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BECHTEL AND BLOOD FOR WATER IN IRAQ

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NEW DELHI, May 1 2003 (IPS) - The introduction into Iraq of Bechtel, a company which has a history of aggravating water conflict, is a recipe for disaster and long-lasting water wars, writes Vandana Shiva, author, international campaigner for women and the environment, and recipient of the Right Livelihood Award (Alternative Nobel Prize) in 1993. Its 680-million-dollar contract for rebuilding Iraq includes but is not limited to \’\’municipal water systems and sewage systems, major irrigation structures, and the dredging, repair and upgrading of the Umm Qasr seaport\’\’. In this article for IPS, the author writes that if we go by the record of the company\’s water privatisation experience in Bolivia, Bechtel will try to control the water resources, not just the water works of Iraq, claiming ownership of the Tigris and Euphrates. The executives at Bechtel have thirsted for control over Iraq for over 20 years. In 1983 Donald Rumsfeld, Reagan administration \’\’special Middle East envoy\’\’, met with Hussein to discuss a massive pipeline project proposed by Bechtel. Hussein eventually rejected the Bechtel proposal. Now again Donald Rumsfeld has \’\’taken care of business\’\’ for Bechtel. As secretary of defence, he has overseen the war to remove the obstacle and Bechtel is rolling in.

The introduction into Iraq of Bechtel, a company which has a history of aggravating water conflict, is a recipe for disaster. Its 680-million-dollar contract for rebuilding Iraq includes but is not limited to ”municipal water systems and sewage systems, major irrigation structures, and the dredging, repair, and upgrading of the Umm Qasr seaport”. Bechtel’s past record of pushing the privatisation of water has destabilised local communities in other parts of the world. In the parched Middle East, already seething with international water disputes, an attempt by a multinational water giant to grab this precious resource could spark long-lasting water wars.

The Tigris and Euphrates rivers are a water lifeline in the arid Middle East. The alluvial plain between the two rivers was the cradle of ancient civilisations including Assyria, Babylonian, and Sumer, and supported millions of people. Today these rivers represent a precious resource for the inhabitants of the region.

There is already considerable conflict over these two rivers. Turkey’s massive dam building projects, especially the GAP project, have upset the riparian states of Syria and Iraq. With over half the flow of both rivers generated in Turkey, the dams put the country in a position to regulate river flow. Syria and Iraq have worried that Turkish irrigation and electricity generation needs will determine how much water flows to them and have disputed Turkish claims to guarantee a minimum flow. UNESCO recently announced that a body of scientific mediators would be formed to handle international water disputes such as these.

The most famous tale of Bechtel’s corporate water greed is the story of Cochabamba, Bolivia. In the semi-desert region, water is scarce and precious. In 1999, the World Bank recommended privatisation of Cochabamba’s municipal water supply company (SEMAPA) through a concession to International Water, a subsidiary of Bechtel. On October 1999, the Drinking Water and Sanitation Law was passed, ending government subsidies and allowing privatisation.

In a city where the minimum wage is less than USD 100 a month, water bills reached USD 20 a month, nearly the cost of feeding a family of five for two weeks. In January 2000, a citizen’s alliance called the Coalition in Defense of Water and Life was formed and shut down the city for four days through mass mobilisation. Between January and February 2000, millions of Bolivians marched to Cochabamba, held a general strike, and stopped all transportation. The government promised to reverse the price hike but never did. In February 2000, the Coalition organised a peaceful march demanding the repeal of the Drinking Water and Sanitation Law, the annulment of ordinances allowing privatisation, the termination of the water contract, and the participation of citizens in drafting a water resource law. The citizens’ demands, which threatened corporate interests, were violently repressed.

The Coalition’s fundamental critique was directed at the negation of water as a community property. Protesters used slogans like ”Water is God’s gift and not merchandise” and ”Water is life”.

In April, 2000 the government tried to silence the water protests by imposing martial law. Activists were arrested, protestors were killed, and media were censored. Finally on April 10, 2000, the people won. Aquas del Tunari and Bechtel left Bolivia. The government was forced to revoke its hated water privatisation legislation. The water company, Servicio Municipal del Aqua Potable y Alcantarillado (SEMAPO), was handed over to the workers and the people, along with the debts. In the summer of 2000, the Coalition organised public hearings to establish democratic planning and management.

Thus the people have taken on the challenge to establish a water democracy, but the water dictators are trying their best to subvert the process. Bechtel is suing the Bolivian government, which in turn is harassing and threatening activists of the Coalition.

Given its track record in Bolivia, Bechtel will likely try to control the water resources and not just the water works of Iraq.

If the international community and the Iraqis are not vigilant, Bechtel could try to claim ownership of the Tigris and Euphrates, just as it tried to ”own” the wells of Bolivia.

In India, Bechtel was involved with Enron in the infamous Dabhol power plant project. This disastrous venture involved the suppression of local protests, the circumvention of environmental regulations, and secret deals worth billions of dollars. The parties in the state government elections even fought over this issue, with the party that was opposed to the deal winning office but then turning around and cutting a new contract for the power plant anyway.

Bechtel is now involved in water privatisation of Coimbatore/Tirrupur as part of a consortium with Mahindra and Mahindra and United International North West Water. As with other water privatisation contracts, this contract has not been made public. Business that can only be carried out behind closed doors, in secret, clearly does not promote freedom. It extinguishes it, along with democracy.

The executives at Bechtel have thirsted for control over Iraq for over 20 years. It was in 1983 that Donald Rumsfeld, as the ”special Middle East envoy” of the Reagan administration, met with Saddam Hussein to discuss a massive pipeline project proposed by Bechtel. Hussein, who had a habit of preferring French, German, and Russian companies, eventually rejected the Bechtel proposal. Now again Donald Rumsfeld has ”taken care of business” for Bechtel. As secretary of defense, he has overseen the war to remove the obstacle, and Bechtel is rolling in. (END/COPYRIGHT IPS)

 
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