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Food, Water, Air and the World Bank
By Professor Nazeer Ahmed


“At the moment of death”, the learned Shaykh was describing a parable to his students, “three angels appear one after the other. The first one declares: I am the angel appointed to provide you with food. I have searched all of God’s creation but I cannot find one single grain with your name written on it. Then the first angel bids farewell and departs”
As the students listened intently, striving to grasp the gravity of the last moments of a dying soul, the Shaykh continued. “Then the second angel appears. He says to the dying person: I am the angel appointed to provide you with water. I have searched all of God’s creation but I cannot find one single drop of water with your name written on it. And the second angel departs”
“Then the third angel appears”, continued the learned Shaykh, “and he tells the dying person: I am angel of breath appointed to provide you with air. I have searched all of God’s creation and I have returned empty handed. I cannot find one molecule of air with your name written on it. Then he too departs”.
“Immediately thereafter, the angel of death appears, and by God’s command, takes the soul of the dying person. There are no further questions asked and none to intercede”.
If the World Bank has its way, it is not the angels who will determine whether or not you have any food, water or air left, it is the multinational corporations (MNCs) who will. It is not far fetched to imagine a scenario when every man, woman and child will pay a price not just for the food he/she eats but also for the water he drinks and the air he breathes.
In the name of privatization, the World Bank has been pushing the agenda of Big Money for control of the vital resources of the world. The control of oil is an old story that is being written with increasing ferocity. The control of forests too is a story, old and tragic, that is nearing its end. The story of food, water and air is just unfolding.
The World Bank has made no attempt to hide its agenda. In its report, "World resources sector strategy, strategic directions for World Bank engagement”, the Bank argues, “… water resource management is best done when all stakeholders participate, including the state, private sector and civil society”.
And who are the stakeholders? To obtain an answer to this question, I traversed National Highway 4 from Mumbai to Bangalore in India last month. About thirty kilometers from Bangalore is a sprawling Pepsi processing plant. The company draws water from bore wells so deep that they have dried up the wells in the neighboring villages. The farmers must necessarily depend on surface water impounded in tanks and when there is none available they must transport it from miles away. If the monsoons are late, the crops fail, the farmers and their livestock starve. But the Pepsi plant churns along. Is Pepsi a stakeholder in the water resources of this neighborhood?
No longer is water a human right, a divine gift for the sustenance of life on earth. It has become a commodity that is to be exploited for profit. The global bottled water business is worth $100 billion annually and is growing by double digits each year. It will soon surpass the soft drink business in its profitability. The margins are so huge that local governments and bureaucrats have become willing partners in the great party. Recently, the government in Hyderabad, Deccan was selling water to MNCs for one rupee per gallon while much of the city of six million was thirsty and received a trickled supply for barely one hour per day.
It is a similar story the world over. In Bolivia, Latin America, under prodding from the World Bank, the government privatized the use of water. Prices soared. Water became so expensive that the farmers were spending more than a third of their income to buy water. The result was a mass upsurge of protest and the government was forced to relent.
The World Bank has altered the nature of debate on water supplies by inventing and imposing a new vocabulary. No longer is water a human right bestowed by the Creator. It is a commodity to be haggled over by “user groups”. No longer does it pour down from heaven as divine mercy. It is owned by “stake holders”. The jargon skews the debate in favor of the MNCs. If water is owned by the “stake holders” like corporate securities, then who speaks for the “non users”? Is a water buffalo a “non user” and must therefore become extinct to protect the “users”?
To be fair to the World Bank, the situation is not entirely of its own making. It reflects the graft and corruption so rampant in Asia and Latin America. In India and Pakistan, wealthy landlords routinely divert canals and illegally tap city pipes to divert water for their own usage. One does not have to go back to Mir Jamadar who betrayed his Nawab and sold out Bengal at the Battle of Plassey in 1757. Dozens of bureaucrats are on the take and sell off scarce water for a pittance of a bribe. This happens every day.
It is the mismanagement of canals, dams and city water systems that has provided an opening for MNCs and their sponsor, the World Bank, to make a bid for global control of food, water and air.
Those who argue for privatization offer as evidence the efficiency that private ownership brings to bear. “Look at private toll roads”, they argue, “and see how efficiently they are run and how well maintained they are. Just compare them to the public roads and how poorly they are maintained”.
There is merit in this argument. But the price of privatization is too high. Private investment bestows benefits on the basis of returns and is weighted heavily in favor of corporations and wealthy landlords. If water is a commodity, it will be rationed and the benefits will invariably accrue to those who can afford it. As the recent example of Hyderabad city suggests, the poor will be thirsty while the rich pay a dollar a gallon to enjoy chilled bottled water in five star hotels. Millions of little farmers will go out of business and will be forced to sell their land. Consolidation in favor of MNCs will be the result. Control of food and water by the super rich will be complete.
Centralization and monopolization of the food supply chain is already well on its own. The introduction of hybrid crops is a good example. While the hybrids increased the yields per acre, they also placed the MNCs that own the hybrids in a position of near monopoly. Many of the hybrids do not yield seeds for the following year’s crop. The farmers are forced to buy new seeds each year from the MNCs who control the supply through their patents and licenses.
A march down this road will lead to a world wherein a few individuals with Big Money control the resources of the globe. The rest will be left as proletariat. Each morning vast armies of workers will walk out and work for the MNCs to earn back the food, water and air that God had bestowed upon them in the first place. It is an inverted social pyramid standing on a sharp edge. It is inherently unstable and has the potential for a chaotic world as was amply demonstrated by the example of Bolivia.
A long-term solution to water usage must include three fundamental elements. First, there must be a universal declaration that food, water and air are human rights, not user assets. Second, water resource management must be the privilege of the local population, not of multinational corporations backed by the World Bank. Third, and this is the most difficult of all, corruption in the distribution of food, water and air must be rooted out.
All life on this planet depends on water and air. The lowly Asian buffalo has as much right to it as the billionaire who runs a huge corporation. Each animal, every plant, and every human being is an indispensable piece in the infinite mosaic of life on God’s earth. You cannot take one piece away and not risk destroying the whole.


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