Privatization Has Failed to Deliver Safe, Affordable Water for All -- Here's a Better Idea

The right to water is akin to the right to life, but many governments are reluctant to recognize this and shoulder their responsibilities to deliver safe, affordable water.


National ministers from Africa gathered with hundreds of people from United Nations agencies, development banks, public water operators, non-profit groups and trade unions from around the world to celebrate World Water Day last month in Cape Town. A priority on the agenda: responding to the growing urban water challenge. The number of people living in cities in Africa with no access to tap water at home or in the immediate area increased by 43 percent (from 137 million to 195 million) between 2000 and 2008.


It is unbelievable that in this day and age -- with the untold wealth generated by human activity -- that millions of people die each year from waterborne diseases.

The right to water is akin to the right to life, but many governments are reluctant to recognise this most basic reality and shoulder their responsibilities to deliver safe, affordable water.

Fortunately, Bolivia boldly pushed through a resolution endorsing the human right to water and sanitation in the United Nations General Assembly last year. Working with other allied governments, Bolivia managed to shame various rich countries such that rather than oppose such an obvious right, they merely abstained. The nonbinding resolution passed on 28 July 2010. Among the arguments used against the resolution is a lack of clarity about what responsibilities the right to water will place on governments.
For the past 20 years, governments have tried to offload this responsibility onto the private sector in the vain hope that multinational corporations would step in with expertise and finance. The World Bank, the International Monetary Fund and regional development banks have forced the privatisation pill down the throats of countries with aid packages. Rich countries also wield their aid budgets and free trade treaties to win business for their national companies.

The privatisation experiment has disappointed. The main problem is that private corporations exist to maximize profits, but the poor don't have enough money to pay the high fees demanded. Further, private companies are unable to address the non-financial issues in the water sector such as conservation, ecosystem protection, equity -- including for women and girls, among rural and urban, between working people and the unemployed. And the argument that competition brings efficiency does not apply in the natural monopoly of urban water and sanitation.

Privatisation actually creates more problems than it solves. Many governments have realized this and are bringing water and sanitation services back into public hands. Even the city of Paris, the heart of the French private water companies, decided in January 2010 to reclaim public ownership and management of its water system. Yet, the private sector recognises that there are billions to be earned with this 'blue gold', and their powerful lobbying machinery is hard at work.

The fact is that water and sanitation services, especially in dense urban areas, must be provided by government. This is especially true in developing countries, as no private companies will dare invest the sums needed without massive government guarantees, including for hefty annual profits.

The struggle around water is essentially the struggle for democracy; it is no coincidence that the poor and voiceless remain unserved. Public Services International, the Transnational Institute, the South Africa Municipal Workers Union, and other South African civil society organisations, call for the opening of the “Water TAP” -- opening the currents of “Transparency, Accountability and Participation” as key practices to be applied in the delivery of water and sanitation services. There is a growing awareness that the public sector water and sanitation operators are the key to delivering universal access.