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The threat of Rio+20 to water

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I am in Porto Alegre, Brazil, with Blue Planet Project organizer Anil Naidoo for a Thematic Social Forum (titled "Capitalist Crisis, Social and Environmental Justice"), which is a primary civil society organizing moment in advance of the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development (UNCSD) -- more commonly referred to as Rio+20 -- set to be held in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, on June 13-22, 2012.

The recently released negotiating text -- also known as the "zero draft" -- for Rio+20 states: "We underline the importance of the right to safe and clean drinking water and sanitation as a human right that is essential for the full enjoyment of life and all human rights. Furthermore, we highlight the critical importance of water resources for sustainable development, including poverty and hunger eradication, public health, food security, hydropower, agriculture and rural development."

Why, then, is such concern being raised here about the threat of Rio+20 to water?

1. Ongoing opposition to the right to water

First of all, not all countries supported the inclusion of the right to water in the zero draft. Council of Canadians water campaigner Meera Karunananthan pointed out last November: "In meetings at the United Nations last week, we learned that the G77 states were working on a joint submission for the zero draft. … Upon learning that a handful of G77 states were blocking inclusion of language on the human right to water and sanitation, the Council of Canadians and 37 other organizations (including Food & Water Watch, Public Services International, and the World Future Council) from more than 20 different countries sent a letter calling on the G77 to include the human right to water in its submission."

And while the United Nations General Assembly has now recognized the human right to water and sanitation, 41 countries -- notably Australia, Austria, Canada, Denmark, Greece, Japan, Kenya, Netherlands, United Kingdom. and the United States -- abstained from that July 28, 2010 vote. In many cases, including Canada, that abstention was clearly understood as opposition to the right to water and sanitation.

The zero draft will undoubtedly undergo many changes and we should not presume that there isn't still opposition to the right to water or that there won't be efforts to undermine or redefine that right.

2. Corporate control

Council of Canadians chairperson Maude Barlow has written that the World Water Council and the World Business Council for Sustainable Development were major players at Rio+10, held in Johanesburg, South Africa. She writes that summit "became totally captive to the interests of transnational corporations and is generally acknowledged by all but the big business community to have been a complete failure. … The only concrete outcome of (Rio+10) was that governments and the UN cemented their relationship with the corporate elite and paved the way for years of partnership hype and 'greenwash.'"

The World Business Council for Sustainable Development, noted by Barlow above, is a CEO-led global association of 200 corporations including Coca-Cola, BP, Royal Dutch Shell and Wal-Mart, that will again be active at Rio+20. It recently stated, "the foundation for a green economy must be built upon water, energy and food security." And it highlights, "Business plays an important role deploying new initiatives which are helping improve access to water and sanitation…"

The Business Action for Sustainable Development is co-ordinating the participation of the private sector at Rio+20. According to one media report, BASD has called on governments to work with business in implementing measures that support market solutions, provide incentives, and address risk and regulatory issues. The BASD is convened by the International Chamber of Commerce, the World Business Council for Sustainable Development, and the United Nations Global Compact. Its partners include the International Federation of Private Water Operators (Aquafed), the International Council on Mining and Metals, and the Global Oil & Gas Industry Association.

The zero draft document, despite its positive-sounding rhetoric, confirms a key role for these corporations. It states, "We acknowledge the important role of the private sector in moving towards sustainable development. … We reaffirm the key role of the private sector in promoting sustainable development including through multi-stakeholder partnerships. … We are convinced that a green economy in the context of sustainable development and poverty eradication should contribute to meeting key goals -- in particular the priorities of poverty eradication, food security, sound water management…"

Already the Times of India has reported that the lead-up talks for Rio+20 have included, "global targets for reducing subsidies on social goods in the name of 'getting prices right' (allowing markets to operate without any intervention by the governments, even in supply of essential services like drinking water, food, public health, access to power or education)…"

3. Green economy templates promote privatization, big dams

The United Nations News Centre reported in October 2011: "Successful water projects can serve as templates around the world and help to stimulate the adoption of green economies, a conference (in Zaragoza, Spain) run by the United Nations inter-agency group focused on water issues has heard (in preparation for the Rio+20 conference in June 2012). … The (Zaragoza conference) placed a special focus in showcasing already successful projects of how water can be a major contributor to developing a green economy."

Specifically, those "green economy templates" for water highlight, "the four major rivers project in the Republic of Korea; the reform of the urban water supply and sanitation sector in Yemen; water planning in Laos; and the improvement of the water supply in Burkina Faso." But the project in South Korea includes the heavily criticized construction of 16 dams in the main streams of four major rivers; the project in Yemen involved the decentralization of water and sanitation services to commercially run local corporations that set their own tariffs; the water project in Laos was a public-private partnership (P3); and the "improvement of the water supply" in Burkina Faso involved market-oriented reforms that decentralized responsibility for water supply to municipalities which then contracted out service provision to local private companies. In Burkina Faso, Veolia was also brought in to improve the commercial practices of the public water utility.

Reza Ardakanian, Director of the UN-Water Decade Programme on Capacity Development, says, "These cases may act as templates and stimulate the development of green economies in other countries."

In relation to the construction of major dams, Peter Bosshard, policy director at International Rivers, recently wrote, "The language of the Rio+20 draft document is so vague that it can easily be abused by the money lenders, consultants and contractors that benefit from the current course of action. Under the motto of the 'Green Economy,' the World Bank proposes to build more large multipurpose dams that would clog the arteries of the planet while bypassing the poor. As the World Commission on Dams found ten years ago, these complex projects have the worst track record among all dams in terms of economic viability, poverty reduction and environmental protection -- the main pillars of sustainable development."

4. Water markets, the commodification of water

Achim Steiner, executive director for the UN Environment Program, has pointed to the UNEP report Towards a Green Economy: Pathways to Sustainable Development and Poverty Eradication, which examines how a green economy would value ecosystem services. According to a UN news report, "Water is currently only priced (at) the point of consumption but a full valuing of water in our natural infrastructure is needed. (Steiner) asked 'after we use water, what happens?' Once humans have used water there is a cost to cleaning it prior to returning it to our ecosystems. … He encouraged the water world to make better use pricing and fiscal instruments to upscale successful practices. In closing, Mr. Steiner said fifty per cent of the world's wetlands have been lost -- clearly our economy undervalues these precious ecosystems, highlighting the need to move a green growth model."

What does this mean?

Gabriella Zanzanaini of Food and Water Europe explains, "In a green economy world, the financialization of nature will take place through new technologies, focusing on innovations funded by public money to profit private companies in the name of resource efficiency (including desalination projects). … The financialization of nature will also take place through financial mechanisms, such as the creation of a virtual market to manage the allocation of our commons. Water markets and tradable rights, payments for ecosystem services, the economic value of 'natural infrastructure' are all instruments that are part of the nexus solutions (linking water, energy and food) as well as the green economy. Policies to allow these financial mechanisms to take place have also been envisioned, demonstrated by numerous calls for governments to integrate these instruments into their negotiations."

Karunananthan adds, "The business sector is scrambling to take advantage of the green economy to create new markets for itself. With the help corporate-friendly governments, corporations will use the green economy to pave the way for greater access to scarce water resources through water markets, payment for ecological service (PES) schemes and privatization of water and sanitation services."

And Naidoo notes, "We are already seeing in the climate negotiations that REDD (reduced emissions from deforestation and forest degradation) represents a precursor to a full-blown false green economy. This is a system which uses offsets and trading to give corporations and the North a way out of their obligations. It also has the perverse impact of pushing people off their land resulting in unsustainable forest management."

Speakers at the World Social Forum in Dakar, Senegal called this process "the new Enclosures, the taking of the global commons."

5. A threat to the rights of nature

Along with the right to water, we believe in the rights of water and of ecosystems.

Barlow has written, "Protecting the Rights of Mother Earth will also challenge the current trend to commodify Nature in the name of the green economy. While there are many definitions of what a green economy could look like that fit very well with an Earth-centred vision, many in power now use the term to essentially protect the current economic system that promotes more growth, production and global trade. There is no need to change our lifestyle or to curb global production and trade, goes the argument; we simply have to replace bad technology with good technology and we can keep our economic and development models intact."

She highlights, "Let's be clear; no amount of talk of green futures, green technology, green jobs and a green economy can undo the fact that most business and nation state leaders, as well as UN and World Bank officials, continue to promote growth as the only economic and development model for the world. Until the growth model is truly challenged, great damage to the Earth's ecosystems will continue. Further, much of their false green vision is based on a market model to save Nature and create new opportunities for growth and profit."

As if to underscore this, in February 2011, the UN Environment Program released a report outlining how investing 2 per cent of global gross domestic product (about $1.3 trillion annually) in 10 sectors could catalyze the transition to a green economy. The report suggests the green economy could "grow the global economy at around the same rate if not higher than those forecast under current economic models."

Next steps

There will be various "informal" and "intersessional" meetings (mostly at the UN in New York) that will shape the zero draft document into a final declaration that will be issued at Rio+20. This includes negotiations ("informal informals") on the zero draft on February 13-17, and the Third Intersessional Meeting for UNCSD on March 26-27. We will need to track those meetings and make efforts to convince key governments of the threats posed to water in an effort to derail the corporate green economy agenda.

Karunananthan also notes, "The United Nations Environment Program is calling water the engine of the green economy and the French government, host of the World Water Forum (to be held March 12-17 in Marseilles, France) and strong proponent of water privatization, would like to see the event serve as a launch pad for the Rio+20 Earth Summit taking place in June. … In our efforts to put the brakes on the market-based green economy, the Council of Canadians and Food and Water Watch are hoping to facilitate a civil society dialogue with governments who are willing to step outside the corporate trade show in Marseilles to hear what we have to say on the environment and water."

And Barlow and Karunananthan are working on a paper on "the green economy and water," with a scheduled release date of April 2012.

More on all this soon.

Brent Patterson, Political Director, The Council of Canadians
www.canadians.org
 

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