Asian Development Bank

Water levy is the last straw

Bangkok Post
May 4, 2000

This is the year 2000. Those men in striped suits and ties at the Asian Development Bank can no longer take people on the ground for granted as they will find out this week in Chiang Mai.  The people are fed up and angry. And rightly so. For the past 40 years, countless farm families in Thailand have lost their lands, livelihoods and health through various mega-projects funded by multilateral development banks, including the ADB. But the ADB’s latest scheme to impose water charges on poor farmers is the last straw.

Try to put yourself in the farmers’ shoes. Your river was dammed, your villages were flooded, your forests ruined and your source of sustenance destroyed forever. Yet you stoically struggle on by continuing farming amidst fluctuating commodity prices, higher farm investment and more debt.

Your communities and families are disintegrated because the authorities robbed your river, your source of life. Now, they have the nerve to make you pay for what little is left.

What will you do when you’re cornered? Charging farmers a water fee is part of loan conditions imposed on Thailand in the name of efficient water use. It is a step toward the privatisation of water. It is also part of the bank’s overall scheme to press Thailand towards the privatisation of other public services including health and education in the name of market-based efficiency.

What does this all mean? It means the end of the state’s moral responsibility to ensure that all have equal access to state services. It means the reigning of profit philosophy and business power. For when nature and public services are turned into commodities, only those with purchasing power can get it. No more free services. Too bad if you’re poor.

The people’s anger against the ADB is understandable. Four decades of development misery has made the poor realise that their poverty is the outcome of top-down, centrally-planned management of natural resources that does not respect their rights and customary system of use. Through long struggles together, they’ve reached a common resolution: the centrally-planned system must go to rescue their livelihoods and the environment.

This is why the key words in the people’s movements are community rights in natural resources management, decentralisation and public participation in any public polices that affect their lives.

For them, this is real democracy. Parliamentary politics, whereby politicians collude with businesses to exploit the people and nature is not democracy. It is a form of tyranny.

As part of political reform, the local people’s customary rights over natural resources management is also enshrined in the new constitution.

It is obvious. The ADB loan conditions to privatise water, which boils down to the strengthening of the centrally-planned system and the dismissal of community rights, is not only against human rights, it is also against democracy. For the middle-class, do not think you will be spared.

The privatisation of public health and education will hit your pockets hard. It will also hit your job security.

ADB conditions aim to change local structures to facilitate the entry of multinational businesses. Restructuring is a code word for lay-offs. Which means things will get much, much worse before they have a chance to get better-if at all. The ADB and other multilateral development banks forget one thing. Reducing the role of governments in public welfare will destroy the governments’ legitimacy in the eyes of the people. People won’t tolerate illegitimate governments. So expect political instability-and the losses of loan investments. That is the ending of the modern fable about greedy banks that kill the goose that lays golden eggs.

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