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POVERTY, WATER, AND GLOBALISATION

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LOUVAIN, Mar 1 2005 (IPS) - On March 22, World Water Day, the UN will launch the second International Decade for Action \”Water for Life\” (2005-2015), writes Riccardo Petrella, a professor at the Catholic University of Louvain. In this article, Petrella writes that the goal of first decade (1981-1991) was to assure access to potable water to all inhabitants of the planet by 2000. As we know, this goal was not achieved – far from it. This failure was due primarily to the fact that the leaders of the rich and powerful countries did not implement the measures that they themselves considered essential, particularly allocating 0.7 percent of GDP per year for aid to underdeveloped countries. Instead, between 1975-2000, they provided on average 0.23 percent, or less than a third of what they had promised. With the ascendance of the vision of today\’s financial globalisation, the eradication of poverty came to be considered impossible. Were it to happen, it would be achieved not through public will but by market mechanisms. Creativity, life, identity, and even individual survival are all vetted in the arenas of the global competitive markets, whose specific function is to select the \”best\” products and services, the more \”profitable\” places for investment, production, and consumption, promising the most \”competitive\” success. The fundamental question, Petrella writes, is whether the right to life of billions of human beings can be squared with the prolongation of the present human disaster by another ten years. I do not believe that the majority of Europeans, Africans, Asians, and North and South Americans think so.

On March 22, World Water Day, the United Nations will launch the second International Decade for Action “Water for Life” (2005-2015). The goal of first decade (1981-1991) was to assure access to potable water to all inhabitants of the planet by 2000. As we know, this goal was not achieved – far from it. This failure was due primarily to the fact that the leaders of the rich and powerful countries did not implement the measures that they themselves considered essential, particularly allocating 0.7 percent of GDP per year for aid to underdeveloped countries. Instead, between 1975-2000, they provided on average 0.23 percent, or less than a third of what they had promised.

Thus in the year 2000, there were 1.5 billion people without access to clean drinking water and 2.4 billion without sanitation; between 15 and 30 thousand people died each day from illnesses as a result — the equivalent in victims of between 26 and 52 tsunamis each year. This situation must be seen in the context of world poverty: in 2000, 2.7 billion people lived on less than 2 dollars per day, of whom 1.3 billion lived on one dollar per day, referred to as the “extremely poor”.

Faced with a human disaster of this scale, the world’s heads of state met in New York in September 2000 for the United Nations Millennium Summit, where they approved the Millennium Development Goals (MDG). Though in spirit this project was particularly ambitious, in fact, the leaders abandoned the objective of eradicating poverty and consequently the lack of access to clean water. Instead, they asserted that the only realistic major goal was to cut by half the number of people in extreme poverty and lacking access to water and sanitation by the year 2015. In effect, they accepted that in 2015 there will still be more than 3 billion poor and between 1.5 and 2 billion people without potable water — this in a world in which total wealth more than doubled between 1975 and 2000 and will be 1.5 times higher in 2015 than in 2000.

How are we to understand this abandonment of the goal of eradicating poverty, a striking political and ethical abdication by the international community at the dawn of the 21st century, heralded as the gateway into the “knowledge society” and “knowledge economy”?

For a quarter-century the globalisation of the economy and society, characterised by its champions as a “natural” and “inevitable” phenomenon, has been presented as a narrative grounded in four alleged principles. First, the principle of the market, according to which society is but a nexus of transactions between individuals in ever more globalised markets. Then there is the principle of free enterprise, which holds that the private sector is the most adept at organising and optimising these transactions. The third principle is that of capital, which defines value in contemporary societies exclusively in terms of financial capital. Finally there is the principle of science and technology, which are largely responsible for the evolution of today’s global world, virtual communication, and world products and services.

In this context, creativity, life, identity, and even individual survival are all vetted in the arenas of the global competitive markets, whose specific function is to select the “best” products and services, the more “profitable” places for investment, production, and consumption, promising the most “competitive” success.

With the ascendance of this vision, the eradication of poverty came to be considered impossible. Were it to happen, it would be achieved not through public will but by market mechanisms. A solidary society cannot exist unless it is competitive first: this is the logic involved here.

This vision include these tenets:

-that water is, like all other “things”, a commodity, which as a part of the dominion of the market should obey its rules.

– that it is up to the private sector to insure the “optimal management” of the planet’s water resources in the framework of international water-service markets. To this end, it is necessary to promote the broadest possible liberalisation.

-that the just remuneration of capital must inspire the organisation of the financial engineering necessary to finance the costs of providing water and hydro-services. According to the report of a group of experts directed by Michel Camdessus, former director-general of the International Monetary Foundation, at the request of the World Water Council, the financing of water must obey the principle “you use it, you pay for it” (we are far from the domain of a right to water) and through recourse to the capital markets. And if poor countries want to insure the arrival of private capital to assume management of water distribution, they must, the report says, guarantee private property rights, the certainty of profits, and the solvency of local water “consumers”;

-finally, that we must not panic if quality potable water for human use becomes increasingly rare and if we have to tackle the grave problem of apportionment, particularly for the US, China, and India, not to mention Africa, with the risk of generating a new breed of conflicts over water. Technology, together with the market, is there to resolve problems: desalinisation of sea water, biotechnology to develop plants that need less water, virtual water, major transnational and continental management of water reserves, transportation and marketing networks on a vast scale.

The new International Decade for Action “Water for Life” has adopted as its objective the reduction by half of the number of people without access to potable water. The fundamental question involved here is whether the right to life of billions of human beings can be squared with the prolongation of the present human disaster by another ten years. I do not believe that the majority of Europeans, Africans, Asians, and North and South Americans think so. What if we ask them? (END/COPYRIGHT IPS)

 
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