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Unbundling water from land

By Susan Hawthorne - posted Monday, 15 January 2007

Water is on everyone’s lips. Right and Left, farmer and city dweller, big business and green business. Everyone agrees it’s a big issue and something needs to be done. And, for the most part, almost everyone seems to be agreeing on what should be done: privatise water and trade it. On January 1, 2007, water trading came into force in Australia. What does this mean and why should we be worried?

Water and land

Water fits land like a glove fits a hand. It follows the lay of the land, pools in hollows and flows between inclines. Water and land are not only intimate, they shape one another. Water seeps through the soil, jumps down cliffs; rocks bounce through streams, clatter along shorelines. Each in relationship with the other. This seems almost too obvious to state. So why do I? I do so because new laws are coming into force that separate land from water, water from land.

Separation is a long-used method of big business, big science and big government, those who are purveyors and beneficiaries of global markets. Separation is the first action of colonisers who take the land and the resources from the original inhabitants.


By paying little or nothing for the land and its resources, colonisers have always made a handsome profit. Crown Land is land claimed by the English monarchy for its own purposes: half a world away, sight unseen, the Crown can claim land that is the land of Indigenous inhabitants. And yet, Native Title, if claimed, can only be recognised when continuous connection can be shown by the Indigenous inhabitants.

The players have shifted. Instead of monarchies and Indigenous peoples, we now have corporate governments and governing corporations. Each is pocketing what the other does best: governments pocket money from corporations and corporations pocket political power.

How does this apply to water? Governments are about to allow trading of water rights. It used to be that land users bordering rivers had use rights over water from the river. Water was allocated, sometimes unfairly, but the water could only be used by the landowner or the land user.

What is about to happen is that the water, through laws that unbundle land and water, can be separated from the land. This means that water not used by the landowner or the land user can be sold to another party who does not own or use land bordering the river.

This shift in national law has been accompanied by changes to state laws. For example, in Victoria there is a new 2006 law on Separation of Land and Water Titles. This law is to be followed in 2007 by a law on Unbundling of Land and Water. Both follow on from a 2006 national law on Water Trading. It no longer matters whether one votes Labor of Liberal, since both parties are eagerly participating in these separations.

As water is separated from land, the reciprocal relationship between the two will be snapped (as if chopping the fingers out of the glove). When that happens, environmental degradation will occur on the one hand and those with the most money will profit on the other.


The international context

How does Australia sit in relation to water politics internationally? Privatising of water is a huge multi-billion dollar global business dominated by three corporations - Suez-ONDEO, and Vivendi-Veolia based in France, and RWE-Thames Water based in Germany. These super companies control 70 per cent of the world’s water market (Barlow and Clarke: 2002).

Their control comes through water “concessions”. The last time the word “concession” was used regularly in this way was during the colonial era when land grants or “concessions” were given to colonisers to ease their investment in the colony.

The water concession in Adelaide is held by United Water International - jointly owned by Vivendi (France), RWE-Thames Water (Germany) and Kellogg Brown and Root (USA). United Water is developing plans for bulk water exports in their Adelaide water concession (Barlow and Clarke 2002).

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First published in the December 06-January 07 issue of Arena Magazine, No. 86.

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About the Author

Dr Susan Hawthorne is a Research Associate at Victoria University, Melbourne, author of Wild Politics (Spinifex Press 2002) co-editor of September 11, 2001: Feminist Perspectives (2002) and numerous articles on globalisation, AUSFTA, GATS, war and patriotism.

Other articles by this Author

All articles by Susan Hawthorne
Related Links
Blue Planet Project
Stop the Weir
The Council of Canadians - Water

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