in Argentina and South Africa, but also in Atlanta, where the city government threw out a contract with water industry giant Suez because of "brown water days," a workforce cut in half and Suez's failure to deliver on its promises.

One could say globalization has come home to roost, as foreign conglomerates with holdings larger than sovereign countries are now bidding to control US water with a ferocity reminiscent of the old American robber barons. But how long can, say, Nestle suck water from the Great Lakes watershed before citizens realize the bottled water fad is feeding enormous profits into corporations that pay little in taxes while extracting the community's most precious natural resource for free?

Starbucks has even branded its image of water responsibility, selling its Ethos Water with the promise that 5 cents from the $1.80 sale of each plastic designer bottle goes to "Helping children get clean water." The normal profit margin on bottled water is an astounding 50 to 200 percent, which leaves Starbucks with a per-bottle profit more than 20 times its much-publicized largesse.

Pious Starbucks isn't alone. On World Water Day, multinational water companies have their public relations departments working overtime selling their clean, pure, healthy water "product," while the companies make billions, deplete aquifers and pollute the environment with, among other things, 30 million plastic water bottles a day in the US alone.

San Francisco's Bechtel Corp. played a well-known role in the Bolivian "water war" of 2000, in which price increases spurred by privatization sparked an insurrection that forced Bolivia to cancel Bechtel's contract for the city of Cochabamba. It wasn't simply profit and prices that drove people to riot, the Bechtel deal gave the company control of all water sources in the city. In effect, Bechtel owned the rain falling from the skies and water seeping through the earth. Bolivia's example has inspired other countries to resist World Bank policies requiring them to privatize their water systems.

Now, Bolivians are experimenting with community-controlled water services.

The movement has long rejected Washington's "market fundamentalism" -- the idea that the market should take over virtually all government functions and public resources -- but with sympathetic governments now in power across Latin America, the movement has to present alternatives for change that go beyond protest. Latin American groups, such as Red Vida, the Americas Network for the Defense and Right to Water, and the Coalition of Mexican Organizations for the Right to Water are becoming influential advocates.

Here in the US, the anti-privatization movement is also reaching a new stage. Tenacious local groups have forced giant water companies to spend tens of millions of dollars in lobbying, legal and campaign money to win what the companies thought could be won in cheap backroom deals. All the major water companies have run into walls of citizen action. For local citizens groups this is the heady stuff of victory, but the battle is far from over. U.S. government funding for our water infrastructure has been slashed by the Bush administration, leaving strapped local governments looking for alternatives.

The technology, engineers and materials exist to solve the world's water crisis. What's lacking is political will. Do communities, cities and nations have the will to invest in infrastructure to meet all peoples' water needs in the 21st century, or do we want to auction off this priceless resource to profit the few at the public's expense?

Despite efforts of the corporate water industry to douse controversy with dire predictions of water catastrophe or soothing lullabies of corporate philanthropy, this is the essential question posed by World Water Day.

Deborah Kaufman and Alan Snitow are authors, with Michael Fox, of Thirst: The Shocking Theft of Our Most Precious Resource, to be published by Jossey-Bass, an imprint of John Wiley & Sons.

The Native American Peace & Dignity Runners carried vessels of sacred water hundreds of miles from the US to the World Water Forum in Mexico City. Credit:
The following Declaration was issued by the Indigenous Sessions held in Mexico City from March 17-19 during the people's counter-conference held alongside the Fourth World Water Forum held in Mexico City. A grassroots parallel forum was held on March 17 -18 for the many Indigenous peoples from Mexico who were not able to pay the high registration fees charged by the World Water Forum.

An Indigenous Peoples Parallel Forum was attended by over 100 Indigenous peoples from Mexico, US, Canada, and South America. The Tlatokan Atlahuak Declaration, prepared by the Indigenous peoples and submitted to the Secretariat of the World Water Forum, reaffirms the sacredness of water and the importance of water not to be privatized. Many Indigenous communities throughout the world are still experiencing depletion and contamination of water from mining and other polluting activities. The Indigenous peoples are calling for the formation of an Indigenous Water Defense Committee to watchdog violations of water rights within Indigenous lands and territories.

The Tlatokan Atlahuak Declaration
of the Indigenous Peoples Parallel Forum

at the 4th World Water Forum
Mexico City, Mexico March 17-18, 2006


1. We, representatives of Indigenous Peoples and organizations of Mexico, the Americas and other continents of the world participating in the Indigenous Forum parallel to the 4th World Water Forum, declare our solidarity with the Indigenous Peoples of Mexico and their struggle for their ancestral territories and natural resources of which water is a primordial element. For all Indigenous Peoples of the world, water is the source of material, cultural and spiritual life.

2. We, international representatives, appreciate the welcome that has been extended to us by the Indigenous Peoples of Mexico. We especially appreciate the opening ceremony of our forum, conducted by the traditional governor of the Yaqui tribe and our Mazahuas relatives.

3. We reaffirm the Indigenous Peoples Kyoto Water Declaration of the 3rd World Water Forum of Kyoto, Japan of March 2003. It recognizes our relation with our Mother Earth and our responsibility to future generations. We raise our voices in solidarity and proclaim the responsibility to protect and defend water. We have been placed upon this earth, each in our own traditional sacred land and territory to care for all of creation and water.

4. We reaffirm the same Declaration to honor and respect water as a sacred being that sustains all life. Our traditional knowledge, laws and forms of life teach us to be responsible and caring for this sacred gift that connects all life.

5. We reaffirm that the relationship we have with our lands, territories and water constitute the physical, cultural and spiritual basis of our existence. The relationship with our Mother Earth obligates us to conserve our fresh water and seas for the survival of present and future generations. We assume our roles as guardians, with rights and responsibilities that defend and guarantee the protection, availability and purity of water. We unite to respect and implement our traditional knowledge and laws, and to exercise our right of self determination to preserve water and life.

6. The situation of the Indigenous Peoples of Mexico makes it even more clear that the struggle for our water is tied fundamentally with our struggle for our right of self determination. This is the case of our Yaqui relatives, the Otomí, Ñahñahú, Matlazinca, Mazahua, Tlahuica and Nahuas of the Alto Río Lerma; of our relatives of Xochipas, of Xochimilco of Tecámac, of Xoxocotla Morelos; and as with our relatives of the Sierra de Manantlán and Ayotitlán in Jalisco; and other Indigenous Peoples of the world.

7. Mexico and countries that are accomplices of the multinational corporations, violate with impunity the human rights and fundamental freedoms that they themselves have consecrated in the Covenants, Conventions and Declarations of the United Nations and the Organization of American States.

8. We assert our right of development determined by our own laws and traditional authorities, consistent with our values and world view.

9. Our lands, territories and natural resources, particularly our water (rivers, springs, wells, lakes, groundwater) continue to be stolen or ruined with extreme pollution. The water multinationals, with the support of the international finance agencies like the World Bank and the Interamerican Development Bank are accomplices in the privatization of our territories and our water. This creates a scarcity of water raising its economic value and furthering the view of water as an object of commerce.

10. We reject the neoliberal model of life that views water as merchandise, not as a public good, or a fundamental human right. Agencies such as the World Trade Organization promote privatization projects of our vital liquid. This destroys flora and fauna and consequently creates sicknesses like cancer, even among youth, as well as the disappearance of our cultures.

11. As Indigenous Peoples, we assert in all the national and international laws, the right of self determination and the recognition of our territories. We assert our autonomy in the use and enjoyment of our natural resources such as water, as a human right. We demand this recognition for our own customs and laws and oral traditions.

12. We demand from the national authorities and multilateral institutions such as the United Nations and Organization of American States and the governmental participants of the 4th World Water Forum, the full participation of Indigenous Peoples in any project or action of water management and development in our territories. We demand the guarantee of the right of free, prior and informed consent as is established by international law.

13. We declare our solidarity with the struggle of the Indigenous Peoples of Mexico and other parts of the world who have come to this forum to condemn authorities that don't resolve conflict nor guarantee the supply of water, but repress those who struggle to defend water; including energy and mining companies that consume and poison our Mother Earth and water and poisoning all Life.

14. We recognize the work of the communities that promote their own peoples. We recognize communities, organizations, universities and committed academicians who protect, defend and recuperate water as a right of all beings.

15. We call upon all Indigenous Peoples to organize and form committees for the defense of water and that it be a basis of all of our struggles to obtain the full recognition and absolute enjoyment of our territories and natural resources.

16. We demand that the Mexican government and its States immediately incorporate mechanisms for recognition of the rights of its Indigenous Peoples in water and public policy as affirmed by international treaties and agreements.

17. We denounce the structure of the World Water Forum for being financially prohibitive, which excludes the very Indigenous Peoples who are impacted. We denounce the format of the World Water Forum for denying the legitimacy of the indigenous world and spiritual vision of the sacredness of water.

Indigenous Peoples and Organizations Present at the Indigenous Forum Endorsing this Declaration:

  • Tribu Yaqui, Octaviano Jecari Espinzona (Mexico)
  • Indigenous Student Organization of the University of Mexico, Diana Alejandra Lopez Ramirez (Mexico)
  • Red Regional de Turismo en Xochimilco (Mexico)
  • Sistema de Agua Portable, Saul Rogue Morales (Mexico)
  • Coordinadores de Trabajadores en Defensa del Agua, Angel Martinez (Mexico)
  • Organización de Desarrollo y Ayude a los Pueblos Indígenas (Mexico)
  • Confederación Nacional de Naciones Indigenas Originarios de Bolivia, Jaime Apaza Chuqimia (Bolivia)
  • Internacional Indian Treaty Council, Alberto Saldamando (US & Meso America)
  • Indigenous Environmental Network, Tom Goldtooth (US & Canada)
  • Black Mesa Water Coalition, Enei Begaye (US)
  • St'at'imc Chiefs Council, Chief Garry John (Canada)

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