Oxfam Accuses Rich Corporations of ‘Grabbing’ Water From Global South

LONDON — As the United Nations observes World Water Day on Friday, there is a growing risk of conflict over water resources as climate change takes hold, the international body said.

Meanwhile, nongovernmental aid agency Oxfam accused global corporations of “grabbing” water from poorer countries to boost profits.

Declaring this year’s theme Water for Peace, the U.N. warned that “when water is scarce or polluted, or when people have unequal or no access, tensions can rise between communities and countries.”

“More than 3 billion people worldwide depend on water that crosses national borders. Yet only 24 countries have cooperation agreements for all their shared water,” the U.N. said. “As climate change impacts increase and populations grow, there is an urgent need within and between countries to unite around protecting and conserving our most precious resource.”

In South Africa’s largest city, Johannesburg, the taps have been running dry for several weeks, affecting millions of people.

On the outskirts of the city in Soweto, thousands of people have been lining up to collect water in bottles and buckets from tankers that bring in water from outside the city.

“It has been a serious challenge, a very challenging time for my age that I have to be here carrying these 20-liter buckets,” Thabisile Mchunu, an older Soweto resident, told The Associated Press on Monday. “And the sad thing is that we don’t know when our taps are going to be wet again.”

Crumbling infrastructure is partly to blame for the water shortages in Johannesburg. But scientists say worsening climate change is causing reservoirs to dry up in South Africa and many other parts of the world.

The United Nations estimates that 2.2 billion people live without safely managed drinking water.

Scientists from the U.N.’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change say roughly half of the world’s population experiences severe water scarcity for at least part of the year, with poorer nations in the Global South the worst affected.


Water “grabbing”

In a report published Thursday, Oxfam accused major global corporations of “grabbing” vital water resources.

“The private sector is grabbing and polluting this resource at the expense of local populations in order to make profits, further increasing inequalities. Droughts exacerbated by climate change affect agriculture and therefore the economies of the countries that depend on it, contributing to increased poverty, food insecurity and health problems for the inhabitants, particularly in the Global South,” the report said.

Oxfam accuses richer countries and multinational corporations of shifting water shortages to poorer regions by importing water-intensive products such as fruit, vegetables, meat, flowers and bottled water from overseas.

The report says agriculture accounts for 70% of water withdrawals, including through irrigation systems, to support the meat industry and biofuels.

“It is part of a neocolonial logic aimed at satisfying the consumption needs of the countries of the North at the expense of the countries of the South,” Oxfam said.

Its analysis suggests the private sector is failing to reduce its impact on water resources.

Of the “350 corporations that have been analyzed through the database — which account for half of the world’s agricultural revenue — only one in four of them are declaring they are reducing water use and pollution,” Quentin Ghesquiere, an agriculture and food safety adviser at Oxfam France, told VOA.

Government regulation

Oxfam also noted that large corporations are permitted to withdraw water, even when local populations face restrictions. It highlighted the activities of the French-owned multinational food products company Danone.

“Danone, in May 2023, continued to extract water from aquifers [in France] despite the restrictions that applied to local populations, in full legality. In the same year, the company made profits of almost 900 million euros and paid out 1.2 billion euros in dividends to its shareholders,” the Oxfam report said.

In a statement to VOA, Danone said that managing water sustainably is a priority, adding that “we have accelerated our innovations and investments to reduce, on a voluntary basis, water withdrawals from our bottling site.”

“Since 2017, we have invested 30 million euros to modernize our production lines, which allowed us to reduce our withdrawals by 17% over the period 2017-2023, maintaining volumes sold,” the Danone statement said.

The Oxfam report recommends stronger regulation and calls for “ambitious funding for adaptation in developing countries and universal access to water.”

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