When cholera appeared on South Africa's Dolphin Coast in August 2000, officials first assumed it was just another of the sporadic outbreaks that have long stricken the country's eastern seaboard. But as the epidemic spread, it turned out to be a chronicle of death foretold by blind ideology.
In 1998, local councils had begun taking steps to commercialize their waterworks by forcing residents to pay the full cost of drinking water. But many of the millions of people living in the tin-roof slums of the region couldn't afford the rates. Cut off at the tap, they were forced to find water in streams, ponds and lakes polluted with manure and human waste. By January 2002, when the worst cholera epidemic in South Africa's history ended, it had infected more than 250,000 people and killed almost 300, spreading as far as Johannesburg, 300 miles away.
Making people pay the full cost of their water "was the direct cause of the cholera epidemic," David Hemson, a social scientist sent by the government to investigate the outbreak, said in an interview. "There is no doubt about that."
The seeds of the epidemic had been sown long before South Africa decided to take its deadly road to privatization. They were largely planted by an aggressive group of utility companies, primarily European, that are attempting to privatize the world's drinking water with the help of the World Bank and other international financial institutions.
The days of a free glass of water are over, in the view of these companies, which have a public relations campaign to accompany their sales pitch. On a global scale, and in many developing nations, water is a scarce and valuable and clearly marketable commodity. "People who don't pay don't treat water as a very precious resource," one executive said. "Of course, it is."