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Site Teaching Modules Backup of The Alchemy of Water
By Krystal Kyer
Copyright: Source Copyright.
Included here under Fair Use Doctrine for teaching purposes.
Alchemy of Water - left perspective.

Published on Monday, July 1, 2002 by
The Alchemy of Water
by Krystal Kyer

Medieval scientists sought to turn base metals into gold, creating wealth for themselves and their rulers. Likewise, modern science, harnessed by capitalists, seeks to turn fresh water into gold. While the former failed in their explicit goals, they set out a path leading to the field of chemistry. The latter group, led by transnational corporations in the water industry, doubly succeeded.

First, the fundamental ingredient of the modern day alchemists is freshwater, H2O, not base metals. Fresh water is more valuable to life on earth than any amount of gold. Water is the elixir of life, in which our vary body's composition and survival depend on. It is necessary for our food to grow, our rivers to flow, and to support a plethora of diverse ecosystems and species on Earth. For all their acclaimed worth, gold and diamonds cannot compete with water. Compounding the problem, less than 1% of all water is accessible for consumption.

Second, transnational corporations (TNCs) have found a method of converting water to gold. The research and development department, probably headed by some free market "think tank", searched for ways to improve water, and the solution was simple: make it a product, own it, sell it. The catalyst in this reaction is privatization. TNCs, with the backing of US hegemony and its neoliberal institutions -- the World Bank and International Monetary Fund -- have once again revolutionized the means of creating wealth, capital, gold. Privatization removes publicly owned water supplies from the public and into the hands of private companies, with private interests -- turning water to gold. Its needless to say, but I'll say it anyway, gold can't sustain life.

The private water industry seizes water out of the very mouths of the thirsty and deposits it in the coffers of TNCs, where they work their magic metamorphosing water into gold. Privatization reverses the seemingly irreversible flow of water -- from life-giving to life-taking. Water, long-viewed as a common property resource available to all, and basic human right, is transformed into a commodity. It is bought and sold. Paid for in meaningless pieces of paper stamped with God and $.

The message is simple: if you want to live, pay up. Conversely, if you can't pay, you don't have a right to life. That has been the lesson Western capitalism is attempting to teach the rest of the world. From Bolivia to Argentina to Ghana to the Philippines, water privatization combined with a prohibition on public subsidies for the poor, has elevated the (lack of) rules of the market above human rights.

How do TNCs convert water to gold? They charge more. When water is privatized, prices go up. When prices go up, access to water goes down. In the industrialized country of Great Britain, rate hikes after privatization caused poorer residents to lose access to water in their homes, because they couldn't afford to pay for it. The consequences in countries where two-thirds of the population lives in poverty, such as Cochabamba, Bolivia, are grave. There, people rejected a World Bank sanctioned privatization scheme, even after it was implemented. So too in Tucuman, Argentina. And the struggle continues in Ghana, as the government plans to privatize water there. Modern alchemists have succeeded in creating a reaction that increases the wealth of the few, at the cost of the many. Privatization experiments span all continents. The G8 summit deep in the Canadian forest last week produced plans to expand experimentation across Africa, as a component of Western "aid" packages to reduce suffering of hundreds of millions on the African continent.

What will the results be? If history is any indicator of the future, the privatization of water and subsequent creation of gold for TNCs has many byproducts, none of which are beneficial to the populace. Take Cochabamba, Bolivia as an example. There, the municipal water supply was taken from the city and control was centralized at the state level. Then the public water utility was sold to a consortium of US and Italian-based TNCs, without public comment, participation, or approval, and at the order of the World Bank. Rate hikes soared, and many residents were unable to pay. On the bright side, peaceful demonstrations ensued, grassroots coalitions formed, and negotiations began. Democracy flourished in reaction to an undemocratic and unjust co-optation of public resources. Then violence erupted from the arms of the state, in a desperate attempt to quash protest and maintain the status quo -- a neoliberal policy of privatization benefiting the world?s elite at the cost of the majority poor.

At the same time, the new private water alchemist, Aguas del Tunari, worked steadily to turn its water into gold. Yet that gold is liken to a magician's illusion rather than a chemist's reaction. Wealth isn't immaculately conceived by capitalism either, although capitalists and developers like to think they are doing God's work. Instead, the gold comes from the people. It is transferred from water consumers to transnational capitalists. From those in need to those consumed by greed.

History also shows us that people can successfully oppose privatization of their water. In Cochabamba and Tucuman, water contracts were cancelled due to popular resistance. The TNCs were ousted, but their search for gold continues. In both cases, the TNCs involved are suing the citizens of both countries, through the World Bank's arbitration branch, for millions of dollars in compensation for the loss of "potential profits." When providing services doesn't cut it, they go straight for the throat. As these countries are beholden to international financial institutions, the citizens are held captive under an enormous, unsustainable debt that pits the interest of capital against the interests of life.

Which will prevail? Popular victories are adding up, as people mobilize to resist capitalism, neoliberalism, and its privatization tool. Yet Western economic and cultural domination looms large. It has just expanded the experimentation to Africa, a continent where reparation is needed more than loans. The stated intentions of development "aid" to help the three-quarters world appears, based on concrete evidence and past experiences, to be the antithesis of the actual results. If history repeats itself in Africa, millions will be left worse off, with even less access to clean water and sanitation. Illness, disease, and death are sure to follow. Perhaps this is the G8's solution to the world's perceived "population problem" -- privatize their resources, take their money, and watch them die. After all, the goal of capitalism isn't to sustain life, but to produce wealth, even at the cost of life.

Krystal Kyer recently received her Master's of Environmental Studies degree from The Evergreen State College, and is currently unemployed. Email:

Site Copyright: Jeanne Curran and Susan R. Takata and Individual Authors, May 2003.
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