How our access to water comes at a price
By Chris Zivalich
In July 2010, the United Nations formally declared water a fundamental human right in an effort to ensure “acceptable, accessible and affordable water and sanitation” for every human being on the planet. While many applauded the decision, others questioned why water needed to be officially recognized as a basic human right in the first place. Didn’t the international community already assume that if there’s something everyone is guaranteed, it’s water?
Statistics from the United Nation’s Water organization demonstrate the inadequate distribution of the world’s most precious liquid: 2.5 billion people (approximately one third of the world’s population) live without access to fresh water, lack sanitation facilities or pursue dangerous or time-consuming means to fetch it. This combination of unsanitary water and its routine unavailability is conducive to the contraction of diarrheal diseases, the leading cause of death worldwide.
Such dire circumstances demand important questions on the ways in which water could be made more readily available: Whose responsibility is it to facilitate access to water? What structural, economic and political conditions prevent billions of people from quenching their thirst? How should the global community mobilize to respond and take action?
Echoing the ideology of neoliberalism, many have pointed to the market economy as a solution that would privatize the delivery and ownership of water. In the World Bank’s and International Monetary Fund’s structural adjustment programmes, or SAPs, developing nations seeking a loan are required to implement policy changes that meet this economic agenda. Today, SAPs include the complete privatization of water services.
As a result, while only a small percentage of the world’s water is currently owned by private corporations, the emerging trend seems to favor privatized water services. Unsurprisingly, this controversial proposal has divided the international community and ignited intense debate, part of which focuses on what “water privatization” actually means.
For many, water privatization is simply the private ownership of water services, which typically includes delivery, sanitation infrastructure and varying degrees of partnerships with other organizations. Despite the fact that most water services are publicly owned, the water industry is a trillion dollar business with high concentrations of power. This was recently documented in Europe where, according to Public Services International Research Unit, more water is being owned by just two companies—Suez and Veolia.
Stephen Shaw is a research associate at the New York State Water Resources Institute at Cornell University, which aims to improve the management of water resources in New York. He believes the call for a privatized water industry comes from a failed public system.
“The public system has no incentive to continue to invest in infrastructure, [and] that’s what [privatization] is about—funding the infrastructure,” he said. “It’s an economic question about what’s the most efficient way.”
Although Shaw believes private companies that facilitate access to water has worked well in the United States, he admits it might not be implemented as successfully in other countries with different social, political and economic conditions. He thinks private ownership could only work on a global scale as long as it “retains the water rights traditionally held by the public.”
Even though Shaw admits he cannot say for certain how a private water industry would look globally, Richard Girard, research coordinator at the Polaris Institute, which works with citizen movements to enable social change from its headquarters in Ottawa, thinks the notion of privatizing a common human need is unacceptable, citing the motivations of companies whose success is measured by money.
“Water is for life and not for profit,” Girard said. “It’s the profit motive … that tampers everything.”
Girard has done extensive research on major water corporations by composing profiles of them during his seven years at the Institute. He said one of the most problematic consequences of the privatized industry is the decrease in quality and access to services, thereby exacerbating poorer communities.
Girard referenced Cochabamba, Bolivia, as an example of the privatized sector’s failure to alleviate the water crisis. In 2000, the World Bank forced Bolivia to privatize its water services in order to receive a loan. After the Bechtel Corporation took over, Bolivia saw its service prices raised by an average of 35 percent, hitting hardest the poorest people who already lacked clean drinking water. After fierce civilian protests, the company was kicked out of Cochabamba.
Protests against water companies are not limited to this historical moment. In fact, many other cities in Bolivia, like El Alto in 2005, continue to demonstrate against water companies.
Additionally, it isn’t only the critics of privatization who notice and admit the flaws in a global water industry. The World Bank noted in a 2006 report, “PPI [private participation in infrastructure] has disappointed—playing a far less significant role in financing infrastructure in cities than was hoped for.”
Given the contested nature of privatizing something as vital to human survival as water, humanitarians, activists and others have spoken out in favor of alternative solutions they say will help provide water to the billions suffering.
Kolleen Bouchane works for the Freshwater Action Network, a global network that implements and influences water and sanitation policy around the world. She said that while there are successful examples of private water companies collaborating with local communities, privatization cannot be the sole standard.
“Water privatization will not solve the world’s water challenges and is not the answer to lack of access,” she said. “Private water companies are part of a set of complex solutions. The goal should be the realization of people’s rights—with their input—will lead to different solutions everywhere but will be based on important common principles.”
Girard argued that public-public partnerships—partnerships between established publicly owned water services in one city that coordinate to develop new publicly owned services in less developed cities—might be the ideal alternative to full-fledged privatization.
As a whole, there seems to be some room for private companies within particular, regulated limits. Thus, while there is a role for privatization in the area of water services, the overall goal of safe and affordable access would require a participatory community that is allowed to help make decisions and organize the facilitation of water utilities. In order to achieve this goal, it is the responsibility of everyone to actively and willingly engage in the discourse on water inequalities.
Our arrogant assumptions about the availability of water afford us the privilege to forget how many people go regularly without it—we pass it off as a cruel luck of the draw. We then end up normalizing structural poverty though, in reality, it stems from human-created institutions and economies.
It is, therefore, within our capacity to solve this disastrous treatment of billions of people. Being conscientious and critical seems more effective than the simply providing aid to those in need.
“Those who do not have access to clean water and sanitation are among the most voiceless and marginalized in our world,” Bouchane said. “Their lack of access is a reflection on the priorities of all of us—in particular on political leadership at all levels—since politics is how it is decided who has and who has not. There is enough water for everyone.”
Chris Zivalich is a junior journalism major who would like to test the waters of public investment. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.