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Can do in Kathmandu

Clean water is such a basic human need that the right to life itself is rendered meaningless without it. Yet, for the past two decades and more, ‘structural adjustment’ and ‘poverty reduction’ policies have been imposed as a condition of loans from the International Monetary Fund, World Bank and other financial institutions. These require that, even in the very poorest communities, water should be available only to those who can afford to pay private water companies ever-larger charges for the privilege. This has been accompanied by an emphasis on giant projects – particularly dams – which displace many thousands of people, destroy local environments and for the most part benefit only the relatively wealthy.

Local communities around the world have, however, been resisting the ‘privatization’ of water with increasing success, while redefining water as a public resource that must be controlled by local communities.

The most celebrated example was in Cochabamba, Bolivia, where the local community organized to expel the giant multinational Bechtel which had been increasing charges so sharply that water became unaffordable to large numbers of people. More recently, when Enron pulled out of supplying water in Huancayo, Peru, trade unions and the local community combined to arrange a ‘public-public’ partnership with the water utility in Buenos Aires, Argentina.

The African Water Network was launched at the World Social Forum held in Nairobi in January 2007; 250 campaigners from 40 African countries looked at ways of developing the pioneering work of activists in Ghana and South Africa. ‘Today we celebrate the birth of the network to resist the theft of our water,’ said Virginia Setshedi of the South African Coalition Against Water Privatization.

Similar networks have been established in Asia. The South-Asian Solidarity for Rivers and People, meeting in India in June 2005, issued a statement that said: ‘Water is a basic human right and not a commodity for profit or commercial ventures… Any violation of this fundamental right, whether in the name of resource management or private profit, is a serious crime against humanity as well as nature.’

WAFED in Nepal is one of the more vigorous groups now beginning to benefit from the end of the chaotic conditions created by the fallen monarchy and years of violent conflict.

WAFED inherited the legacy of the Arun Concerned Group, which challenged the World Bank-led Arun III hydroelectric project. After fierce campaigns against it, the Bank withdrew its support in 1995. Encouraged by this success and the debate it generated, in 1996 activists formed a National Concerned Society, which led numerous challenges to Asian Development Bank (ADB)- and Japanese-funded hydropower projects.

WAFED was formally established in March 2001 after a week-long assembly of over 100 people from all over the country, organized to discuss the findings of the Final Report of the World Commission on Dams.

It campaigns for access to clean drinking water and electricity for all Nepalis, at an affordable price and as a basic human right. It has provoked media debate, carried out actions, lobbied ministers and put forward alternatives. In particular, it has worked tirelessly to oppose the privatization of the water company in Kathmandu, which was being imposed as a condition of loans from the ADB.

In May 2007, with the help of activists in Britain, WAFED succeeded in getting the British water company Severn Trent – which was the only bidder – to withdraw from the contract. The Government of Nepal is now considering its options and apparently refusing to be railroaded into privatization.

Gopal Chintan, co-ordinator of WAFED, said: ‘People in Nepal are against multinational companies taking over Nepal’s drinking water supply and we are pleased that Severn Trent has withdrawn its bid. What Kathmandu needs is public investment in its water supply and management – to cut the 40-per-cent-plus leakage rate and upgrade the water supply network served by the many small local rivers, springs and ponds.’


*Water and Energy Users’ Federation (WAFED) www.wafed-nepal.org*

New Internationalist issue 408 magazine cover This article is from the January-February 2008 issue of New Internationalist.
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