Related Stories By Editor Published: 20120224
Clean water for the wealthy

America's CIA refers to it as “hydrological warfare”, and apparently, it is something that Washington takes very seriously.

Already, several international conflicts have had a strong element of control of water behind them.

Of course, this is never stated openly. The usual claims about “human rights”, “democracy” and “rule of law” are the pretexts for wars since the 1980s. But the reality has always been that wars are fought over the things that states never openly talk about. Such as water.

After all, it really would not have done Nicolas Sarkozy's already-sullied image much in Africa and the rest of the world had he openly declared that one of the reasons why he was so eager to get enmeshed in Libya last year was the water business.

He really could not stand up at the United Nations Security Council and say Muammar Gaddafi did not award French companies the tender to build the US$30 billion-plus contract to rollout the Great Man-Made River Project.

That would be just plain silly.

But there is nothing silly about access to water, or the billions of dollars it generates for Western multinationals who are so keen to privatise that commodity as they seek to do with every other essential thing.

The logic is simple: water is in short supply and the laws of supply and demand mean that it is a very lucrative business. At present, a group of French, British and German firms has a virtual global monopoly on the private water industry.

It is a business that rakes in hundreds of billions of dollars per year for them in Africa, Asia and Latin America, primarily.

Private water companies have tried to break into Malawi, South Africa, Tanzania and Zimbabwe.

To date, thankfully, they have not made much headway.

That is not to say they will stop trying. Their efforts to get a foothold in the region will grow in proportional intensity to the severity of lack of access to clean water in Southern Africa. A dire warning has already been issued by one hydrologist from Malawi.

By 2025, Africa south of the Sahara will have an absolute water shortage. This means some 40-odd countries on this continent will not be able to guarantee access to clean water to the net population.

The year 2025 may seem a long way off, but it really isn't.

The major causative factors to this absolute water shortage are a rising population and increased industrialisation, which together put pressure on a very limited resource.

Let's not fool each other, Africa's population is not going to suddenly stagnate.

If anything, it could grow faster in coming decades due to improved economic performance, which means greater industrialisation and urbanisation.

Remember, the majority of Africa's population is young so we have hundreds of millions of people of child-bearing age around.

And Southern Africa is not immune to these problems.

Due to the interconnected and transboundary nature of water resources, this means there should be greater collaboration among African countries in management of this precious resource.

SADC has some eight major river basins that provide fresh water and have the potential to offset any current or future water stress at present development and population increase levels.

It is good that the regional bloc has several programmes and protocols in place on the management of water.

What needs to be seen though is the implementation of the various agreements for the benefit of SADC's citizens. Across countries, the problem of water management is bad enough; but it is even more acute within individual states. It is easy to check.

Of course, the situation is worse in some countries but drive around your average municipality within the region and you will see water flowing on streets and yet taps are dry.

This is expensively treated water we are talking about.

When our municipalities fail to deliver water to citizens what happens?

The World Bank and its buddies move in and tell you that they would love to support water infrastructure projects but they doubt your capacity to handle these. They then structure agreements that allow private players to come on board to “assist” us in delivering water.

Naturally, this water comes at a cost that most people in the region, and indeed in the world, cannot afford. According to Ann-Christin Sjolander Holland, author of “The Water Business: Corporations Versus People”, Western companies are now pros at profiteering from water in the developing world.

In Argentina, Aguas Argentinas, a subsidiary of French firm Suez, won a tender to supply water but immediately sought to re-negotiate terms and increase prices.

The firm supplied just 54 percent of the targeted water users and invested only 40 percent of the money it had promised.

In Tanzania in the late 1990s, the World Bank told the government in Dar es Salaam to privatise water as a precondition for aid.

At the turn of the millennium in moved City Water, a subsidiary of Biwater (a British-German firm).

That 10-year contract lasted just two years as citizens fumed about the increased cost of water and a string of broken promises.

Biwater also tried to come into Zimbabwe in 1999 to supply the resource to the people of Harare.

That deal fell through because residents simply would not afford the cost of water.

Nigerian rights activist, Sokari Ekine has pointed out that privatisation of water is one of the key demands by the G8 for assistance to African countries. The choice is clear for Africa's leaders, we either improve our service delivery act or allow water to fall in private hands.