Monday, March 16, 2009

Dying of thirst

Quillagua is a little town in Chile, almost dead now, that will stand as a suitable monument to the apparently antique notion that water is a public resource to which all should have access. Chile's current experiment in weak social democracy has done nothing to reverse the former Pinochet regime's selling off of water rights to big mining and agribusiness interests.

The town, situated in what the record books call the driest place on earth, had long been nurtured by a river that flowed by it. But pollution from mining killed the shrimp in the water and made it unusable for livestock; and now mining interests have bought up nearly the entire water supply, reducing the river to an on-again-off-again trickle. The population of Quillagua has dropped to one-fifth of what is was only twenty years ago.

So far, private companies are permitted to dictate water "policy" in Chile. The people of Bolivia, however, rose up to throw out a government a few years ago who had sold all conceivable water rights to Bechtel. It had been made illegal for Bolivians even to collect rainwater.

Water "stakeholders" are presently gathered in Turkey to discuss the problem of increasing water shortages in the world. It's a fraud. As Maude Barlow puts it

It's really just a big trade show put on by the big water companies. There is going to be no mention of water as a human right. They don't want to support that because they see water as a commodity to be sold on the open market.

She ought to know. Access to water is a human right--but just as the Harper government has made the right to pay equity a matter for negotiation, so too the multinationals and their First World backers are forcing some of the poorest people in the world to negotiate for that access.

Negotiate they will. And the Bolivian people have pointed the way to one (and perhaps for them and many others, the only) successful negotiating strategy. If your opponent starts out with more pieces than you, and uses some of your own against you as well--just kick over the damn chessboard.

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