over water privatization pits economics vs. human rights
By Kenji Hall
OSAKA, Japan Among the world's water experts, privatization
has become something of a dirty word.
Once thought of as the new frontier for private investors,
the idea of letting corporations operate municipal and
regional water systems has been criticized by environmentalists,
international organizations, and governments alike as
a flawed solution for getting water to the poor people
who need it the most.
These days, even companies in the water business speak
carefully. "We do not say privatization," said
Gerard Payen of France's Suez, a leader in the industry,
earlier this week.
Whether companies such as Suez and Vivendi of France
and German energy conglomerate RWE can help countries
run their water utilities is a topic that will dominate
the agenda Tuesday at the World Water Forum in western
World Water Council vice president, William Cosgrove,
said he expects the discussions to be productive, particularly
since companies can teach governments a lesson in efficiency.
"I don't think you'll find the positions entrenched,"
said Cosgrove, whose group is organizing the weeklong
Privatization lies at the heart of a contentious dispute
in the water community over how to halve the number of
people around the world without access to water by 2015,
a target set at the World Summit on Sustainable Development
last September in Johannesburg, South Africa.
The United Nations says 1.2 billion people lack clean
drinking water and 2 billion are without sanitation, and
that conditions could worsen over the next half-century
as populations grow and nations industrialize. Scientists
predict global warming will disrupt rainfall patterns
and bring drought and rising sea levels.
U.N. agencies, the World Water Council, and other international
financial donors stress the need for big spending and
point to the benefits of public-private cooperation. In
many cities of the developing world, more than half of
the water is lost because of leaky pipes or pumps that
governments can't afford to repair. Financial markets
can make up for the shortfall in public coffers, those
But environmentalists and NGOs contend that water is
a basic human right and should be available to all, not
supplied based on profits and performance. "We're
not saying that the public sector is perfect. But at least
they're accountable to the people," said Liane Greeff
of the South African Civil Society Water Caucus, a civic
The reality is that privatization is a bit of a misnomer.
John Briscoe, the World Bank's water coordinator, says
in 95 percent of countries, there is a division of labor,
with governments owning the water and corporations either
providing services, such as collecting bills and managing
water distribution, or financing the upgrades to pumps
and mains, fixing sewers, and building new pipelines.
Market principles are at work on a much smaller scale
in far-flung parts of south and southeast Asia and Africa.
International Development Enterprises, a Lakewood, Colo.based
NGO, has helped build up a cottage industry around low-cost
water pumps for poor, rural subsistence farmers. By teaching
local masons how to build the so-called treadle pumps
from available materials and by encouraging farmers to
buy them, IDE has given farmers in Zimbabwe, Nepal, India,
Vietnam, Bangladesh, and Cambodia a useful technology
for watering their fields with underground reserves, said
IDE's Michael Roberts, who is based in Phnom Penh.
"The goal is to alleviate poverty. The farmers can
sell their crops and make income, which allows them to
invest in education and medicines," Roberts said.
However, a few notable failures have stoked worries about
what companies might do. Attempts at privatization in
Buenos Aires and Manila collapsed partly because the French
corporations asked to manage water services faced huge
losses when the countries devalued their currencies.
In Cochabamba, Bolivia, a 2000 revolt over the U.S. company
Bechtel's doubling of water rates left seven people dead
and water services in a shambles.
The World Water Council's Cosgrove said he hopes emotions
won't spoil Tuesday's debate. "The bottom line is
to provide access to safe water for people," he said.