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Cascadia Bioregion

CAPTIVE WATER: Privatising water will lead to war

Cascadia
Contents
Northwest Writing and Regional Identity: Introductory Essay

by Vandana Shiva

THE RIGHT TO water is common to all beings and is a gift of creation; it is a natural right, a birthright. Common rights go hand in hand with common responsibility: a common responsibility to conserve water, use it sustainably, and share it equitably. The culture of conservation of these 'common' rights has supported human life and all life on Earth for millennia.

Poorly conceived 'development', which increased commerce but decreased life's renewable potential and created huge social and environmental devastation, has left us with polluted rivers, depleted groundwater, desertified soils and thirsty people. The solution being offered to the water scarcity created by non-sustainable development is privatisation, or private-public partnerships. Unfortunately, privatisation leads to an acceleration in the non-sustainable use of water and a deepening of the hydrological divide, with corporations owning and controlling water. This will lead to those with wealth buying more than their fair share, and those without purchasing power being denied their water rights, and hence their right to life. Privatisation of water is the ultimate human rights violation, the ultimate human wrong.

In India, the Shivnath river in the Chattisgarh region has already been privatised and sold to the RWL company, which uses police force to prevent local communities from accessing the river. The villages of Rasmara, Mohlai, Siloda, Mahmara and Peepal Chhedi have lost their rights to fish, bathe and wash in the river. Wells within a radius of one kilometre from the river have been forcibly shut down by the company.

Even the Sacred Ganges is not safe from privatisation. Suez, the world's largest water corporation, is setting up a plant in Delhi at Sonia Vihar to sell Ganges water to the rich people of Delhi. Ondeo Degremont, a subsidiary of Suez Lyonnaise des Eaux, has been awarded a two-billion rupee contract for the design, building and operation of a plant to produce 635 million litres of drinking water a day.

A common response is that this water-production plant in Delhi does not imply privatising the Ganga. However, in order for water to be diverted from the Ganga to the Yamuna basin to be sold by Suez, the traditional rights and access to drinking water and irrigation for local communities in the Ganga basin are denied. Urban areas get increased commercial supplies by denying rural areas access to their needs for sustenance.

The water for the Suez-Degremont plant in Delhi will come from the Tehri dam through the Upper Ganga Canal and then through a giant pipeline to Delhi. The Upper Ganga Canal, which starts at Haridwar and carries the holy water of Ganga, is the main source of irrigation for this region.

THE GANGES IS not just a giver of peace after death: she is a source of prosperity in life. The Gangetic plain is one of the most fertile regions of the world. At the beginning of the ploughing season in Bihar, prior to planting their seeds, farmers put Ganges water in a pot and set it aside in a special place in the field to ensure a good harvest.

The Ganges waters, the lifeline of northern India and India's food security, are being handed over to Suez to quench the thirst of Delhi's elite even as a hundred thousand people are being forceably and violently removed from their homes in Tehri for the Tehri dam. Tehri, the capital of the ancient kingdom of Garhwal on the banks of the Ganga in the Himalayas, is in the process of being submerged.

The Tehri dam project is located in the outer Himalaya in the Tehri-Garhwal district of Uttaranchal. It is planned to be the fifth highest dam in the world - 260.5 meters high and spread over an area of forty-five square kilometers. The dam will submerge 4,200 hectares of the most fertile flat land in the Bhagirathi and Bhilangana valleys without really benefiting the region in any way.

The huge Tehri dam is located in a seismic fault zone. This area is earthquake-prone. Between 1816 and 1991, the Garhwal region has witnessed seventeen earthquakes, the most recent ones being the Uttarkashi earthquake of October 1991 and the Chamoli earthquake of 1998. The International Commission on Large Dams has declared the site "extremely hazardous".

In the event of this dam collapsing due to an earthquake or any other fault, the devastation would be unimaginable. This huge reservoir built at such a height would be emptied in twenty-two minutes. Within sixty minutes Rishikesh would be under 260 metres of water. Soon after, Haridwar would be totally submerged. Bijnor, Meerut, Hapur and Bulandshahar would be under water within twelve hours. Thus the dam is potentially dangerous for large parts of north-western India, and large areas in the Gangetic plains would be devastated in the event of such a mishap. It is also estimated that the life of the dam would not be more than thirty years because of heavy sedimentation.

PRIVATISATION OF WATER is justified on the ground that full costs must be paid when water giants eventually get their water markets. However, as the case of the Suez plant in Delhi shows, the corporations get the water for free without paying for the full social and environmental costs to those rural communities from whom the water is taken.

India has got into huge debt for the loans taken from the World Bank for the Ganga Canal. At the same time, the giant pipeline is being built through public finances. In effect the public pays the price while transnational companies make the profit.

In August, 2002, more than 5,000 farmers gathered to protest the laying of the giant pipeline to supply the water from the river Ganga to the Sonia Vihar Water Plant for Delhi. The rally was launched from Haridwar - one of the oldest and holiest cities of India built on the banks of Ganga - where the farmers, together with priests, citizens and worshippers of Ganga, announced that "Ganga is not for Sale", and vowed to defend the freedom of this holy river. The sacred waters of the Ganga cannot be the property of any one individual or a company.


In March this year, Ganga Yatra undertook a journey from Tehri to Delhi. With us on the march were Sunderlal Bahuguna, who has been sitting at the Tehri dam site as a witness to both the destruction and the perennial spiritual values related to the Ganga; Oscar Oliviera of Bolivia, who with fellow citizens drove out Bechtel and regained social control over Cochabamba's water; and Magasasay award winner Rajender Singh of Tarun Bharat Sangh. People from all over the world are making known their opposition to water privatisation.

Sadly, more than a hundred women have committed suicide as a result of water scarcity in the Tehri region over the last few years. Women who came from 250 villages to meet us say that their sacred mother, the river Ganga, has been reduced to receiving them in death and no longer gives them life. Women are still sitting in protest in the ruins of the ancient city of Tehri, refusing to give up their struggle. They say they will commit collective suicide if forced to move.

Throughout 2003, the Year of Fresh Water, a Jal Yatra - water journey - is being undertaken across India to recover waters and rivers as commons, to conserve water by shifting to water-prudent crops and farming methods, and to resist privatisation.

Among the mega-projects we have to address is the proposal to link all of India's rivers through super-dams and super-canals at a cost of $200 billion, which is 200 times what India spends on education, three times what the government collects in taxes, twenty-five per cent of our gdp, and US$72 billion more than India's total external debt. This mega-project offers new opportunities for privatisation, but creates heavy costs for our rivers and our people. More than five million people will be displaced; our living rivers will be killed. Ecosystems, people and communities will be deprived of water as it is imprisoned by giant dams and giant canals of cement. Free-flowing rivers supporting life will be transformed into captive waters. Free people with free access to their bathing ghats, their wells, their tanks and ponds will become bonded to giant water companies and water bureaucracies. This is a nightmare of slavery and a recipe for extinction of species and cultures.

Our movement to protect water and defend the water freedom and water rights of all people and all species is called Jal Swaraj Abhiyan - the Water Democracy, Water Sovereignty movement. It is part of our movement for Earth Democracy, Living Democracy. It is a movement in the defence of life, of the integrity and sanctity of the rivers of our cultures, and of our capacities to be conservers and custodians of our precious common water heritage. For us, water democracy is necessary for peace because centralised, commodified systems are creating water wars. We want to create water peace: peace with the Earth and all her species, and peace between all peoples.

Vandana Shiva is Director of Bija Vidyapeeth, the International College for Sustainable Living, in Dehra Dun, India. bijavidyapeeth@hotmail.com

http://www.resurgence.org/resurgence/issues/shiva219.htm