Editor’s Note: This article originally appeared in the March issue of Green Money Journal.
By Robert F. Kennedy, Jr.
“Water promises to be to the 21st century what oil was to the 20th century.” -- Fortune Magazine
Water has emerged as the target of choice for the robber barons of globalization. As freshwater supplies dwindle, global investors are scrambling to own what’s left. The World Bank already values water privatization at $1 trillion and predicts that many of the wars of the 21st century will be fought over water.
And the wars have already begun as citizens in South and Central America have fought back against water moguls whom they regard as bullies trampling democracy and basic human rights. When Bechtel, in 2000, privatized the Bolivian city of Cochabamba’s water and then raised rates high enough to threaten the lives of poor residents, the city erupted in deadly violence. The “Bolivian Water War” ejected Bechtel and toppled the city government. Control of Syrian waters by corporate agriculture during a prolonged drought helped trigger the current rebellion there. Today, Chile is effectively a neo-colonial vassal after the Pinochet dictatorship sold her rivers (along with her forests, minerals, and even roads, railroads and airports) to foreign syndicates. Chile’s leading human-rights lawyer recently told me, “Today, Chile has only the trappings of democracy, since we have no sovereignty over the resources of our nation.”
Could this happen in the United States? It already is. Chinese and European sovereign wealth funds and global private-equity firms are taking control of America’s waterways by purchasing the assets of industrial companies which once held hydropower licenses granted by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC). This body, ironically, was established to keep the nation’s waterways in public ownership and to assure that the waters are used for public not private benefit.
These machinations are reminiscent of the Gilded Age, when aluminum and steel companies dammed America’s rivers to power their smelters, routinely corrupting state legislatures and federal officials to win exclusive licenses to privatize public waterways. Teddy Roosevelt warned in 1915, “Keep your eye on the aluminum company that is trying to get control of your water powers. I have no objection to big business making money, but I do not want it to make it at the expense of the public interest.”
Like most Americans of his era, Teddy Roosevelt regarded the control of our nation’s waterways as a central concern of democratic governance. Commonwealth assets like rivers and streams, he believed, should not be held by private interests for private gain.
Read his full article here.
Watch Waterkeeper Alliance videos here.
Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. serves as Senior Attorney for the Natural Resources Defense Council, Chief Prosecuting Attorney for the Hudson Riverkeeper and President of Waterkeeper Alliance. He is also a Clinical Professor and Supervising Attorney at Pace University School of Law’s Environmental Litigation Clinic and is co-host of Ring of Fire on Air America Radio. Earlier in his career he served as Assistant District Attorney in New York City.