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Is Water the New Oil?

Aired January 7, 2010 - 15:00:00   ET



CHRISTIANE AMANPOUR, CNN ANCHOR: Tonight, from Yemen to India to the United States, scarcity, contamination and conflict, the fight over the world's most precious resource. Is water the new oil?

Good evening, everyone. I'm Christiane Amanpour, and welcome to the program.

The world is facing a crisis unlike any other in its history: a shortage of water that affects billions of people. Today, one in three don't have enough water, and that number could double in 15 years. And human efforts to divert water to parched fields and to factories are causing immense damage to the environment, and it is even fueling violence.

Take Yemen, where right now the world is focusing on the terrorist threat. The government there says that much of the violence around the country is about sharing resources, such as the dwindling water supply. And in one of the most intractable conflicts in the Middle East, water is a major issue between Israelis and Palestinians.

CNN's Paula Hancocks reports from the Hebron hills in the West Bank.


PAULA HANCOCKS, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Izat Abdullah (ph) and his grandson have just enough wheat to plant, but they don't have enough water to make it grow. Abdullah (ph) already knows the crop won't be enough to feed his animals or his family. It's the fifth year of draught here in the Hebron hills of the West Bank.

He says, "When I was young, it used to rain a lot. No one used to worry about a lack of water."

In the neighboring village, Halad Dafa (ph) shows me his well. It's eight meters deep, but it's cracked, so it doesn't hold a single drop of water. Now he and his donkey have a daily four-hour trek to fill up four containers of water.

The water shortage affects not just crops and families, but also, of course, politics. Israel controls this part of the West Bank. Palestinian farmers say, if they try to dig new wells, the Israeli military stops them. The region's water also has to service Israeli settlements and farms.

(on-screen): Here in Gaza, the water shortage has reached a crisis point. Global aid organizations say that the underground aquifer which supplies the vast majority of 1.5 million people here is up to 95 percent polluted. It's unfit for human consumption.

(voice-over): The Arab-Israeli conflict is often described as a battle over land, but just as crucial is the shrinking amount of water that runs through it. And conflict over water is not restricted to this small plot of real estate. The United States estimates about 300 places around the world are at risk of potential conflicts over water.

One result of the 1967 Arab-Israeli war is that Israel captured land giving it access to the Jordan River and control of the Sea of Galilee. Talk peace in the Middle East and water is near the top of the agenda. Israel's peace deal with Jordan in 1994 spelled out water rights in detail. Israel's aborted talks with Syria stumbled, among other things, over water- related issues.

In any future Israeli peace deal with the Palestinians, water could prove as much of a deal-breaker as the holy city of Jerusalem. But a deal may as well be a world away for Dafa (ph). At 73 years old, his constant fight for water has little chance of ending.

Paula Hancocks, CNN, in the Hebron hills of the West Bank.


AMANPOUR: So how should the world deal with this developing crisis? Joining me now is one of the world's leading environmentalists, Robert F. Kennedy, Jr., who's founder and president of the Waterkeeper Alliance.

Welcome to the program.


AMANPOUR: What is the real crux of this matter? We can see that it's fueling all sorts of violence, but there's also contamination, scarcity. What can be done about it?

KENNEDY: Well, generally that's a regional question. And, for example, in the eastern United States, the big issue is water equality, pollution of water, and the destruction of water. This is an issue all over the world, as well.

In the western United States, the -- the kind of conflicts that you're seeing in the Mideast are happening there, as well. It's over water quantity.

AMANPOUR: Tell me about that.


KENNEDY: Well, there -- it's not -- it's not a question so much of violence. It's a question of -- of big battles between states and lots of lawyers over diminishing quantities of water in the Western states. There's an old expression in the West that whiskey is for drinking and water is for fighting. And the Colorado River used to supply most of the water needs of the Western states. Today, Lake Powell is about 100 feet below its historic levels, and soon it's going to be dry.

The other big source of water in the West was the Ogallala Aquifer, which is 10 million years old. It's several hundred feet below its historic levels. And communities like Scottsdale and Phoenix and -- and Las Vegas are continuing to encourage sprawl development, build golf courses in the desert, and these are huge. These are becoming greater and greater issues. The Colorado River no longer even reaches the sea. It drives up in the Sonoran Desert.

AMANPOUR: Let's look at some of the statistics. As bad as it is in the United States, we can see that something like 150 gallons -- the average American gets about 150 gallons water per day, whereas those in the developing countries can't even find 5. We can see that statistic, which is on our wall right now. What -- who's responsibility is it to provide water? Is it a basic right?

KENNEDY: Well, you talk about a right. It's part of the commons, so that historically water was -- was governed -- water is part of the commons, and so government has a -- it can't be privatized. Government has a responsibility to make sure, whether you're rich or poor, humble or noble, black or white, that you have a right to your share of that resource. Everybody has a right to use it; nobody has a right to use it in a way that will diminish or injure its use and enjoyment by others.

Today, one of the big issues that we're seeing around the world is -- that's causing a lot of conflict is the growing attempt to privatize public water supplies, to hand them over to private corporations. A few years ago, the Bechtel Corporation took over a public water supply in Cochabamba, Bolivia, and -- and hiked the rates, which caused riots in the streets. It caused the -- the collapse of the government there.

And -- and this is a bad trend, and it's a trend that I think everybody, you know, decent people who have -- who have thought through this issue want to make sure that water stays in the hands of government and -- and the people, rather than being allowed to be privatized, any more than you wouldn't want to privatize the air supply.

AMANPOUR: So -- but what about the issue, then, of contamination? For instance, I did a report some 10 years ago in Bangladesh about arsenic in the water levels and just a few weeks ago looked at the front of the New York Times here in the United States and found that some 20 percent of America, its water supply is contaminated with, among other things, arsenic and such things, 49 million people having to suffer levels of bacteria and other such things in the water here. How is that possible?

KENNEDY: Well, there's lots of threats to water quality in the United States. One of the threats that -- that is receiving increasing attention is the level of pharmaceuticals in our drinking water. In New York City, where we are today, has one of the finest drinking water supplies in the world, but there are 122 sewage treatments discharging into the 2,000- square-mile reservoirs upstate in the Catskill Mountains in Westchester County.

Those sewage treatment plants, the water that comes to New York City is unfiltered water. It has to be heavily chlorinated. That creates a class of chemicals called trihalomethanes, which the city of New York doesn't even test for.

In addition to that, there's growing concern about pharmaceuticals in our water supply. About 80 percent of the estrogen in a -- when -- when a woman takes birth control pills, about 80 percent of that estrogen goes through her body and then ends up in the -- either the septic system or the sewage plant, which discharges into public drinking water.

We know that, in the Everglades, there are alligators that are hermaphroditic because of the -- because they are exposed to so much estrogen in the early parts of their lives, in the natal parts of their lives.

In the Great Lakes, there are many fish species that are now hermaphroditic, that are born with two sets of sexual organs, a male and female. We're seeing drops in the United States in the levels of the -- the age of -- in which women -- young women reach puberty. And many people believe that this is because the amount -- the huge amounts of estrogen that are now in our public water supply.

In addition to that, there's antibiotics, there's antidepressants in measurable amounts in almost every public water supply in our country.


AMANPOUR: We're going to take a break, but as we go to a break, I want to put another statistic up there, another fact, which says that water and sanitation crises claim more lives through disease than any war claims through guns. That's one thing that we're going to talk about after a break.

And, again, we're going to talk about what Robert Kennedy just brought up, the growing privatization of water. So who should pay for it, governments or consumers? That's when we return.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE (through translator): Look at this part of Tigris River. It's dry. When I see the river like this, I feel sad, but I feel relieved when I see the water level increase. We all know how important water is for human beings, as well as for farms and orchards.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE (through translator): We have a well-known saying: Water is the secret of life. So without water, most people will die. I'm not sure what will happen to the next generations, when there will be less and less water in the world. We don't know what will happen in the future.



UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: You know, parents will take the -- the tokens that they use into making sure that their water, you know, wherever they go, maybe to work. And then during the day, kids don't have water. And this as a woman who lived in a shack with two kids, took the token, went to work, and the shack caught fire, and there was no water to -- to stop the fire. And even the neighbors were saying, "We don't have money to stop her fire," you know? These projects are taking away our humaneness.


AMANPOUR: Those water meters in that part of South Africa are still there after activists like Virginia Shensetti (ph), whom you just saw, lost a court battle to have them removed.

And joining me now from Paris is Gerard Payen, president of Aquafed, a group representing private water companies.

Thank you for joining us.

GERARD PAYEN, AQUAFED: I'm very pleased to be with you.

AMANPOUR: And still joining us here in our studio, Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. We hope also to speak to the founder of the Blue Planet Project, Maude Barlow (ph), from Ottawa, Canada, in just a moment, once we get the technical route re-established.

But first, let me ask you, Mr. Payen, that -- you may have seen and heard what we just played about how people in those poor places of -- of South Africa needed tokens to get water. And that was at a time -- that was the Suez company, I understand. How can that be moral?

PAYEN: Well, everywhere in the world, governments have the responsibility to ensure that water is available to all users. I represent private water operators, private companies that operate water systems, that deliver water services when mandated by governments and under their control.

In a -- in Aquafed, in our federation, we have members of all sizes and all countries. So our job, when mandated by governments, is to bring good quality water to people.


It is our duty, and we do it.

AMANPOUR: OK, Mr. Payen. Let me -- let me ask Robert Kennedy.

PAYEN: The -- the question...

AMANPOUR: Let me just ask -- he said it's governments' responsibility, but their job is also to keep it clean, and they have a vital role in privatizing water. What do you say to that?

KENNEDY: Well, it's one thing if government contracts a private company to construct and perhaps even to operate a government-owned water filtration plant. But if the -- if the -- the rates are determined by a corporation, if the corporation itself is given control over the water supply so that they stand between the public and the water and they can essentially blackmail the public by saying, "We're going to raise the rates to what we think that they ought to be," that that is a moral problem. And I don't think -- you know, this is like -- would you give a -- a private company the right to regulate people's air supply?

AMANPOUR: Mr. Payen...

KENNEDY: At some point, it's -- it's part of the commons. It is -- and it's a part of the -- it is a vital part of the commonwealth, but not only that, these are survival resources, and people pay whatever they need in order to get water or air. You can't give that power, that tremendous power to private corporations, profit-making corporations.

AMANPOUR: Mr. Payen, why -- why should that vital right and necessity -- after all, we can last several weeks without food, but not without water. It's so vital. Why should that vital resource be privatized? Why?

PAYEN: Well, I understand that some people believe that when water is supplied by a private company, the government loses control of it. In practice, it doesn't work like that. The government makes the main decisions. The government, central or local, decides the targets. The government decides the tariffs, I mean, the wage that would have to be paid by your people and an operator, public or private -- it makes (inaudible) difference -- does the job on the ground. We are implementers. We are implementers of public water policy.

Regarding the cost and the price, I'd like to say that purifying water, transporting water to each individual house has a cost. And the government has to decide who should bear this cost. Should -- should it be borne by taxpayers or by water users or by both, by a mix? It's a political decision. And in different countries, you may have different answers to that.

AMANPOUR: OK, Mr. Payen...

PAYEN: But in any case...

AMANPOUR: Mr. Payen...

PAYEN: ... the cost has to be borne by somebody.

AMANPOUR: Mr. Payen, I'm going to put that question to Maude Barlow, who's just joined us. The cost has to be borne by somebody, Maude. Is that a legitimate argument? And why not? Surely somebody does have to pay for the infrastructure, for the cost of actually bringing the water, whether it's to a shantytown or to a -- to a home in Manhattan.

MAUDE BARLOW, BLUE PLANET PROJECT: That's right. And most of that -- that money coming into global south countries is paid for by the World Bank. Mr. Payen knows very well that Suez and Veolia and the other private companies do not put a lot of money into those projects. It's public money. And our argument is that that public money could be used just as well to provide public services, which then wouldn't have to make a profit for shareholders, and every single cent that's put into that would be put back into infrastructure, into making sure the poor get water, and -- and - - and that the delivery is -- is just and equitable across the board.

What you need to understand is that Aquafed and Suez and Veolia and the World Bank and the World Water Council have worked very, very hard to build a kind of elite consensus around the world that this is all an agreed-upon thing, that there's a public behind this, and that private delivers are just doing a good thing for the poor of the world.

In fact, these are some of the biggest corporations in the world. Suez is number 79 on the Fortune 500. They're in it to make money. They're in it to grow.


BARLOW: They want to be delivering water for profit around the world.


BARLOW: And -- and we -- we can't be fooled by a kind of "This isn't charity" kind of message.

AMANPOUR: Mr. Payen, she has a point, doesn't she? Because private water shareholders are not going to wait for many, many years to see their -- their -- their profit turn. And while it may not harm people in the rich part of the world, having to pay such exorbitant prices for the poor people is -- is impossible, as we've seen in so many cases.

PAYEN: Well, as I said before, in my federalization, in Aquafed, we have private companies of all sizes, small sizes, midsize, and large companies. Regarding the cost of water, the governments have to decide (inaudible) structures and they have to make water affordable to the whole population, which means that they have to decide the way subsidies can help people to afford the -- the cost of water.


It may be free water, in some cases. The companies, as we are, think that the water is a human right. We have supported the concept of human rights for many years now. And there's a good reason for that. It's because our job is to bring good, quality water to everybody.

So governments make the decisions, and we do the job on the ground.


PAYEN: We provide water...

BARLOW: Christiane?

PAYEN: ... to all those people they request we do.

AMANPOUR: All right, Mr. Payen. Maude, before I turn to -- to -- to Mr. Kennedy again, what about that?

BARLOW: Christiane, listen, here is the issue that we're dealing with. We are a world running out of freshwater. It's something we learned in -- in -- in grade school that couldn't happen, but we are, in fact, a world running out. If there were all the water in the world, it wouldn't matter if some people made a lot of money in it. The reality is that there is more demand than supply, and that -- that increase in demand and the decrease in supply is growing. So it makes a big difference how we're going to decide who's going to allocate water.

Mr. Payen and those who believe in privatization, it's also water markets, water bottling, all sorts of other ways, believe that it should be based on the market, like Coca-Cola or running shoes, and it should go to those who can pay. We believe very deeply that it's a public trust. Water must be declared to be something that belongs to all of us, which is not that it's a free-for-all, but that must be equitably divided and shared and only governments can do that.

When you all the for-profit motive into water supplies, some people are going to die. And right now, every eight seconds somewhere in the world, a child dies from waterborne disease because their parents cannot pay for water that Mr. Payen and his colleagues are selling.

AMANPOUR: Bobby Kennedy, what is the future now? You've heard Mr. Payen. You've heard Maude. You have your own views and activism on this. What can be done beyond the rhetoric?

KENNEDY: Well, I agree with -- with Maude Barlow, who's -- who's done pioneering work on this issue for many, many years, that -- that the privatization of water supply, the commoditization of water supply is morally wrong.

This is intrinsically a government function. It has to remain in the hands of the government. The government has a responsibility to all the people, and that this is part of the commons. And the law of the commons is that whether you're rich or poor, everybody has a right to the -- to the -- to the public trust asset. Nobody has a right to use it in a way that will diminish or injure its use and enjoyment by others.

AMANPOUR: Robert Kennedy -- Maude, hold on one second -- I've got to -- to turn to Mr. Payen, because we're -- we're closing down right now. And no -- nobody else agreed to come on from the private water companies. So, Mr. Payen, what can you say, in the 30 seconds, that can assure people that actually you are going to be able to deliver water to those who need it the most?

PAYEN: Well, this is our job. We -- we only serve 10 percent of the world population. But we were in those countries where there are the most needs. In developing countries, in the past 10 years, we were able to provide access to water to more than 25 million people.

AMANPOUR: OK, Mr. Payen.

PAYEN: Personally, I took part in many projects of that kind.

AMANPOUR: I appreciate you being with us. Thank you all very much, Robert Kennedy, Maude Barlow, Gerard Payen.

And we have been taking your questions on our Facebook and Twitter pages and at We'll put those questions to Robert Kennedy on a webcast right after this program.

And next, our "Post-Script." One of the worst cases of contaminated water on Earth, millions of people at risk of cancer. We'll tell you when we return.



AMANPOUR: And now our "Post-Script." We've been talking about the dire consequences of unsafe drinking water. And as I said earlier, in 1999, more than 10 years ago, I reported on one of the world's most devastating cases of contaminated water in Bangladesh, where millions of people have been exposed to arsenic.

The problem arose in the 1970s, when wells were dug to protect people from waterborne diseases in rivers and streams. But what happened was even worse.


AMANPOUR (voice-over): And this is one of thousands of villages at risk. Chatra Baudy (ph) and his team of doctors have come to test the people who live here.

(on-screen): Her entire foot is encrusted.

(voice-over): And these black spots show that these villagers are seriously at risk for the cancer that arsenic causes.

(on-screen): What about this little girl you were talking about? Which is the one that's badly affected?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Her whole body, hand is like that.

AMANPOUR: Her tongue is black.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Yes, completely black.

AMANPOUR: Oh, my goodness. How old is she? How old are you?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Fourteen years.

AMANPOUR: Fourteen years old. Can you do anything for this child?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: No, it is too late.

AMANPOUR: Too late? She's 14. What have you told her?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: "Don't worry. You'll be better. You'll be better."

AMANPOUR: You'll tell them that...

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Yes, I have no other way. How could I tell them that you will be -- you're finished? I can't tell them.


AMANPOUR: Scientists have now developed a low-cost filtration system to remove the arsenic, but so far, millions of Bangladeshis still remain at risk.

And earlier today, we talked to Jacques Cousteau's granddaughter, who's on Africa's Mount Kilimanjaro, to highlight the global water shortages, so go to our Web site,, to hear our interview and see her photos.

And that's it for now. Thank you for watching. For all of us here, goodbye from New York.