Making waves in strange places

Blue Gold

January 2, 2004

Blue Gold purports to be an account of how privatisation is exacerbating problems over the supply of fresh water worldwide. It has ten chapters, divided into three parts. The first part is "The Crisis", including chapters titled "Red alert", "Endangered planet" and "Dying of thirst". It comprises rehashes of well-known material written in polemical style, without the proper bibliographical referencing of sources. (There are bibliographic commentaries for each chapter at the end of the book.) Facts and figures are thrown around out of context, so that they are substantially meaningless. Confidence in these is further eroded by basic mistakes such as equating a rise of 9C with a rise of 42 degrees Fahrenheit, and claiming that Pakistan's population doubled in a period of ten years. Other interesting facts include the observations that households in Canada and America have more than one lavatory, although I know of no study that shows that human beings will urinate or excrete in greater quantities on account of the greater availability of lavatories. The message of part one is that Things are Bad.

In part two, the culprits are identified. Big business is stealing water all over the planet. In chapter five, "Global water lords", French giants Vivendi and Suez apparently have "monopoly control over 70 per cent of the existing world water market". Quite obviously the authors have not included agriculture and irrigation in this calculation. Enron (which apparently "was not saddled with a huge debt load") and Vivendi are identified as growing at a "whopping" rate. Perhaps the authors are by now disappointed that these two companies have had their comeuppance and cannot be seen as the bogies they appeared to be. Another company that gets a ritual bashing is Coca-Cola. "In 1999, eight black former employees sued the company, accusing it of denying fair pay, promotion, raises, and performance reviews to blacks. On November 16th, 2000, Coca-Cola was ordered by the court to pay approximately $190 million to some 2,000 black workers." Are we to conclude that, therefore, the world is running out of water?

Part three, "The Way Forward", invokes the fight by local people against big business, big dams, corporate anything, under the banner of guiding principles. These principles include "nature put water where it belongs", and that therefore water should be left where it is whenever possible.

There is nothing sensible said in this book about different markets for different qualities of water, nor about changing technology in irrigation, or about recycling water.

I cannot make out who the book is written for. The argument is at the level of single-issue tabloid sensationalism. The misuse of water is the crux of all the world's problems. Big business alone is responsible. Therefore we must attack big business.

Even those people who are committed to fighting big business and global capitalism will find nothing in this book that is well enough researched and robust enough to stand as a good argument. Those who are seriously interested in the very real problems associated with water management will be aghast at this trivialisation and sensationalisation of important issues. The publisher, Earthscan, includes excellent books in its list.

This book, however, can do nothing but lower its credentials.

Graham P. Chapman is professor of geography, Lancaster University.

Blue Gold: The Battle Against Corporate Theft of The World's Water

Author - Maude Barlow and Tony Clarke
Publisher - Earthscan
Pages - 8
Price - £20.00 and £12.95
ISBN - 1 85383 937 X and 1 84407 024 7

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