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
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
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
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
© 2023 Foreign Policy In Focus
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