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On World Water Day let us remember the true cause of water scarcity – corporate power

Credit: Paul Hames / California Department of Water Resources

We often talk about people lacking access to water as if it is some kind of act of God – an unfortunate fact of nature that we as humans need to overcome with our ingenuity.

But the fact that two billion people do not have access to clean water is not just a tragedy, it is a choice. It is not, in the main, a technical problem. It is a political problem. And corporate power is a big part of that problem.

Take climate change. We are already seeing the effects of climate change on increasing water stress. The UN estimates that water scarcity exacerbated by climate change could displace up to an additional 700 million people by 2030. The big fossil fuel intensive corporations are among the biggest opponents of meaningful climate action. This means that they are also causing an increase in drought and water scarcity.

The same is true in terms of who is using what water resources we do have. Globally, industry uses around 60% more water than households. In some countries corporate abuse of scarce water supplies causes serious problems for the local population. In South Africa, for example, mining uses up more water than the entire population combined while causing serious pollution and health problems among local people.

And let’s not forget the problems caused by the privatisation of water. World Water Day last year saw protests in Lagos, Nigeria against the horrifically bad privatised system in place there. Companies that run water systems for profit almost always raise tariffs, pricing out the poor from this most basic of necessities.

And thanks to ISDS – a system of obscure courts that corporations use to sue governments when things don’t go their way – companies can threaten legal action to stop governments from keeping tariffs low. Indeed this is what happened in Argentina, where a number of companies including Suez and Anglia Water sued because they were being forced to freeze tariffs in Buenos Aires.

So whichever way you look at it, the problem of people not having access to clean water is a problem made worse by the power of multinationals. At every level, access to water is being undermined by them. And no number of photogenic corporate social responsibility campaigns involving village wells is going to change that fundamentally. It is a systemic problem. THEY are the problem.

What we need to do is take power back from corporations. This is a tall order. But our campaign is pushing for two things that will start to make a difference to this.

The first is getting rid of ISDS. By robbing corporations of their ability to threaten governments we open up policy space for alternative approaches. Governments will be able to regulate to reduce water tariffs without fear of legal action. It will also be easier to decommodify water by transitioning to public ownership models and remunicipalisation.

The second thing is to push for stronger corporate accountability mechanisms. Corporations are getting away with polluting water supplies and diverting water to serve their own needs. There must be a better way to hold them to account. By passing a binding UN treaty on business and human rights, communities will be able to pursue justice no matter where the company doing the damage is based.

So please this World Water Day sign our petition and ensure that our politicians hear the message loud and clear. If we want access to water to be universal, then we must tackle the problem of corporate power over it