What are we doing about water?
By Paul Jarrett
Tomorrow (March 22), the world will be commemorating the World Water Day. It is a time to reflect on the importance of water to life and ask ourselves why so many people in the world are deprived of water and the role of both the private and public sector policies in ensuring that not a single person goes without water. Access to water is a human right and this right has many other dimensions including adequacy, safety and affordability. However, across different parts of the world, the fight over water rights is in fact intensifying, as clean and safe water becomes scarce due to pollution, climate change, droughts and other factors. Governments all over the world have tinkered with a mix of policies to try and ensure people get safe and adequate water and that this resource is managed sustainably. The urgency to ensure water is high on the development agenda though reaffirmed under the Millennium Development Goals has not resulted in much progress on the ground in many countries. Statistics provided by Aquafed (2011) show that least 1.9 billion people use water that is unsafe and dangerous for their health and 3.4 billion people use water of doubtful quality.
Recently, Peter Brabeck-Lemathe, the Chairman of Nestle, stirred up a lot of controversy by saying that water is not a human right and that it is a good whose value should be determined through the free market. Of course water, just like healthcare, education is not a ‘free good’. Someone has to provide it and that costs money. Although he later retracted the statement, claiming that it was taken out of context and that everyone should have access to water, he still asserted that water is a precious resource that needs to be managed by the private sector (McGraw 2013).
I believe the majority of us would agree that water is a precious resource, but the dilemma is who can we trust to manage this resource to benefit all. Given this reality, I believe that water is a human right that should be protected, monitored and controlled at some level in the name of development. Torado and Smith (2012) define development as, “the process of improving the quality of all human lives and capabilities by raising peoples’ level of living, self-esteem, and freedom.” But to benefit all people, in both developed and developing countries, should the private or public sector be the guardian of this natural resource?
Proponents of the privatization of water argue that the market is more efficient than the public sector at providing quality services. Private providers say that that they have the resources to do so, even if (unlike the public sector) they pass along more of the costs to the users for upkeep. But countries such as Ghana, India, South Africa and Bolivia have seen privatization backfire. Pressure from the World Bank and the IMF to repay debts pushed them into privatizing water services. As a result many residents have been disconnected from services and prices have increased by as much as 400%, as they did in Bolivia (Kornfeld, 2010). In these cases, privatization is ripping that very resource out of the hands of those who need it to sustain a basic life. Indeed, in some cases clean water was taken away completely.
Are publicly owned utilities therefore the better answer to providing the world’s water needs? In the case of Bolivia the government had been corrupt and mismanaged their economy, forcing them to sell their water rights to repay their debt. Despite government mismanagement, publicly owned resources can be less expensive to operate than private ones. For example, as in the United States, publicly owned water is eligible for tax breaks and tax-free bonds, whereas privately owned water is not (Polycarpou, 2010). However, it can be argued that publicly owned services are not always cheaper or better.
In Canada all we have to do is look at our own past with the contaminated water tragedy that occurred in Walkerton, Ontario in 2000. Eventually the E. coli out break made many ill, cost lives and millions of dollars (CBC News, 2004). Also, publicly owned water has neglected the basic need of development. Governments are challenged to maintain safe, clean drinking water and provide access to all people. Look, for instance, at the reserves in Canada where many Aboriginal people groups are not able to access this basic need.
Governments still have a role despite their flaws. In Bolivia, the people protested and had the government reverse privatization of their water. I understand that there is more to the situation than this, but the Bolivian people must have believed that they had more of voice with their government than with a corporation. In the early 1990’s, South Africa was also required to payback loans by privatizing their water systems. The people were unable to pay for the services, water was cut off and they returned to their polluted rivers. Suez Lyonnaise des Eaux (Suez), the French water conglomerate’s contract was eventually terminated due to contaminated water (Kornfeld, 2010).
Water is needed on so many levels of development: self-preservation, agriculture, sanitation, and electricity to name a few. As a result of these needs I believe corporations are going to continue to pursue control of this natural resource. In my opinion I would argue that despite the shortfalls in many government policies they are still the best option in protecting water as a human right. A responsible government will reflect the voice of many.
We can only speculate on the motives behind companies like Nestle’ and Mr. Brabeck. However, I believe a corporations goal is to make a profit, so why would a company such as Nestle’ be any different? Mr. Brabeck does however, agree with the United Nations that there is enough fresh water on a global scale, but that it is not distributed equally, and that much is wasted, polluted and unmanaged. The question still remains, however, of whether the public or private sector should assume control over sustainable water management. If we have a clear answer to this question and make people aware that they have an inalienable right to water, then we would have made a big difference. On March 22, we can demand that governments and whoever is tasked with providing us with safe, reliable and adequate water for our needs, do so responsibly and effectively.
Aquafed (2011) Worldwide needs for safe drinking water are underestimated:
billions of people are impacted. http://www.aquafed.org/pdf/Payen_DrinkingWaterNeedsUnderEstimate_EN_2011-11-09.pdf
CBC News, (2004, Dec 20). Canada’s worst-ever E. coli contamination. CBC News. Retrieved from, http://www.cbc.ca/news2/background/walkerton/
Kornfeld, Itzchak. “A global water apartheid: from revelation to resolution.” Vanderbilt Journal of Transnational Law May 2010: 701+. Academic OneFile. Web. 1 Mar. 2015.
McGraw, G. (n.d.). Nestlé Chairman Peter Brabeck Says We Don’t Have a Right to Water, Believes We Do Have a Right to Water and Everyone’s Confused. (Video). Retrieved February 27, 2015, from http://www.huffingtonpost.com/george-mcgraw/nestle-chairman-peter-brabeck-water_b_3150150.html
(n.d.). Retrieved February 27, 2015, from http://www.nestle.com/aboutus/ask-nestle/answers/nestle-chairman-peter-brabeck-letmathe-believes-water-is-a-human-right
Todaro, M., & Smith, S. (2012). Economic development (11th ed.). Boston: Addison-Wesley.