With climate change deepening the water crisis, wonky discussions of how to manage our water systems are suddenly attracting increased public attention. "Unlike oil, there's no substitute for fresh water," says Maude Barlow, senior advisor on water to the president of the United Nations General Assembly. "We all need it."
This recognition of the indispensability of water has raised the profile of groups arguing for treating water as a common good. In recent years across Latin America and Africa, consumer, human rights, and environmental organizations have campaigned successfully on referenda for constitutional amendments and laws enshrining water as a human right. At the recent World Water Forum, 25 countries signed an alternative declaration affirming that right (the official declaration weakly suggested that it was simply a human need). Here in the United States, a bi-partisan group of Vermont legislators working with the citizen's group, Vermont Natural Resources Council, co-sponsored legislation to protect that state's groundwater. The 2008 law declares groundwater a public trust and requires industries to acquire permits for withdrawals of over 56,000 gallons a day.
Yet it remains an uphill battle to shift the narrative, policies, and laws to ensure that water is managed as a commons and a human right. This work is made more difficult by the fact that the principal forum for global water policy discussions is not the UN but the World Water Forum, a mostly pro-privatization, tri-annual gathering of government delegations, non-governmental organizations, international financial institutions, and private industry representatives. It is convened by the World Water Council, a French non-profit whose board of governors is dominated by water privateers.
Full Cost Recovery
At the latest World Water Forum meeting from March 16th to 22nd in Istanbul, neoliberal water-management prescriptions varied little. Whether discussing the Parisian water system or South African townships, the prescription was the same: full cost recovery. In other words, agencies that provide water must recover the full costs associated with delivering the service. Increasingly pro-water-privatization development agencies, such as the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), are insisting that consumers pay more for water.
Full cost recovery policy is immoral, claim organizers of the People's Water Forum - a parallel gathering advocating for water to be managed as a commons for all rather than a commodity for profit. Moreover, such a corporate strategy lacks creativity and is applied only selectively. That is, poor users who consume the least amount of water bear a disproportionate burden. Instead, progressive taxation programs could support public water systems just as they do public schools.
Consider the example of the Finnish company Botnia, operating in Uruguay. Its production of cellulose products consumes 80 million liters of water per day, using a large percentage of the daily output of Uruguay's public utilities at a low, subsidized price. Similar regressive anti-conservation subsidies are found throughout the world - especially in the United States - where irrigation water is priced far below cost, a boon for water intensive agribusinesses and a blow to family farmers. Unlike air, it costs money to deliver water, so we must put a price on its management while taking care not to turn the water itself into a commodity. But the largest users - and the wealthiest users - should pay their fair share and subsidize consumption for the world's poorest families.
For the average person simply concerned about getting water to those who need it, this polarization in water management strategies may well be confusing. How is one to judge which water policies are effective and which are wrong-headed? When two water conferences recently faced off in Istanbul - the industry-backed World Water Forum and the activist People's Water Forum - the debate highlighted these stark tensions. But the discussion, in identifying some common ground, also took hopeful steps forward.
Another Water World Is Possible
Around the world, both activists and government officials have challenged the way we think about water. In Bangladesh and Brazil and through public-public partnerships around the world, public water utilities are seeking out public loans rather than private equity to improve water delivery infrastructure. These public utilities seek to learn together to overcome management, engineering, and financial obstacles. They are bucking the privatization trend, refusing development bank financing when conditioned on the privatization of their utilities.
Such innovative financing approaches go hand in hand with new approaches to water management. Local authorities in Rajasthan, India, for instance, are organizing water governance around natural contours - the world's river basins. There, the citizens group Tarun Bharat Sangh constructs johads, earthen small-scale reservoirs that help to harvest rainwater and improve the recharge of groundwater resources. In Rajasthan, as well as newly enshrined in the Ecuadoran constitution, citizens view water not just as a human right but as a right of the earth.
Maude Barlow suggests 10 principles to create and manage a water commons. The principles are broad-ranging, from applying human rights and public trust law to ensuring conservation and improved public delivery. She, too, sees privatization of water supplies as antithetical to this notion of the commons. She cites the case of Felton, California, which has taken back its public water system from a failed privatization experience. Further south, through trial and error, Cochabamba, Bolivia is experimenting with community-managed water utilities to deliver quality water at fair prices. In South Africa, communities have rejected pre-paid water meters and pricing schemes that undermine families' water security.
Adriana Marquisio, president of Uruguay's water workers union, insists that public water management must be improved but is equally adamant that water remain a public good. She calls for measuring efficiency not just in terms of liters per second but through public oversight over water fees and system improvements, public health indicators, innovations in community management, and the ecological health of groundwater reserves.
Flawed U.S. Policy
A principal U.S. policy tool for solving the world water crisis is the Senator Paul Simon Water for the World Act of 2009. This act builds on a similar law signed by President Bush in 2005. The bill seeks to provide "100 million of the world's poorest with sustainable drinking water and sanitation by 2015." Operationally, the proposed law establishes an Office of Water within USAID, an agency that embodies the entrepreneurial and privatizing spirit associated with shrinking the public sector.
If passed, the Water for the World Act will further enable the role of private investment in public drinking and waste water infrastructure in developing nations, according to Wenonah Hauter, executive director of Food and Water Watch. "Water privatization has proven a commercial failure in most countries around the world because private companies have, time and again, proven incapable of meeting their obligations to both their customers and their shareholders," she argues. "Reinforcing the role of private investment in the water infrastructure systems of developing countries will only perpetuate the problems that this well-intended act is designed to solve. Instead, we must work with developing countries to implement sound water policies based on public management of this essential resource."
In reports to Congress, USAID largely measured its success in implementing the Simon water acts by the amount of dollars spent on water systems. Investments in extending service and repairing ailing infrastructure are certainly critical. In this time of financial crisis, these ought to be a core part of public spending programs to reactivate the global economy. However, it matters a great deal how the money is spent, with what oversight and based on what political agenda. Certainly, the recent damage caused by channeling public monies to poorly regulated mortgage companies ought to offer pause about a similar strategy for water. These funds must be channeled to local governments and public utilities (with no strings attached mandating privatization) and to non-governmental organizations working on community-led, commons-based water strategies.
The Obama administration's performance at the World Water Forum was lackluster. It did not sign the alternative declarations to declare water a human right or seek to move policy deliberations to the UN. Whether the administration's plate is too full to pay attention or it is intentionally repeating the Bush administration's poor stewardship of the globe's natural resources is still unclear.
In his inaugural address, President Obama promised to the world's people "to make your farms flourish and let clean waters flow." So there is hope that the administration has been too busy to give this important issue proper attention. But hope is a poor substitute for action. It is still early on in the new administration, time enough to press for change. That change will happen when citizens insist that water debates are public debates about how to best manage our common water resources.