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The Commons Controversy

Some believe that water should remain in the public commons and some believe that privatization and globalization are best for water utilities worldwide. Explore the commons controversy and decide whether or not you believe that water should be held in public trust, as do some of the participants in Thirst.

Dangerous Concept?

Science: The Tragedy of the Commons
In a now classic article, Garrett Hardin argues that if shepherds share common land, it is in each herder's self-interest to maximize his use of the pasture at the expense of the community at large. The pasture is quickly overgrazed, and tragedy ensues. Hardin then extends this argument to other shared resources. (1968)

H2O Urgency
Roger Bate urges water privatization for the sake of human rights. The profit incentive pushes private companies to distribute water as efficiently as possible, he argues, while shared water resources are invariably abused and overtaxed. In Chile, he maintains, which privatized water 23 years ago, rural access has increased faster than in any other country, saving countless lives and increasing national prosperity. (May 2004)

Common Property?
Tom Palmer responds to David Bollier's argument (see below) that we need to protect the commons, arguing that the commons is a far more complex concept than Bollier suggests. Each commons, he maintains, is regulated by a different set of rules and is owned by a different group of people who have entered into a contractual agreement. Moreover, he argues, Bollier's arguments appeal to emotion rather than facts about what is better for people. (2002)

Vital Social Space?

Boston Review: Reclaiming the Commons
In this op-ed, David Bollier clarifies the concept of the commons and discusses some of its domains, such as waterways, grazing land, and the internet. Arguing that these commons are inextricably bound to tradition and culture, he urges us to reject the privatization of these resources vital to our social identity. (2002)

Orion Magazine: In Law We Trust
Mark Dowie talks about the public trust doctrine, which holds that the state should privilege public over private interests when deciding who owns the rights to shared resources. How does this traditional law apply to the case of water? (July/August 2003)

New Left Review: Globalization and the Commons
In "Reclaiming the Commons," Naomi Klein asks whether the anti-globalization movement is really against globalization or if rather, it is the fight against the commodification and privatization of the public commons and other social goods. As the world is increasingly globalized, can the commons be preserved? (2001)

Further Reading Online

The Water Barons
The Center for Public Integrity published this comprehensive report on water privatization around the world, including the United States in 2003. Read a report on the nation as a whole, what happened in Atlanta, Indianapolis and Camden, NJ.

Water for Profit
CBC Radio's special series on the privatization of water, was done in collaboration with The Water Barons, an international investigation by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, which is a project of the Washington-based Center for Public Integrity. (2003)

The Water Debate
BBC News Online produced this in-depth feature earlier this year. Read an interview with former UN Secretary General Boutros Boutros Ghali, take a quiz about water, get facts about water consumption around the globe, and much, much more. (March 2004)

Organizations of Note

International Organizations

The World Bank on Water
A branch of the United Nations devoted to providing loans to developing countries for infrastructure, the World Bank has financed water privatization in Africa, South America, and Asia. The Bank also studies the economic and social effects of water and sanitation.

The United Nations on Water
The parent organization to the loan- and grant-giving World Bank and International Monetary Fund, the United Nations monitors issues concerning public health globally. This UN body, which is generally pro-privatization, explores new ways of relieving water crises and providing safe water in developing countries. 2003 was the UN International Year of Freshwater and they launched an impressive website in support of the initiative.

Companies of Note

Veolia Water Systems
Veolia Water Systems is the water services branch of Veolia Environnement (formerly Vivendi Universal), a French conglomerate of energy, water, waste, and transportation services. Veolia Water Systems is the largest water corporation on earth, serving 110 million people in over 50 countries.

Suez Water
Originated in the 1820s, Suez is a French conglomerate of energy, water, and waste companies. Suez Water services 125 million people worldwide, including 24 million in the United States.

RWE - Thames Water
RWE is a German utilities company with annual revenues over $50 billion. Servicing 70 million people in fourteen different countries, RWE is the third largest water corporation behind Veolia and Suez. American Water and Thames Water are RWE's American- and British-based water subsidiaries, servicing 15 million and 51 million people respectively.

Pro-Privatization Groups

The Global Water Partnership
Private industrial companies support several lobbying and public-awareness groups about water privatization, ownership, and conservation, such as the Global Water Partnership. This organization stresses water privatization's economy and assuages environmental and social concerns.

The World Water Council
The World Water Forum participants featured in "Thirst," a group of politicians and industry leaders, make up the World Water Council. Because of the enormous capital required to update water systems globally -- an estimated trillion dollars -- the Forum believes that only government partnerships with private companies can effectively supply water, a resource it believes can be traded much like oil or timber.

Anti-Privatization Groups

Concerned Citizens Coalition of Stockton
The Concerned Citizens Coalition of Stockton sued the city of Stockton in the summer of 2003 to block an agreement that would have handed control of the city's water to the international conglomerate OMI-Thames.

Polaris Institute: Water
This website includes critical research and analysis on the world's largest water corporations, their most influential lobby groups, and the for-profit water agenda and strategy they shape at a global level. The Polaris Institute's aim is to make this information accessible so that it can be used for organizing and fighting back.

Public Citizen
The Public Citizen is a national non-profit public interest and lobbying organization. Public Citizen has served as a rallying organization against water privatization - earning the support in protest from over a hundred grassroots organizations.

Sierra Club of America
With 700,000 members, the Sierra Club is America's oldest and largest non-profit environmental organization. This investigation into water privatization eschews its possible environmental effects and calls for more public scrutiny of the process.

The People Of Thirst

Maude Barlow

Profile of Maude Barlow

Maude Barlow and Tony Clarke on Privatization
Writer, activist, and critic Maude Barlow chairs the Council of Canadians, Canada's largest advocacy group. In the links above, CBC - Canada's public broadcasting network - profiles her in the context of her fight against privatization and Barlow writes about privatization with Tony Clarke for The Nation (Aug. 2002).

Oscar Olivera

Bolivian grassroots leader Oscar Olivera has earned international media attention for his successful fight against water privatization.

Fight-Back in Bolivia
This article by Maude Barlow and Tony Clarke about the protest in Cochabamba appeared in The Nation. (August 15, 2002)

Frontline World: Privatization in Bolivia
Find out more about the protests in Cochabamba at this comprehensive site.

An Interview with Vandana Shiva on Water Rights
In this interview with In Motion magazine, Dr. Shiva discusses her book Water Wars. Explaining her participation in grassroots environmental directives, such as the women's movement against water privatization in India's desert states, Shiva illustrates the possibilities of local activism in the face of globalization. (Sept. 2002)

Rajendra Singh

Tarun Bharat Sangh
Rajendra Singh runs this Indian citizens' organization featured in "Thirst," which fosters grassroots support against water privatization and teaches local citizens new ways to find and distribute water.


POV Websites

Maquilapolis: City of Factories
This 2006 POV film showcases workers in a bordertown factory who take on both the Mexican and U.S. governments and a major television manufacturer to fight for the cleanup of toxic water left behind by departing factories. Explore the environmental impact and health risks of electronics manufacturing and find out more about how to be a responsible consumer on the the companion website for the film.

POV's Borders
Our web-only documentary series asks about the borders in our lives, both literal and metaphysical. The second episode, on the environment, includes an interactive feature on water. The same company that's taking over your water works might just be selling your tap water at 10,000 times the cost to unsuspecting drinkers around the country. What's that stench? Learn all about NYC's Newton Creek, the dirtiest waterway in America. And don't forget to tell us where you stand on these issues! (2004)

This 2002 POV film pits Shell Oil against the people of Norco, Louisiana. The setting: the Mississippi River's "cancer alley." Like the water war in Stockton, this crisis sparked an unusual coalition of community activists who worked to win an inspiring settlement from Shell. (July 2002)

Life and Debt
This searing film provides a glimpse into the harrowing effects of economic globalization on Jamaica's working people. Find out more about the issues and discuss the IMF policies that drove these changes. (August 2001) Websites

Frontline World: Bolivia - Leasing the Rain
In-depth coverage of the battle over water privatization as it came to a head in Bolivia. New Yorker writer William Finnegan travels to Cochabamba to learn why people took to the streets and what happened next. (June 2002)

Commanding Heights: The Battle for the World Economy
Get all the facts about globalization, world trade, and economic development, including the forces, values, events, and ideas that have shaped the present global economic system, in this six-part series. (2002)

NOW with Bill Moyers: Understanding Globalization
"Globalization" has always meant different things to different people. NOW takes a look at this loaded term and asks why it inspires such passion in its advocates and opponents. (September 2003)

Global Connections: Got Water?
Discusses the delicate water and oil economies in the Middle East. Includes a lesson plan for high schoolers that explores the political, economic, and environmental effects of providing water for people around the globe. (2002)

NPR Stories

Talk of the Nation: Privatization of Water
Cities like Atlanta and Indianapolis have turned over the operation of their water systems to private companies. With unique social and economic dynamics, each city faces a different set of challenges when deciding how to provide clean, safe water to its citizens. (April 2002)

Morning Edition: World Bank, IMF Privatize Water Utilities
The World Bank and IMF urge developing nations to turn their water utilities over to private companies. Opponents say water is a human need and should not be sold for profit. NPR's Kathleen Schalch examines the effects of water privatization under IMF programs in Bolivia and beyond. (January 2003)

Morning Edition: California Considers Privatizing Water Utilities
News coverage of the water privatization debate in Stockton. Tamara Keith of KQED reports. (February 2003)

Morning Edition: Protests in Bolivia
Host Bob Edwards talks to reporter Robert McFarren, about the clash over water privatization in Bolivia. The violent protests left at least five people dead and some 40 injured. (April 11, 2000)

Water in the West: The Past and Present Challenges of Surviving in an Arid Land
This four-part miniseries sheds light on why the people of Stockton feel so strongly about their water resources. California has not always been the land of swimming pools, palm trees, and freely-flowing taps. Most of the settled Western U.S. was desert until visionaries and policy-makers developed vast irrigation networks to keep pace with the growth of agriculture, industry and cities. (2003)