In Psalm 24 we read: “The earth is the Lord’s and all that is in it, the world, and those who live in it; for he has founded it on the seas, and established it on the rivers.” Despite this, we are used to “appropriating” the earth and its resources, including water.
The privatization and commercialization of water takes on many forms. Water supply systems being taken over by private companies is but one manifestation. We also see that the resource itself is turned into a commodity and a private good. For example, in “Week 1: Land and water” we looked at the acquisition of large areas of land and the resulting control over water resources exercised by a wealthy minority. Finally, water is widely used, polluted, and wasted to generate shareholder profits in agriculture and industry.
Private goods are by definition “exclusive” – others can be excluded from their use. Some promote this kind of “privatization” as a way to prevent the waste and pollution of water. Yet the struggles of communities around the world tell a different story of exclusion.
The Earth is the Lord’s
Reflection by Linwood Blizzard II and Shantha Ready Alonso,
World Student Christian Federation
The earth is the Lord’s and all that is in it,
the world, and those who live in it;
for he has founded it on the seas,
and established it on the rivers.
The psalmist once declared, “The Earth is the Lord’s, and all that is in it” (Psalm 24:1). From generation to generation, we have a lifespan to enjoy and steward God’s Earth. However, in recent decades, industries that unsustainably extract from God’s Earth have been spinning out of control. Their actions challenge God’s sovereignty over the gifts that were created for sharing by all Creation and for all generations. Extractive and other industries have been privatizing the natural gifts of God’s Earth and have excluded local communities from sharing in these gifts.
The diamond and coal industries are common examples, but the extraction and processing of water is a particularly outrageous example of how God’s gifts are abused for the profit and private interests of some at the expense of others If a company controls the exploitation of diamonds or coal, the local community often does not profit from the extraction, production, and sales, while bearing the burden of the devastation of their lands. If a company controls and exploits water, the same rules apply, but in addition the local community – and all God’s creatures that rely on water – may be excluded from this basic life-sustaining resource. . U.S. theologian James Cone once said, “The survival of the earth… is a moral issue for everybody. If we do not save the earth from destructive human behavior, no one will survive.”
The commoditization of water with little or no regard for the people and ecosystems that rely upon water has become a rising trend. With the global economic crisis, privatizing water systems is increasingly being considered as a way for governments to offset costs. In many cases the excessive commercial use of ground and surface waters are affecting the quality and distribution of water.
When water is sold, polluted, and depleted for industrial purposes or for bottling, who really pays? It is God’s Creation and God’s people who pay a heavy price. Freshwater species that have taken millions of years to evolve are becoming endangered and extinct at an alarming rate. One in eight people lack access to safe drinking water, almost two thirds of whom ive on less than US$2 per day.
Corporations and markets should not have control over life and death. Quaker Scottish theologian Alastair McIntosh calls people of faith critically to examine the marketing schemes of our day that try to fool us into believing buying more will bring us transcendent values such as beauty, purity, intelligence, power, confidence, or love. We must ask ourselves: does our desire to affirm our humanity in this way spring from the presence of God, or do we try to fill a void in our souls by consuming products will eliminate our need for God? McIntosh urges us to pull back the veil on companies’ efforts to “commoditize the human soul” and engage in transformative communities that “call back the soul”.
As a federation of students, we have identified this work of “calling back the soul” as being deeply tied to water justice. Water exploitation creates a hierarchy of who lives and who dies; a hierarchy that is contrary to the order of God’s Creation. If our generation and the generations that follow are raised to see something as basic as water as a mere commodity, what will keep us from seeing everything through the lens of commoditization including our relationships, our time, our life’s work and our commitment to God?
If we indeed affirm that God alone is the giver of life, why would people of faith assent to allowing corporations to commoditize water – an essential gift for all life? Corporate advertising manipulates us to believe unrestrained indulgence in many of the products of privatized water is morally acceptable and desirable. Bottled water and sodas, all the latest gadgets, unbridled use of fossil fuels, and consuming factory farmed foods are part of the fabric of industrialized cultures such as ours in the United States. The devastation of one community for the advancement of another through the lower cost of consumer goods has become the norm as a result of this unrestrained indulgence.
The need for action is urgent. One percent of the world’s water is what the Earth’s people, creatures of the land, and creatures of freshwater share for drinking, cooking, sanitation, and habitat. This water does not belong to any single community or species, so one can neither truly purchase nor sell it. Watershed communities must share the costs of water treatment and restoration, not outsource stewardship to corporations whose primary interest is profit.
The students and young people of the World Student Christian Federation (WSCF), with many partners like the Ecumenical Water Network, are taking actions to increase the awareness about water justice. We invite you to join us in finding out where local water sources are, and whether your city or municipality is considering privatizing these sources. Consider ways of reducing the consumption of products that come from commoditized water to increase the just sharing of the world’s water sources. As Mahatma Gandhi asserted, “the earth is sufficient for everyone’s need, but not everyone’s greed.”
One percent of fresh water has sustained generations in the past. As those whom God has entrusted to till and keep the Earth, we are only the stewards of water, to ensure its safe passage from one generation to the next. Our stewardship must include not only the safe passage, but also the understanding that water is not a commodity, but a gift on loan from the Lord for us to use and share.
Shantha Ready Alonso currently serves as Student Vice Chair of the World Student Christian Federation. She is employed with the National Council of Churches Eco-Justice Program in the United States. Linwood Blizzard II is in his last year at the Howard University School of Divinity in Washington D.C. and serves as Treasurer of the WSCF’s North America Region.
 James Cone, “Whose Earth Is It Anyway?” p. 5.
 In our home, the United States, 40 percent of freshwater fish and amphibians, half of all crayfish, half of freshwater snails, and two thirds of all freshwater mussels are endangered or extinct. (United States Environmental Protection Agency. Retrieved on March 1 at www.epa.gov/bioiweb1/aquatic/freshwater.html)
 UNICEF/WHO. 2008. Progress on Drinking Water and Sanitation: Special Focus on Sanitation.
 DfiD [Department for International Development] Sanitation Reference Group. 2008.
 Alastair McIntosh. Climate Justice Seminar. WSCF Executive Committee Meeting, Beirut. October 2010.
 Cited in Leonardo Boff, Cry of the Earth, Cry of the Poor (Maryknoll, N.Y.: Orbis, 1997), 2.
Opinions expressed in Biblical reflections do not necessarily reflect EWN and WCC policy. This material may be reprinted freely, providing credit is given to the author.
Background and resources
KAIROS (Canada) explores the economic concept of Global Public Goods and the potential for a new doctrine of the Public Trust.
Joint Ecumenical Declaration on Water as a Human Right and a Common Public Good by the churches in Brazil and in Switzerland.
The Bishops and Delegates of the Bishops’ Conferences of Europe who participated in the PILGRIMAGE FOR THE SAFEGUARDING OF CREATION 1st-5th September 2010
Church in Europe: renew your commitment to safeguarding creation!
Blessed are you Lord, God of all creation: a pilgrimage of hope for Europe.
Around fifty delegates from more than fifteen countries of the Bishops’ Conferences of Europe set out on 1st September 2010 from the Basilica of Esztergom, Hungary on a pilgrimage of hope for all creation to the Shrine of Mariazell in Austria, passing through Slovakia where we were welcomed by the Archbishop of Bratislava, Stanislav Zvolenský. The initiative was inspired by Pope Benedict XVI’s Message for the World Day of Peace in 2010 entitled If you want to cultivate peace, protect creation.
The concept of a pilgrimage was chosen as an action which symbolizes the journey of reflection, formation and conversion required if humanity is to address the scale of the environmental challenge. A pilgrimage is both an expression of faith and a commitment to change. The pilgrimage started with a blessing and asperges from Cardinal Péter Erdő, a reminder that in Baptism, through God’s elemental gift of water, we are part of a Church which is herself a pilgrim.
Water is an element of creation rich in biblical and sacramental significance. Our decision to make part of our pilgrimage by boat along the beautiful River Danube – the river which passes through the greatest number of countries of Europe – gave expression to our concern that, in the words of Pope Benedict XVI, ‘[T]he hoarding of resources, especially water, can generate serious conflicts among the peoples involved. Peaceful agreement about the use of resources can protect nature and, at the same time, the well-being of the societies concerned’ (CV n. 51). The delegates draw particular attention to the joint ecumenical initiative of the National Council of Christian Churches of Brazil (CONIC), endorsed by a number of Catholic Bishops Conferences in Europe, entitled Ecumenical Declaration on Water as a Human Right and a Public Good. Water is also shared and fundamental force of faith and is becoming a scare resource for many human beings.
Special attention was given to the issue of energy and the need to conserve it where possible. The importance of using renewable sources of energy such as wind, solar energy, bio-diesel, bio-mass, small-hydro and wave technologies and other non-fossil based fuels was emphasized. It was agreed that there is also a need to tackle the issue of waste through prevention, recycling and encouraging the development of efficient technologies. Attention was drawn, however, to the need for rigorous and comprehensive assessment of the net environmental impact of all the dimensions of such technologies.
A fundamental issue is how to bring about the conversion of mind and heart through education that will motivate change in established patterns of human behaviour. As Cardinal Peter Turkson, President of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace pointed out in his address to the pilgrimage delegates the Biblical tradition testifies to the inner unity and logic of creation, to a Wisdom imparted and revealed by the Creator which ensures it beauty and balance. Just as ‘chaos’ and the Word of God gives us ‘Cosmos’, so Cosmos without the Word of God brings us back to chaos. This principle is echoed in the very etymology of the word ‘ecology’ which emphasizes the principle of keeping the ‘oikos’ or ‘house’ – our earthly home – in good order. When everything is in its order, there is beauty. When this order is broken or is disturbed by selfishness and sin, the beauty is threatened. This theme is echoed by Pope Benedict XVI in Caritas in Veritate when he says that, ‘[N]ature speaks to us of the Creator (cf. Rom 1:20) and his love for humanity…. Thus it too is a “vocation”. Nature is at our disposal not as a heap of scattered refuse, but as a gift of the Creator who has given it an inbuilt order, enabling man … “to till it and keep it” (Gen 2:15)’ (n. 48). A core message coming from this pilgrimage event is that the goodness, beauty and fruitfulness of creation was the first vocation of man and given to him on trust.
In the hope of inspiring a renewed engagement with the spiritual and moral dimensions of the ecological question, the delegates draw attention to the rich patrimony of values which flows from the biblical, patristic and theological tradition, rooted in human reason and which is proposed to humanity through the social doctrine of the Catholic Church. These principles include:
- Commitment to the Common Good of all people, acknowledging that the good of each one of us depends on the well-being of all;
- Respect for the Universal Destination of the Goods of the Earth, rejecting all attempts to unjustly dominate, excessively consume, limit or commercialize those God-given goods upon which every person depends for existence;
- Subsidiarity, noting that actions taken at the local level including the home, the parish and the school are essential to the future of the global environment;
- Solidarity, including a willingness to sacrifice personal and short term gains for the sake of others, especially the powerless and the poor;
- Distributive Justice, ensuring that those who least pollute such as the poor and powerless are not those most affected by the consequences of the environmental crisis;
- Intergenerational Justice, acting now on the basis of prudence and precaution for the sake of the very existence of future generations.
The book of nature is one and indivisible. Respect for the ecology of the human person is integrally connected to respect for creation.
We appeal to young people, to families, to parish communities, monasteries, schools, seminaries and universities to renew their commitment to the vocation of caring for our earthly home by encouraging dissemination, study and implementation of these principles which offer luminous and compelling signposts to hope for humanity.
In particular we appeal for joint prayer and action with other Christian Churches and ecclesial communities, such as the ecumenical prayer service held in St. Pölten as part of this pilgrimage. We particularly encourage local Churches to engage with the ‘Creation Time’ initiative endorsed by the 3rd European Ecumenical Assembly in Sibiu, Romania in 2007, which recommended that the period between 1st September and 4th October – the feast of St. Francis of Assisi – be set aside for special prayer and action on this issue, as some Bishops’ Conferences and Churches are already doing.
We also encourage wider dialogue within the political community, the mutual benefit of which we experienced as part of this pilgrimage.
In making this pilgrimage of hope for the whole of creation, we are conscious that in some way we have been recalling the sacred journey of hope and joy which Mary undertook when she hastened across the rivers and mountains to proclaim the dawn of the new creation to her cousin Elizabeth. We are conscious that in this journey Mary became the image of the Church to come, the pilgrim Church which carries the hope of the world in her womb across the mountains of human history. As we conclude our pilgrimage today, in imitation of Mary and under the prayerful guidance of Cardinal Christoph Schönborn, we bring to the beautiful Alpine Shrine of Mariazell our hope for a new understanding of the ‘great things’ God has done for us in the gift of creation and of the need to say ‘Yes’ again to what was our first vocation. Just as we began our ecological pilgrimage at the heart of Europe in the beautiful Basilica of the Assumption in Esztergom and ended it at the Shrine of the Birth of Mary at Mariazell, so we continue to carry on our earthly pilgrimage the eschatological hope of the Church that ‘where she has gone’ all creation will follow.
Activist Jim Shultz writes about the ‘water revolt’ in Cochabamba – and addresses the problems still unresolved nine years later.
This week marks nine years since Cochabamba’s now-famous Water Revolt. It was during this week, in April 2000, that thousands of people – rural, urban, poor, middle class, young and not so young – took to the streets to reclaim their public water system from a foreign corporation, Bechtel.
The story of the Cochabamba Water Revolt has been retold many times in many ways these past nine years, in articles, films, book chapters, and in enough graduate theses to fill a room. The Democracy Center had the honor of writing the story first, from the middle of that violent yet inspiring April almost a decade ago.
Last year when I put the finishing touches on my chapter on the Water Revolt for our new book, Dignity and Defiance, Stories from Bolivia’s Challenge to Globalization (UC Press), I knew that whatever I had to say or write about the Water Revolt I had said or written. That rule still abides.
Two Basic Facts
But because the story of the Water Revolt and its aftermath is so much more complicated than the myth of the Water Revolt, I want to use this anniversary to put the reality of that story back before our readers. And in my view that reality basically comes down to two things:
1. The Cochabamba Water Revolt was and remains a powerful David and Goliath struggle in which some of the most humble people in the world took on the forces of the World Bank, Bechtel, and a former dictator, Hugo Banzer, and took back a resource essential to life – their water.
2. Nine years later the public company reborn from that revolt, SEMAPA, is marked by an ongoing history of mismanagement and corruption which, combined with Cochabamba’s rapid population growth, has left much if the city without the basic water they need and deserve.
In other words, Cochabambinos won the war in the streets but lost the battle to have honest and competent water service. In my chapter on the Water Revolt I was frank about this paradox, and have continued to be in my recent talks in the U.S.
Thanks to our publisher, University of California Press, the entirety of that chapter is posted on the Internet and can be read here. Below I am going to publish a few excerpts from that chapter to stimulate debate. But as I said, the story is complicated and if you want to know my complete analysis, you really have to read the whole chapter instead of taking bits and pieces out of context, as many might be tempted to do.
For those interested in more on the Water Revolt, here are some useful links:
William Finnegan’s excellent 2002 New Yorker article on the Water Revolt
Excerpts from: The Cochabamba Water Revolt and Its Aftermath in Dignity and Defiance, Stories from Bolivia’s Challenge to Globalization (UC Press)
The Revolt Begins – January and February 2000
If there remained any question whether residents of the city would rise up as people in the countryside had done, those doubts were swept away quickly in January 2000, thanks to Bechtel’s Cochabamba subsidiary. Just weeks after taking over the city’s water, Bechtel’s company handed users their monthly bills, complete with a spiffy new Aguas del Tunari logo and rate increases that averaged more than 50%, and in some cases much higher. For years afterwards, Bechtel officials would continue to lie about the extent of their rate increases, claiming that the price hikes on the poorest were at most 10%.[i] An analysis using Bechtel’s own data shows that the increases for the poorest averaged 43%.”[ii]
For two days Cochabamba’s graceful colonial center turned into a war zone. Every block leading to the plaza was converted into a battlefield. At one end police outfitted in full riot gear blocked the streets with tear gas cannons. At the other end, protestors – young people, old people, poor and middle class – held their ground with rocks and slingshots. Many wore an impromptu uniform of vinegar-soaked bandanas over the mouth and nose, and baking soda under the eyes to protect them from the gas. The doors of middle class homes would suddenly open up and water and bowls of food would appear, an offering of support to those standing up to the government in the streets.
Then on the afternoon of Monday, April 10, the government made an announcement. Officials of Bechtel’s company, who sat out days of violence watching it on television in a five star hotel and insisting they wouldn’t leave, had fled to the airport and left the country. The Bolivian government declared the contract canceled, saying in a letter to Bechtel’s people, “Given that the directors of your enterprise have left the city of Cochabamba and were not to be found…said contract is rescinded.”
Impacts on Bolivian Politics
In Bolivia, the Water Revolt ignited a chain of events that provoked historic political and social change. For almost two decades Bolivian economics had been dominated by the Washington Consensus, market-driven policies pushed by the World Bank and the IMF and carried out by national leadership that was fiercely obedient to those policies. The Water Revolt shook those arrangements to their core.
“We have always repeated those slogans ‘Death to the World Bank,’ ‘Death to the IMF,’ ‘Down with Yankee imperialism,’” said Olivera. “But I believe that it is the first time that the people understood in a direct way how the policies of the World Bank, free trade, free markets, is putting us at such a disadvantage among the most powerful countries.”[iii]
Bechtel Strikes Back
In November 2002, a year and a half after they were forced out of Bolivia, Bechtel and its co-investors struck back. In Washington, in a secretive international trade court run by the World Bank, Bechtel’s water subsidiary filed a legal demand for $50 million – a prize equal to what it costs to run the Cochabamba water company for seven years.[iv]
For Bechtel, the World Bank trade court was an ideal forum, for both its secrecy and the long distance between it and the rebellious Bolivians who had caused them so much trouble. Hearings by ICSID tribunals are strictly closed-door. Neither members of the media nor the citizens who would ultimately pay a settlement are allowed to know when the tribunal meets, where it meets, who testifies, or what they say. The process assumes that the only representation that Bolivians needed was from the Washington law firm hired by the Bolivian government.
The campaign also took its demands directly to ICSID. In September 2002, with the legal support of Earth Justice, Water Revolt leaders formally requested legal status to join the case. That demand was backed by an International Citizens Petition endorsed by more than 300 organizations from 43 countries, calling on the World Bank trade court to open the case to public scrutiny and participation. The case that Bechtel hoped would be quietly settled in its favor behind closed doors had become a major public story.
On January 19, 2006 representatives for Bechtel and its co-investors arrived in Bolivia. Sitting next to officials of the government, they signed a formal agreement in which they abandoned their $50 million demand for a token payment of two Bolivianos (30 cents). Bolivia’s lead negotiator, Eduardo Valdivia, explained why Bechtel had finally decided to drop their case. “The CEO [Riley Bechtel] personally intervened,” he said. “He told his lawyers that the case wasn’t worth the damage to the company’s reputation.”[v] It was the first time that a major corporation had ever dropped an international investment case as a direct result of global public pressure.
The People Take Over – But Not Really
In its first few months, SEMAPA enjoyed a wave of public goodwill. It rolled back rates to their pre-Bechtel levels and water customers quickly began paying their overdue water bills, refilling the company coffers that Bechtel’s representatives had drained during their brief tenure. Bechtel’s company left behind, among other things, an unpaid $90,000 electric bill. Coordinadora leaders also rode a wave of public popularity and received a stream of offers of technical assistance from public sector water managers across the U.S. and Canada. Public companies under privatization pressures there knew that SEMAPA’s success or failure would have a significant impact on the global water privatization debate and they wanted Cochabamba’s public company to succeed.
The one major reform that the Coordinadora did take up and did win, partially at least, was having a portion of the company’s board of directors elected directly from the community. But when the first elections were held in April 2002 to select those community members, less than 4% of eligible voters went to the polls. In a city where, just two years earlier, people had taken to the streets by the thousands and risked their lives to take back their water, there was virtually no public interest in the nuts and bolts of running the water company.
Soon afterwards, the Coordinadora technical team disbanded, and Coordinadora leaders shifted their sights beyond SEMAPA. Some focused on working directly with neighborhoods on water development projects. Some ran and won election to Congress. Others took up new national battles such as the demand for taking back control of the nation’s oil and gas. Over time, the water company’s management and performance began to draw all the same complaints as it did before privatization – inefficiency, corruption, and the padding of the payroll by the union representing SEMAPA workers.
Water experts who know SEMAPA well say that the company has failed to address its two biggest problems. In a valley still deeply thirsty for water, SEMAPA loses about 55% of the water it has to leaks in the pipes and to clandestine hook-ups. And despite a steady flow of financial support from international donors and lenders, including the Japanese government and the IDB, the company still doesn’t have a sustainable financing plan in place.
One water expert familiar with SEMAPA’s internal workings blames the problems on mismanagement. “It is an organization that is completely dysfunctional. They don’t generate enough income to cover their costs and they are letting the system deteriorate.”
Water privatization should not be held out as a matter of economic theology, something unchallengeable, by either its proponents or its critics. Privatization in general is not inherently good or evil. The debate is in the details. In Bolivia, there is a spiritual objection, among many, to ever putting water, the blood of the earth, into corporate hands. But in the case of water, that spiritual opposition to privatization also happens to be backed by experience and analysis. As a practical policy, water privatization suffers four huge problems.
The first is the natural way in which it prices water beyond what low-income people can afford. The World Bank is an advocate of “market pricing” of water and in the Cochabamba case it directly argued against subsidies that might have made water affordable for the city’s poorest families.[vi] In nations both impoverished and wealthy, people with low incomes cannot afford the actual market cost for basic services. In the U.S., states commonly provide “lifeline rates,” subsidizing everything from electricity to basic phone service. In Cochabamba, privatization and Bechtel’s profit demands priced water out of reach for many families.
The second problem is the distance that privatization puts between water users and those who make the real decisions. How is a teacher, or seamstress, or a farmer in Cochabamba supposed to have any measure of influence on a major foreign corporation a hemisphere away? For all of the public company’s faults, at least in Cochabamba today, when people want to complain they know where to go and they get attention. Bechtel proved immune even to bloodshed.
Third, privatization opponents are justified in worrying about the protection of workers rights. While there is certainly, in Cochabamba, a clear record of the water company union taking too much control, labor rights still matter and private companies are by nature, far less interested in those rights than public companies.
Lastly, it is important to note that while World Bank officials evidently deemed the Bolivian government insufficiently competent to run its public water systems, it acted as if that same government was sufficiently competent to negotiate a handover of its water to a huge foreign corporation and to capably regulate that corporation’s work. This too proved false theory.
Photo by Thomas Kruse.
[i] “Cochabamba and the Aguas del Tunari Consortium,” Bechtel Corp., San Francisco, CA, March 2005, p. 3, http://www.bechtel.com/pdf/cochabambafacts0305.pdf
[ii] See, “Bechtel Vs. Bolivia the Water Rate Hikes By Bechtel’s Bolivian Company,” at: http://democracyctr.org/bechtel/waterbills/waterbills-global.htm
[iii] “Leasing the Rain.”
[iv] The $50 million figure comes from a January 10, 2007 interview by the author with Eduardo Valdivia, the Bolivian government’s chief negotiator on the case.
[v] Interview with the author, Cochabamba, January 2006.
[vi] “Bolivia Public Expenditure Review, executive summary,” World Bank, Washington, DC, June 14, 1999, p. 1.
In February and March of 2000, protests broke out in Cochabamba, Bolivia, in response to the government’s decision to privatize the water company. Iciar Bollain’s movie “Even the Rain” tells the fictional story of a film crew that arrives right at this tense juncture of the city’s history.
This animated 7 minute film explores the bottled water industry’s use of seductive, environmental-themed advertising to cover up the mountains of plastic waste it produces. The film concludes with a call to “take back the tap,” not only by making a personal commitment to avoid bottled water, but by supporting investments in clean, available tap water for all.
What you can do:
When we talk about the privatization and commercialization of water we often focus on large corporations making a profit at the expense of poor communities’ access to clean water. What about our own role in the system? To whom do those corporations sell their products? Who benefits from the shareholder values they create?
- Reflect on: When does each of us “profit” from the privatization of water at the expense of others, as we buy and consume, or as we invest our savings?
- Get an idea for how much water we consume indirectly by estimating your individual water footprint.
- Few know that we “eat more water than we drink”: Create awareness for how much water is used in the production of our food and other goods with the “Virtual Water Cube exhibition”.
- Did you sign our letter to the FAO in our first week? If not then add your voice now to demand that the guidelines on land and natural resources should include standards protecting access to essential resources, including water.
- Or join the “Oil Fast”: Operation Noah is calling for a ‘Carbon Exodus’. Inspired by the Exodus story, the journey of Moses and the children of Israel out of bondage in ancient Egypt, let’s move away from dependence on carbon.