Global Policy Forum

Bechtel And Blood For Water:


By Vandana Shiva

May 12, 2003

Within a month of the start of the war against Iraq, the real victor is emerging. Bechtel has got a $680 million contract for "rebuilding" Iraq. The U.S. led war first bombed out Iraq's hospitals, bridges, water works, and now U.S. corporations are harvesting profits from "reconstructing" a society after its deliberate destruction. Blood was not just shed for oil, but also for control over water and other vital services. In a period of declining economic growth and a slowing down of the globalization juggernaut, war has become a convenient excuse for enlarging corporate rule. If W.T.O. is not enough, use war.

This seems to be the underlying economic and political philosophy of the neo-conservatives ruling the U.S. and trying to rule the world. What the past month has revealed is the total and rotten corruption on which the new world order is based. As Bob Herbert states in "Ask Bechtel what war is good for" (Herald Tribune, April 22, 2003 p6)

Somewhere George Shultz is smiling Shultz, whose photo could appropriately appear next to any definition of the military-industrial complex, was secretary of state under President Ronald Reagan and has been a perennial heavyweight with the powerful Bechtel Group of San Francisco, where he previously reigned as president and is now a board member and senior counselor. Unlike the anti-war soul singer Edwin Starr -- who, in an ironic bit of timing, went to his eternal reward this month just as U.S. ground forces were sweeping toward Baghdad -- Shultz knows what war is good for.

And he wanted this war with Iraq. Oh, how he wanted this war. Shultz was chairman of the fiercely pro-war Committee for the Liberation of Iraq, which was committed to moving beyond the political liberation of the oil-rich country to the conveniently profitable "reconstruction of its economy." Under the headline "Act Now; The Danger Is Immediate," Shultz, in an op-ed article in The Washington Post last September, wrote: "A strong foundation exists for immediate military action against Hussein and for a multilateral effort to rebuild Iraq after he is gone."

Gee, I wonder which company he thought might lead that effort. Last week Shultz's Bechtel Group was able to demonstrate exactly what wars are good for. The Bush administration gave it the first big Iraqi reconstruction contract, a prized $680 million deal over 18 months that puts Bechtel in the driver's seat for the long-term reconstruction of the country, which could cost $100 billion or more. Bechtel essentially was given a license to make money. And that license was granted in a closed-door process that was restricted to a handful of politically connected U.S. companies. Saddam's dictatorship is being replaced by U.S. corporate dictatorship -- with little distinction left between those who sit in board rooms and those who sit in White House, Pentagon and other institutions of government.

Non-transparency and corruption China's non-transparency has been highlighted in the case of SARS. Bechtel getting the first contract for Iraq's reconstruction is a glaring example of the non-transparency, secrecy and corruption through which corporate rule is established.

Whether it is water privatization contracts in Bolivia or India, or "reconstruction" contracts for Iraq, secrecy and lack of democracy and transparency characterizes the methods for gaining markets and profits. "Free trade" is clearly totally unfree. It is coercive, corrupt, deceitful and violent. Corporate rule is not an alternative to Saddam style dictatorship. It is replacing one dictatorship with another -- the dictatorship of corporations which have hijacked state power and use military might to grab markets. The intrinsic dishonesty and deceit of corporate dictatorship seems to not be apparent to those who impose it in the name of "operation Iraqi freedom". This seems to arise from a fundamental confusion about freedom and creation.

When the 7000 year history of Mesopotamia was destroyed in the presence of U.S. military, Ronald Rumsfeld's naí¯ve and irresponsible comment was - Free people are free to make mistakes and commit crimes and do bad things. On this logic, the terrorists who crashed planes into the World Trade Centre towers were exercising a legitimate freedom to "commit crimes and do bad things". And on the same logic that made the U.S. military presence a mute spectator allowing Baghdad and its historical treasures to be looted, the U.S. had no right to start a war against terror after 9/11.

Just as there is confusion about what human freedom entails among those trying to create "freedom" for others through war, there is confusion about reconstruction and "destruction". What happened in Iraq was destruction. It is being referred to as reconstruction. Innocent people were killed, thousands of years of civilisational history was destroyed and erased. Yet, Jay Garner - the retired U.S. General appointed unilaterally as head of office for Reconstruction and Humanitarian Assistance, talked about "giving birth to a new system in Iraq". Bombs do not give "birth" to society. They annihilate life. New societies are not "born" by destroying the historical and cultural legacy of ancient civilizations. May be the choice to allow destruction of Iraq's historical legacy was a pre-requisite for this illusion of giving "birth" to a new society.

May be the rulers in U.S. do not perceive these violations because their own society was built on the genocide of native Americans. Annihilation of the "other" seems to be taken as "natural" by those controlling power in the world's lone super power. May be the perception of the deliberate destruction of a civilization and thousands of innocent lives as a "birthing" process is an expression of the western patriarchy's "illusion of creation" which confuses destruction with creation and annihilation with birthing. The "illusion of creation" identifies capital and machines, including war machines as sources of "creation" and nature and human societies, especially non-western societies as either dead, inert, passive, or dangerous and cannibalistic. This worldview creates the "white man's burden" for liberating nature and our societies even with violence, and seeing it as the "birth" of freedom. Whatever the deeper roots of establishing an economy of loot and violence in Iraq in the name of "re-construction", the profiteering from war by corporations like Bechtel confirms that war is globalisation by other means. For people worldwide the challenge is to converge the energies of the anti-globalisation movement, the peace movement and movements for real democracy.

Our challenge is to reclaim the real meaning of freedom, rescuing it from the degradations it has been subjected to by the doublespeak of "free trade" and the doublespeak of "operation Iraqi Freedom". The "freedom" being sought through free trade treaties and rules of W.T.O. and the "freedom" resulting from the Iraq war is freedom of corporations to profit. This freedom is a license to loot. And corporate loot and corporate freedom is destroying democracy and freedom for people and societies. The new freedom people seek worldwide is freedom from corporate dictatorship facilitated and enabled by militarism and war. This is as important for citizens of Iraq and other countries invaded by global corporations under the protection of military or "free trade" treaties, as it is for the citizens of the U.S.

The Bechtel contract, and the Iraq war which created the opportunity for profits in "reconstruction" have thrown up issues of lack of democracy transparency and accountability in the way economic and political decisions are made by a U.S. administration which has become indistinguishable from U.S. corporations. A regime in which governments became instruments of corporate interest is no longer a democracy. Instead of governance being "of the people, by the people, for the people", governance becomes "of the corporations, by the corporations, for the corporations". For democracy to thrive a "regime change" is urgently needed, in the U.S., in Iraq, and in every country where corporate dictatorship is getting entrenched.

Bechtel in Bolivia

The most famous tale of Bechtel's corporate greed over water is the story of Cochabamba, Bolivia. In the semi-desert region, water is scarce and precious. In 1999, the World Bank recommended privatisation of Cochabamba's municipal water supply company (SEMAPA) through a concession to International water, a subsidiary of Bechtel. On October 1999, the Drinking Water and Sanitation Law was passed, ending government subsidies and allowing privatization. In a city where the minimum wage is less than $100] a month water bills reached $20 a month, nearly the cost of feeding a family of five for two weeks. In January 2000, a citizen's alliance called "La Coordinara" de Defense del Aqua y de la Vida (The Coalition in Defense of Water and Life) was formed and it shut down the city for 4 days through mass mobilisation. Between Jan and Feb 2000, millions of Bolivians marched to Cochabamba, had a general strike and stopped all transportation].

The government promised to reverse the price hike but never did. In February 2000, La Coordinara organised a peaceful march demanding the repeal of the Drinking Water and Sanitation Law, the annulment of ordinances allowing privatization, the termination of the water contract, and the participation of citizens in drafting a water resource law. The citizens' demands, which drove a stake at corporate interests, were violently repressed. Coordinora's fundamental critique was directed at the negation of water as a community property. Protesters used slogans like "Water is God's gift and not a merchandise" and "Water is life". In April, 2000 the government tried to silence the water protests through market law. Activists were arrested, protestors were killed, and media was censored. Finally on April 10, 2000, the people won. Aquas del Tunari and Bechtel left Bolivia. The government was forced to revoke its hated water privatisation legislation. The water company Servico Municipal del Aqua Potable y Alcantarillado (SEMAPO) was handed over to the workers and the people, along with the debts. In summer 2000, La Coordinadora organised public hearings to establish democratic planning and management. The people have taken on the challenge to establish a water democracy, but the water dictators are trying their best to subvert the process. Bechtel is suing Bolivians and the Bolivian government, is harassing and threatening activists of La Coordinadora. If we go by the lessons from Bolivia, Bechtel will try and control the water resources, not just the water works of Iraq. If the international community and the Iraqis are not vigilant, Bechtel could try and own the Tigris and Eupharates, as it tried to "own" the wells of Bolivia.

Bechtel and India

Bechtel enterprises, a privately held firm, is the world's largest construction company, having been involved heavily in the US's construction boom in the post WWII period. They are responsible for over 19,000 projects in 140 countries, with operations on all continents (save Antarctica). Bechtel is involved in over 200 water and wastewater treatment plants around the world, in large part through its subsidiaries and joint ventures such as International Water (which is partnership of Bechtel, Edison of Italy, and United Utilities in the UK). In India Bechtel was involved in the Dabhol plant with Enron, and is now involved in water privatisation of Coimbatore/Tirrupur as part of a consortium with Mahindra and Mahindra, United International North West Water. As with other water privatisation contracts, the contract has not been made public. Business that can only be carried out behind closed doors, under secrecy, does not promote freedom. It extinguishes both freedom and democracy.

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FAIR USE NOTICE: This page contains copyrighted material the use of which has not been specifically authorized by the copyright owner. Global Policy Forum distributes this material without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving the included information for research and educational purposes. We believe this constitutes a fair use of any such copyrighted material as provided for in 17 U.S.C § 107. If you wish to use copyrighted material from this site for purposes of your own that go beyond fair use, you must obtain permission from the copyright owner.