Is our government signalling a green light for the further privatisation of water services?

New Zealand's decision to abstain from supporting a UN resolution declaring access to clean drinking water as a basic human right is deeply disappointing. Equally unfortunate is the scant coverage that this important issue received in our mainstream media.

The UN declaration, which was passed by 122 member states on 28 July this year, “declares the right to safe and clean drinking water and sanitation as a human right that is essential for the full enjoyment of the right to life”. Member countries were urged to “scale up efforts to provide safe, clean, accessible and affordable water and sanitation for all,” according to the resolution.

The Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade’s excuse for New Zealand’s abstention at the UN - that it hadn't time to assess the implications – should be taken with a grain of salt. Globally, over 880 million people still lack access to clean drinking water, more than 2.6 billion people lack access to adequate sanitation, and each year 1.5 million children under five years old die as a result of water- and sanitation-related disease. Supporting the declaration would have provided a clear signal to the international community that New Zealand is seriously committed to playing its part to ameliorate these shocking statistics.

It is no secret that around the world, powerful commercial interests are continuing to drive the privatisation of water services. In the scramble to make profits from the sale and supply of water, these corporations have been backed by the World Bank and the IMF, which have often made the release of finance to developing countries struggling with debt repayment conditional on the deregulation of water services. Of course, this is generally couched on the grounds of improving efficiency. Yet the experience of many developing countries has been precisely the opposite – the privatisation of water services has led to rising prices and deteriorating water quality. Consequently, the most vulnerable and marginalised in society are deprived of access to clean drinking water, a basic necessity of life, and the result has been the exacerbation of health and social inequalities.

There can be little doubt that New Zealand’s reticence to endorse a declaration proposing clean, accessible and affordable water for all is a reflection of the government’s concern about the impact that such a position would have on the growing number of free trade agreements (FTAs) we have signed or are in the process of negotiating. The inclusion of services such as water provision is a common source of contention in many FTAs between developed and developing nations, with developed nations (including New Zealand) frequently insisting on the inclusion of services in such agreements.

Yet there is something inherently repugnant about rich countries extracting concessions to enable their own companies to profit from the sale and supply of water to some of the poorest people on the planet. Clean drinking water should not be treated as a commodity to be traded and sold. As Vandana Shiva writes in Water Wars, “The water crisis is the most pervasive, most severe, and most invisible dimension of the ecological devastation of the earth.”

Furthermore, competition over water resources has been identified as a major source of future geopolitical conflicts. By not supporting the importance of equitable, safe and clean drinking water as an integral component of the realisation of human rights, our government is shying away from addressing these stark realities, and in the process, is undermining New Zealand’s self-professed image as a ‘good international citizen’.

And there is another more shameful facet to this debate that strikes even closer to home. The polluted status of many of our rivers and waterways is well known (though not something that is advertised in our tourist brochures). Much less talked about is the fact that drinking water quality in many rural areas across Godzone fails to meet minimum safety standards, with high levels of faecal contamination and heavy metals. For a country blessed with abundant rainfall and such a low population, this is more than disappointing – it is a national disgrace.

Comments (1)

by John Monro on September 29, 2010
John Monro

Thanks, a good post. New Zealand, the world's only first world country with third world pretensions?

You say earlier "Equally unfortunate is the scant coverage that this important issue received in our mainstream media." It is unfortunate, but it is predictable. Our MSM are as thick as thieves with business and politics, indeed they are part of the same organism. To expect any meaningful examination of any of these sorts of issues is not realistic.

It is the MSM's main function to represent the interests of the powerful and the monied, and in this they succeed in so many ways, and in so many countries.

Their failure to treat global warming seriously and to critique monetarist dogma or those so-called "free trade deals" are examples of the same ideology at work. Similarly, their support for acts of aggression by sovereign nations on others, their demonisation of international leaders who don't tow the corporatist line and their contempt for those fighting for their own survival against the raging capitalist machine.

As Solzhenitsyn noted in his Harvard address in 1978: "There is yet another surprise for someone coming from the East where the press is rigorously unified: one gradually discovers a common trend of preferences within the Western press as a whole. It is a fashion; there are generally accepted patterns of judgment and there may be common corporate interests, the sum effect being not competition but unification. Enormous freedom exists for the press, but not for the readership because newspapers mostly give enough stress and emphasis to those opinions which do not too openly contradict their own and the general trend."

Thirty years later, with the press and the media now almost exclusively owned by a few very large corporations, their very existence being proof enough of the impotence of national governments to control them, how much more apt is this examination? Freedom for the press, serfdom for the readership.

The example of the privatisation of water is just another example of the corporatisation of everything. Of course, eventually the whole rotten edifice will come tumbling down, as it's beginning to now, and all this will pan out into open warfare, civil disobedience and major social dislocation. No doubt we can look forward to the water companies, in protecting their own commercial interests, offering free or discounted water to the militias, armies and police for use in their water canons.

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