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WORLD WATER FORUM: Debate rages on issue of privatization
By Roy K. Akagawa
The Asahi Shimbun

OSAKA-In a conference marked by vague exhortations for further dialogue and cooperation, some of the bluntest comments at the Third World Water Forum come from sessions dealing with the controversial topic of privatizing water supply and sanitation services.

``If privatization does not work in a rich, industrialized nation like the United States, how can it work on a global scale?'' asked Wenonah Hauter of Public Citizen on Wednesday.

As examples of how privatization has failed in the United States, Hauter cited the failure of a private firm to provide water to Atlanta and a broad coalition that stopped the privatization of New Orleans' water supply.

Claude Genereux, national secretary-treasurer of the Canadian Union of Public Employees, urged caution over new terminology being used by some large multinationals involved in the global water business. In particular, Genereux called the term ``public-private partnerships'' a ``new code word for privatization.''

Genereux's group and the Council of Canadians have been the most vocal in opposing moves to privatize the water business.

As an example of the potential danger of private-sector involvement, Genereux cited pollution of the water supply for Hamilton, Ontario, after a U.S. firm abandoned a filtration project. It was later learned the company had conducted no water treatment for almost three years, leading to the pollution of Lake Ontario.

Genereux's group has signed on to the Civil Society World Water Vision for Action, a manifesto representing 150 NGOs, which rejects the very principles underlying the policies and plans for the Third World Water Forum.

Water Vision representatives wearing signature headbands with the slogan ``Water is Life'' in three languages have been prevalent at different sessions of the conference.

Genereux said many Canadians took the privatization issue seriously in the 1980s, when firms began proposing taking over the water supply, because they felt the companies ``were like salesmen trying to sell sand to nomads.''

Canada has one of the highest levels of per capita freshwater supply in the world.

For many developing nations that lack Canada's abundant resources, however, some form of partnership with the private sector may have to be an alternative, especially to provide water and sanitation to the poor.

Sam Kayaga explained what his consulting company, WSS Services Ltd. of Uganda, had accomplished in providing water services to the poor in six small towns.

Almud Weitz, an economist with the Asian Development Bank, also touched on how external support agencies, such as the bank, could more effectively help nations seeking assistance.

Weitz said these agencies should target funding in client nations to ensure extension of services goes to the poor. Weitz said more rational debate was needed on how to set water fees, adding that local governments should receive help in dealing with some large companies, which may have an inordinate and unfair amount of resources on their side.

Weitz said that with many private firms concentrating on water supply, the public sector may have to handle sanitation because of the larger investment requirements involved.(IHT/Asahi: March 20,2003)

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