United Nations (UN) representatives Catarina de Albuquerque (left) and Leilani Farha (right) answer questions from local residents during a UN Fact-Finding Detroit Town Hall Meeting.
This past weekend, representatives from the United Nations visited Detroit to witness first-hand the repercussions of the city’s on-going water crisis. Needless to say, they were shocked, as I have been too, despite my many years fighting for water justice in the Motor City.
Ten years ago, when I first started working to preserve the right of Detroiters to safe, clean, affordable water, I never imagined the trajectory that work would take. Quite frankly, some of the politicking that has occurred in those areas over the past decade I couldn’t have anticipated in my wildest dreams.
After sitting under the thumb of a federal judge for 35 years, in March of 2013, the city of Detroit regained oversight of the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department (DWSD). That same month, Governor Rick Snyder sent emergency manager (EM) Kevyn Orr to Detroit to run the city, foregoing in the process, democracy and citizen participation. A few months later, the city declared bankruptcy and the threat of privatizing the DWSD became very real. This past March, after talks with suburban entities over a regional water authority broke down, Orr announced a plan to privatize the DWSD, issuing a request for information from interested parties. Within hours, the DWSD announced plans to pursue an aggressive shut-off plan in the city with a goal of denying water to 1,500 – 3,000 residences a week.
Of course, misinformation about the shutoffs abounded. This wasn’t simply a case of people opting not to pay their water bills. Some 40 percent of the city lives in poverty, victims of decades of misplaced civic priorities and policies that put profits ahead of people. Read the full article…
In 2008 Ecuador officially recognized the human right to water, joining only nine other countries that have done the same since 1994. Section One, Article 12 of the Ecuadorian Constitution states, “The human right to water is essential and cannot be waived. Water constitutes a national strategic asset for use by the public and it is unalienable, not subject to a statute of limitations, immune from seizure and essential for life.” It is therefore surprising, if not ironic, that over the past several years, interest groups have been colliding over water rights in the Andean country.
So, who is fighting over water in a country that guarantees it as a human right and also happens to be located at the edge of the largest river basin in the world, anyway? As Julia Apland Hitz succinctly stated in a recent piece published by the Earth Institute at Columbia University, “The sides of the conflict can be summarized as the government and big business vs. the indigenous communities, but of course it’s more complicated than that.”
Indeed it is. Around the time of Ecuador’s constitutional referendum, the world experienced a convergence of global crises: in energy, food and finance. These concurring events, coupled with the ongoing threat of global climate change, have caused land grabbing, in which wealthy corporations, powerful national governments and private equity funds have sought available lands abroad for food, fuel and mineral production to prepare themselves for future price increases.
China is perhaps the leading global actor implementing this strategy, and it has its sights on Latin America as a place to invest billions of dollars to finance extractive industries, including oil refineries. Ecuador, a member of OPEC, is expected to receive up to nine billion dollars from Beijing for one new oil refinery alone, amounting to the single largest infrastructure project in President Rafael Correa’s administration.
But how do such energy- and water-intensive projects get off the ground? After a years-long struggle punctuated by fierce debate and protests by groups on both sides of the issue, the National Assembly of Ecuador finally passed a new water law in late June. One of the main changes brought by this new law will bring the nation’s water system, previously under community control, under the subordination of a centralized authority. The new law also allows for groundwater to be included in the sale of land, thus giving the owner, including oil and mining companies, complete control over the resource.
As the law was being passed, indigenous social rights groups began a twelve-day march, or caminata, across the country that culminated in a demonstration just two blocks away from the National Assembly in Quito. They chanted and waived multi-colored banners as they marched in solidarity. Their chants in protest included, “¡El pueblo unido jamás será vencido!” meaning, “The united people shall never be defeated!” During the forming of the new water bill, indigenous leaders demanded legal protections for those communities living near water resources. They argued that these indigenous communities played a vital role in the construction of water networks and irrigation canals, and warned that this new law could pave the way to water privatization.
President Correa has been defensive on the issue, claiming that the protesters are merely political opponents and asserted that the new law will not lead to privatization, adding, “It is a rude lie to say that the water is going to be privatized.” He adds that privatization of the country’s water is prohibited by the Constitution and the new law.
Just two weeks after celebrating the passing of Ecuador’s new water law, President Correa met with President Xi Jinping of China to discuss future development plans and to promote bilateral relations. At the meeting, held in Brazil, Correa acknowledged China’s support in its economic development including oil refineries, and funding of proposals and basic industries.
Having had their water supply contaminated due to oil extraction in the past, many of Ecuador’s indigenous people fear that the passing of this law, which effectively ends community control of their water, represents a slippery slope toward privatization. Jorge Herrera, president of Ecuador’s largest indigenous organization, summarizes his side’s position by saying, “Our concern is that control of water stays with the community. We consider it an ancestral right, not one of the central government.”
Andrew Diaz is an international policy intern at Food & Water Watch.
Right now, in the heat of midsummer, thousands of Detroiters do not have access to safe drinking water, cannot flush their toilets, bathe their children, wash their dishes or boil water to cook food to feed their families. This is what happens when we treat water like a commodity instead of a common resource and basic human right.
The Detroit Water and Sewerage Department says that more than 80,000 residential households are in arrears, in addition to many Detroit businesses, so it is cutting off service to households that cannot pay their bills. With nearly 40 percent of Detroit residents living in poverty, water bills are simply unaffordable for these households. That’s why the United Nations (UN) recently declared the shut-offs in Detroit a violation of the human right to water and has called for immediate restoration of this essential service.
It is in this context that Nestlé Waters North America has revved up its PR machine after delivering bottled water to Detroit residents. Does Nestlé believe that this gesture will actually relieve the horrible, unsanitary and unsafe conditions of a mid-summer without running water? Or is it simply banking on the fact that its PR stunt may pay off down the road?
The decision to deliver one truckload of bottled water to Detroit is not enough to fix the city’s water woes, and it seems the real beneficiary of Nestlé’s PR stunt is Nestlé.
While we do not wish for anyone to go thirsty, and we appreciate the efforts of the groups in Detroit doing all they can to help their neighbors, Nestlé’s gesture completely misses the seriousness of the situation. A family cannot actually survive the summer’s conditions on bottled water, let alone a small, limited amount of it. Bottled water is not practical for flushing toilets. It cannot keep children clean and fed, and it cannot prevent the spread of disease. Detroiters don’t need environmentally wasteful and inconvenient water that costs thousands of times more than their tap water. They need their pipes turned back on.
Second, Nestlé’s bottled water delivery (water, mind you, that has been usurped from communities that need it) to Detroiters casts a curious shadow on the root of the issue: the privatization and commodification of our water resources.
Bottled water takes public water supplies to sell at prices that are unaffordable for many people around the world. If given the chance, the industry would create a world where rich people buy their water in expensive, environmentally damaging bottles, while our public water systems erode and deteriorate, leaving poor people without safe and clean water.
In Detroit, we’re seeing the consequences of what happens when government bureaucrats treat water like a commodity. The Detroit Water Board uses that false notion to rationalize cutting service off to people that genuinely cannot afford to pay their bills. It is unconscionable to leave poverty-stricken households, including families with small children, without water during the heat of summer.
Water is not a widget to be bought and sold. It is an essential public service and a common resource. Our elected officials have a fundamental responsibility to ensure that everyone has access to safe and affordable water service.
In the midst of this internationally-recognized water crisis, bottled water cannot prevent this looming public health crisis, but turning the taps back on will. Take action to give Detroit real relief: restored service at an affordable rate.
All over town, church bells were tolling, but they were not marking the top of the hour as they usually do. Upon hearing this signal, masses of townspeople came from all directions, armed with stones, pipes, even sticks—anything that was lying around was fair game that day. Off in the distance, the opposition could be seen approaching through the haze, their fifteen hundred shiny, black helmets slowly marching forward as one force behind the protection of their transparent shields and riot gear. As the dark swarm of police approached down the narrow, twisting streets, the crowd of townspeople braced themselves. They shouted commands at each other to hold their positions. Soon, the objects in their hands would become a barrage of projectiles hurled at the officers in an effort to keep them back.
This scene was the culmination of thirteen months of acrimonious debate. San Bartolo Ameyalco is an otherwise unremarkable town sitting on the hills of the Álvaro Obregón delegation, or borough, on the fringes of Mexico City. Founded in 1535, the town is one of the oldest communities in the Federal District, and is indeed one of the older settlements in the whole of Mexico. Its history probably dates even further back, as it is believed that the town was first settled by the native Tepanec people.
What brought the early settlers to this area, and what has kept people in San Bartolo ever since? The residents of the town simply know it as el ojo de agua, or “the waterhole”— a volcanic spring that has been faithfully providing freshwater to the community from the time of its founding. In fact, Ameyalco is a Nahuatl word meaning “place from which the water flows,” which it continues to do at a rate of about 60 liters per second.
It is this water supply that is at the heart of the dispute that is taking place in one of the largest and most densely populated cities on earth. Desperate to find additional water sources to supplement a rapidly-depleting aquifer below its soil, the government of Mexico City announced in April 2013 that a part of San Bartolo’s water supply would be joining a larger system delivering water across the entire borough. The residents of the town, whose name is often referred to simply as Ameyalco, responded with a clear voice: “no.”
Miguel Ángel Mancera, the mayor of Mexico City, insists that this project would benefit at least twenty thousand people. Many of Ameyalco’s residents, however, believe that the main beneficiaries of such a project would be the rich, inhabiting hastily-built communities with profits from international business —such as the community of Santa Fe, built over a former dumping ground not far from Ameyalco — and with no prior infrastructure for delivering water.
The government asserts it has a responsibility to deliver water to these newer communities, and that the people of Ameyalco do not have the right to selfishly appropriate this precious resource. Meanwhile, the people of San Bartolo proclaim that their water is not for sale, as water is already scarce in their community. Additionally, they say that they should not have to pay the price for the city’s poor planning.
The floodgates of this controversy finally burst wide open on the morning of May 21, 2014, as workers of Sacmex, the Mexico City water company, arrived to lay the pipe that would connect San Bartolo’s water to the wider network. The residents were determined to guard their spring in any way possible. Once it became clear that efforts to continue the construction project would be met with resistance, the riot police were called in. There are conflicting reports, but the ensuing clash resulted in at least fifty to seventy of the townspeople injured or hospitalized, over fifty policemen injured—at least two of them seriously—and property damage around the area of the conflict, including several destroyed police vehicles.
Despite the opposition to the construction plan, the project in San Bartolo was carried out. The government has stated that Amayalco’s spring has not been affected by the plan, but instead it was the nearby water system by the name of Cutzamala that was connected to the borough-wide system. The borough of Álvaro Obregón has even released a statement guaranteeing that San Bartolo’s spring water will not be mixed with this larger system. There are many in San Bartolo who see this as just the calm before another storm, and as a result want to negotiate terms with the government. However, their demand is to have their rights respected by having a seat at the discussion table, and for the government to be transparent about its plans regarding the region’s water.
In the meantime, Mexico City continues to literally sink under its own weight as it swiftly drains its underground water reservoir ever more quickly. As its vast and growing population continues to demand more and more resources, it is a near certainty that this complex and contentious issue is far from settled.
Andrew Diaz is an international research and policy intern with Food & Water Watch. He currently attends the University of Maryland at College Park and majors in geographic information science and minors in international development and conflict management.
The lengths some companies will go to stop communities from gaining local control of their water systems can seem completely crazy. Tomorrow, voters in California’s Monterey Peninsula will go to the polls to decide whether to take the first step toward buying their water system from American Water’s California arm. Read the full article…
In its latest effort to undermine the public interest, California American Water (Cal-Am), a subsidiary of American Water, has poured $2.2 million so far into defeating Measure O, outspending Monterey’s local public control campaign by about 45 to 1. But money can’t truly buy votes and corporate scare tactics shouldn’t fool the Monterey Peninsula community. Ratepayers in Felton, California benefitted from a public acquisition of Cal-Am water, and the Monterey community surely would as well.
On June 3, Monterey Peninsula residents will vote on Measure O, which local group, Public Water Now, collected some 8,400 signatures to place on the ballot. If passed, Measure O would set the Monterey Peninsula Water Management District on a track to purchase the water system, primarily by funding a study to determine whether a public takeover of Cal-Am is “feasible and beneficial.”
Not-so-shockingly, Cal-Am, the sole contributor to the “No on O” campaign, seems to be emptying its pockets to make sure Measure O doesn’t pass, but perhaps this is because it fears the truth: studies show that public ownership of municipal water systems benefits communities by providing lower rates and more dependable, safer water service, and many voters in Monterey know this. Read the full article…
Water is life. Water is also a limited resource that’s under high demand. Here at Food & Water Watch, we’re fighting a global battle to protect the right to safe, clean, affordable water for everyone now, and for years to come. It’s a battle that we care deeply about and it pervades many of the issues we work on. That’s why tomorrow, on World Water Day, we’re inviting you to dive in and join us in the fight to promote sustainable water management, protect the human right to water and prevent the impending global water crisis. Here are five ways you can take action on World Water Day.
1. Add these two inspirational gems to your spring reading list: Blue Future and Ogallala Road. These profound, yet comprehensive books offer unique perspectives on the past and future of the water crisis:
Blue Future: Protecting Water For People and the Planet Foreverby internationally best-selling author and Food & Water Watch Board Chair, Maude Barlow, exposes the handful of corporate players whose greed is impeding the human right to water. The latest in Barlow’s best-selling series, Blue Future lays out the obstacles ahead in this looming water crisis, as well as the many victories that have been won by communities in the fight to protect their right to water.
Ogallala Road: A Memoir of Love and Reckoningby Julene Bair is a powerful personal history of her family’s western Kansas farm located on the Ogallala Aquifer. In the narrative, Bair reveals the struggles she grappled with when watching her family switch from dry-land farming to unsustainable irrigation. The story is a telling glimpse into one aspect of the world’s water saga. Visit her website for book events and appearances.
For one moment, imagine that you are the Vice President of the European Commission. Citizens all around Europe have collected signatures demanding you to recognize the Human Right to Water and Sanitation in the European Union. This first ever European Citizen’s Initiative to be successful gained support from 1.9 million people. You had three months to discuss with your colleagues what to do about it. You start the press conference, smile to the cameras and speak for a few minutes. You announce that you say yes to the petition but you are aware that you are offering nothing. Finally, you leave the room.
Now imagine that the multinational company that manages water in your city cut off your water supply because you can’t afford to pay the bills. Or imagine that your municipal water supply is about to be privatized. Or maybe you were even involved in the signature collection and invested a lot of your time and efforts on it.
How would you feel in each situation? March 22nd is World Water Day, a good moment to reflect about the huge gap created this week between the announcement of the European Commission and the expectancies of 1.9 million European citizens on the right to water.
But, what is a European Citizen’s Initiative?
The European Citizen’s Initiative is a new democratic tool that tries to allow EU citizens to participate directly in the development of EU policies by calling on the European Commission to make a legislative proposal. You “just” need to collect one million signatures coming from at least 7 member states, following a really complicated set of rules and procedures.
And the Right to Water Initiative did it. Nearly 1.9 million signatures were collected with three basic demands: the legal requirement by EU institutions and Member States to ensure that all inhabitants enjoy the right to water and sanitation, a commitment that water supply and management will not be privatized and a commitment to increase EU efforts to achieve universal access to water and sanitation. These were three clear demands that had nearly no echo in the Commission’s answer.
The European Commission acknowledged the importance of the Human Right to Water and Sanitation and confirmed water as a public good. Which is good, but just words. They didn’t propose any legislation to recognize this right, just a compilation of already ongoing actions plus the announcement of a public consultation on the drinking water directive whose outcomes will not be binding. On the positive side, they committed to promote universal access to water and sanitation in its development policies, including the promotion of public-public partnerships. And that’s a step in the right direction.
But citizens had asked to exclude water and sanitation from what they call “internal market rules,” that is, privatization and liberalization. And the Commission did nothing. Water was excluded temporally, due to strong public opposition, from the last internal market legislation. But the Commission didn’t explicitly exclude these services from the ongoing trade negotiations, such as the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP or TAFTA) with the U.S. or the Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement (CETA) with Canada.
The European Water Movement, of which Food & Water Europe is part, stated it quite clearly: this decision implies a bad precedent for this new mechanism of public participation.
Water privatization is still a very concrete menace in many European countries, with the European Commission itself one of the main drivers. As part of the Troika (the tripartite committee composed by the European Commission, the European Central Bank and the International Monetary Fund), they are pushing for water privatization in Greece and Portugal, while evidence from public auditing bodies confirms that privatization is detrimental both for local authorities and ordinary citizens. And the reality on the ground shows that when families can’t afford to pay their bills, they are being deprived of access to water by private companies, as happened recently in Jerez, Spain.
Citizens are mobilizing across Europe. Millions of Italians voted against water privatization and local referendums took place in major cities like Madrid and Berlin. Right now citizens of Alcazar de San Juan, Spain, are voting on a popular referendum about the privatization of their water supply. Thessaloniki, in Greece, will vote on May 18. And other cities, like Puerto de Santa Maria, also in Spain, are now mobilized for the same reasons.
Water should be a commons, not a commodity. We must close the gap between citizen’s expectations and EU decisions. We need to keep reminding our politicians of the importance of the right to water before the elections for the European Parliament. And we need to keep it in mind also in the World Water Day.
Earlier this month, the entire Food & Water Watch staff gathered to map out our work for 2014. We planned to briefly celebrate our victories from 2013, too… but from local fracking bans to protecting our food from arsenic, it took us over an hour just to list them all!
These victories are all thanks to you, and we made this infographic to show you all you’ve done in 2013. Read the full article…
‘Tis the season for peppermint hot chocolate, warm fuzzy socks and of course, movie marathons. This year, forget driving to the movie theater and overspending on a two-hour flick and what is, most likely, genetically engineered popcorn.
Below is a list of thought-provoking, socially, politically and environmentally conscious films that our staff at Food & Water Watch enjoys and thinks you will, too! Got a movie to add to our list? Share your picks in the comments below.
Gasland and Gasland 2: In this Oscar-nominated documentary, Director Josh Fox takes viewers on a cross-country journey to discover the hard, shocking truths behind the fracking boom that has swept across the United States. Interested in hosting your own Gasland or Gasland 2 screening in the new year? Food & Water Watch can help!Read the full article…
Food & Water Watch works to ensure the food, water and fish we consume is safe, accessible and sustainable. So we can all enjoy and trust in what we eat and drink, we help people take charge of where their food comes from, keep clean, affordable, public tap water flowing freely to our homes, protect the environmental quality of oceans, force government to do its job protecting citizens, and educate about the importance of keeping shared resources under public control.