03/12/2013 05:46 EDT | Updated 05/12/2013 05:12 EDT

We Don't Need "Co-Operation" -- We Need Water Justice

The United Nations has just named 2013 the year of water co-operation. Those of us who have been fighting privatization packaged as "partnerships" and deregulation promoted as "corporate sustainability" are naturally skeptical. The UN should instead launch a year of water justice.

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Geneva, SWITZERLAND: United Nations (UN) General Assembly president Jan Eliasson of Sweden grimaces, 23 November 2005, during a press conference after consultations on reform of Human Rights Commission at the UN Office in Geneva. AFP PHOTO FABRICE COFFRINI (Photo credit should read FABRICE COFFRINI/AFP/Getty Images)

Written by Maude Barlow and Meera Karunananthan for The Broker's 'Prioritising Water' consultation. The aim of the consultation is to bring together international experts to pool their knowledge on the role of water in the Post-2015 development agenda. You can also follow the debate on twitter: #tbwaterdebate.

The United Nations has just named 2013 the year of water cooperation. Those of us who have been fighting privatization packaged as "partnerships" and deregulation promoted as "corporate sustainability" are naturally skeptical.

We cannot talk meaningfully about sustainable solutions to the water crisis unless decision-makers are willing to acknowledge the need for an overhaul of the water-guzzling and water-polluting neoliberal economic model. David Harvey described it best when he referred to neoliberalism as a strategy of "accumulation by dispossession."

In July 2010, the water justice movement achieved an important victory when the United Nations General Assembly passed a resolution recognizing the human right to water. Groups and communities who have been involved in the campaign for the human right to water for decades are now eager to see this right implemented in a manner that ensures water is distributed equitably and governed sustainably.

However, over the past few years, the corporations engaged in conflicts surrounding water have been scrambling to write the rules in international policy spheres by co-opting the language and promoting themselves as champions of the human right to water.

The human right to water has long been a rallying call in our community struggles against the accumulation of wealth through the dispossession of collective rights to water. When thousands took to the streets in Peru in February 2012 in opposition to big foreign mining projects, they did so under the banner of water as a human right in a march dubbed "Gran Marcha Nacional por el Agua" or "Great National March for Water." Groups in Europe are calling for an end to EU austerity measures forcing governments to privatize water and sanitation services through a campaign for the implementation of the human right to water*. The villagers of Plachimada, India have have also tried to exercise the right to water in their protests of Coca Cola, alleging that the company is over-exploiting scarce groundwater resources in the area.

Yet over the past few decades, regional development banks, international financial institutions (IFIs) and trade deals have granted corporations the upper hand in these conflicts. In times of financial crisis, IFIs have used loan conditionalities to pry open markets for big multinational corporations demanding massive returns for their investments in basic services. In times of water scarcity, multinational corporations have pushed aggressively for mechanisms that have secured their access to limited water supplies. These strategies have been imposed on governments in the way of Structural Adjustment Programs, investment protection laws and trade dispute settlement mechanisms that have protected the rights of corporations by giving them the tools to sue governments. They have tied the hands of governments seeking to implement environmentally friendly and socially responsible policies.

As a case in point, Canadian mining company Pacific Rim is currently fighting El Salvador in a World Bank investment tribunal for denying the company a permit for a cyanide-leach gold mine that environmentalists and El Salvador's government fear could poison half the country's water source. (Pacific Rim says the mine would feature the latest safeguards.)

In addition, big business has had increasing access to decision-making on water issues at the international level through high-level public-private bodies such as the CEO Water Mandate at the UN, the Water Resources Group headed by Nestlé Chair Peter Brabeck and the World Water Council, which I have long been arguing was created at the behest of multinational water corporations.

Given this context, water justice advocates are naturally suspicious when corporations line up to support "water co-operation" at the United Nations. Especially given the press release issued by Spanish multinational water corporation Agbar, declaring its commitment to the UN Year of Water Co-operation while in the midst of a fierce battle in Barcelona, where it is being accused by NGOs, municipalities and other private sector operators of operating illegally.

For the UN to allow for the inclusion of these corporations under the guise of "co-operation" would be a failure to acknowledge the struggles for public control over water that are growing in number around the world. We do not need our policymakers to continue to co-operate with corporations that have generated the global water crisis and cannot put our faith in sustainability targets developed out of a system captured by multinationals. We need democratic and transparent water governance models based on principles of equity and justice.

The UN should instead launch a year of water justice -- one that empowers communities engaged in frontline struggles to defend water.

*At the time of writing this article over 1 million signatures have been collected in Europe on a petition demanding implementation of the human right to water that would stop the liberalization of water services.