How have international trade agreements complicated the water issue?

Maude Barlow: It is because of trade agreements that I got into this issue in the first place. Water was placed in NAFTA, and actually the trade agreement that came before NAFTA, which is the first free trade agreement in the world, the Canada-US free trade agreement, signed in 1989 and then morphed into NAFTA, then that became the model for the WTO (The World Trade Organization).

Water is in NAFTA and the WTO as a good. What that means is that once you start exporting your water for commercial purposes, you basically lose control of it. It is not your water anymore and you have to continue to export it. 

It is also in NAFTA as an investment. I will give you a very specific example. As an investment where a corporation can sue the government of another NAFTA country if that country changes its rules. I will give you an example. In Northern Alberta there is something called the Tar Sands. The Tar Sands is a huge area, the size of New Brunswick. It is huge, maybe twice the size of Florida. That has this sticky, thick, heavy oil in this thing called bitumen. It is like tar. Just think of tar and sand.

We are producing oil from this because we are running out of conventional oil all over North America and this is for export to the United States and Canada. To get at that oil, we have to use massive amounts of water and these corporations and they steamblast this bitumen and this heavy oil, and then the oil warms up and comes to the surface and then they are able to take it off--but it is destroying the water table in Northern Alberta including the Athabasca watershed basin and the Peace River and so on.

It is a really big issue there.

People are now talking about oil or water. So, you can’t have both.

But many of the corporations that are operating this are American. So, if the Alberta government were to say, well, we are going to restrict the amount of water you can use because you are destroying this water, or you have to use gray water, or you are just going to have to find ways to conserve, or we are going to cut you off, [then] Canadian companies operating there would have to abide by it. American corporations under NAFTA could sue for financial compensation because the government changed the rules of engagement. So these corporations get huge rights under NAFTA and under the World Trade Organization agreements to basically constrain what governments can--not just in water, but in many, many other areas.

They also are trying to get at the World Trade Organization water included in the general agreement on trade and services, so that if a city like Atlanta brought in privatization, brought in Suez, the big water company from France, and then changes its mind because it turns out it is a mistake, if they had water as a service in the WTO, you wouldn't be able to do that. You just can't undo a privatization once it has happened.

These trade agreements support private over public in all sorts of ways. And they force governments to look to a private answer when a public answer might be preferable.

Between the World Bank and the World Trade Organization forcing privatization of water services, it is a real struggle for us, just to continue to fight for the basic right to water. Again, we are not saying people shouldn't pay for water after a certain level of use--but not to a transnational corporation when that water is just going to go to pay overseas investors and outrageous salaries of the CEOs.

Any money we collect for water or water services, should go back to infrastructure building and so on. Here in the United States there are probably a trillion dollars worth of infrastructure building needed. People won't like to talk about waste water and sewage and stuff. Their eyes kind of glaze over and they think it is boring, but actually the system in the United States is very old. The pipes are leaky. They are rotting. They are allowing the discharge of really unsafe stuff into water ways.

The Federal Government used to fund quite a bit for infrastructure funding in this country. It does not anymore. I am involved in the United States with Food And Water Watch. I am chair of the board and we are calling for a clean water trust fund at the Federal level, where the Federal Government would have a trust fund built up over the years that could pay for this infrastructure repair as you don’t always to go cleaning up dirty water at the end.If you protect it at the source, you don’t have to spend nearly as much in the end. This could be a cost saving device as well.

Recorded On: March 17, 2008

Governments cede control of their water because of acts like NAFTA and the WTO, says Barlow.

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