Water privatisation; the next big scandal and public loot in the making
By Dr Harsh Vardhan, MBBS, MS (ENT)
The United Nations has recognised access to water as a basic human right, stating that water is a social and cultural good, not merely an economic commodity. Today, due to increasing consumption patterns water is becoming scarce and this scarcity is an emerging threat to the global population. Global consumption of water is doubling every 20 years, more than twice the rate of human population growth. At present more than one billion people on earth lack access to fresh drinking water.
By the year 2025 the demand for fresh water is expected to rise to 56 per cent above what currently available water can deliver if current trends persist (Barlow, 2003). The challenge facing many developing countries and countries with an economy in transition nowadays is how to supply sufficient water of good quality at a reasonable price? On the one hand, demand for water is rising exponentially due to continuing population growth and rising standards of living, while on the other hand water supply companies frequently have to cope with water shortages or pollution of water resources. Furthermore, many water supply and sanitation systems are in a deplorable state due to insufficient upkeep.
Target 10 of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) is to “halve by 2015 the proportion of people without sustainable access to safe drinking water and basic sanitation.” Because of its impacts on a range of diseases, water is a health-related MDG target. On 24.5.11, the 65th World Health Assembly unanimously adopted Resolution 64/24 on drinking-water, sanitation and health, urging member states, inter alia, to highlight the importance of safe drinking-water, sanitation and hygiene as the basis for primary prevention in national public health strategies and to ensure that these strategies contribute to the achievement of the water and sanitation related MDG target and to the progressive realisation of the human right to water and sanitation. It requested the Director-General, inter alia, to formulate a new, integrated WHO strategy for water, sanitation and health with a focus on water quality and monitoring issues, and to increase technical assistance for enhanced drinking water quality management.
The uniqueness of water
Water is unique. Four things are necessary for the most basic subsistence: air, water, food, and clothing and shelter in climates where occasional cold and heat can be life threatening. Everything else is up the consumption chain. Water is in a unique position. Humans can survive without it for a few days, at most. Water is the first item up in the chain of human survival from air. It is more urgent than food, but less urgent than air.
Water privatisation refers to the transfer of ownership of water resources from the public sector to the private sector. Globally, over two-thirds of water and sanitation systems are publicly owned, but in an increasingly capitalistic world, privatisation is becoming ever more common. The UK is the only country that has ‘completely privatised its water supply and sewerage systems through asset sales.
Problems in water privatisation in both developing, developed and under developed countries
Though the World Bank may be changing its formerly dogmatic approach to full privatisation of the water sector, key cases in Tanzania, Armenia, Zambia and India highlight that the Bank may not be learning quickly enough and that the poor may be left both without improved water and paying for botched privatisations. Many people vehemently oppose this plan arguing that it will not only exacerbate poverty, but also that privatisation does not have a good track record around the world. Therefore, privatisation of water supply has been pushed through in countries such as Tanzania, Colombia and Bolivia with disastrous consequences especially for the poor who have faced severe water deprivation and high prices.
In Tanzania, World Bank advised and privatised their water services. In a region where currently 11 million lives are at risk from water shortage, these policies are having serious impacts. Privatisation led to increased prices and lack of access, rather than increased access.
In Bolivia, the poor could not afford the connection charges. Some 200,000 people in that city—a quarter of the population—were not connected with water supply.
In Detroit, USA, the poor in the richest country in the world were also affected by similar global problems. Like families in Tanzania, many African Americans in Detroit needed to make daily trips to get water.
Water management crisis
Already some onethird of the world’s population is living in either water-scarce, or water-short areas. It is predicted that climate change and population growth will take this number to one half of humanity.
India’s supply of water is rapidly dwindling primarily due to mismanagement of water resources, although over-pumping and pollution are also significant contributors. India’s water crisis is predominantly a man made problem. India’s climate is not particularly dry, nor is it lacking in rivers and groundwater. Extremely poor management, unclear laws, government corruption, and industrial and human waste have caused this water supply crunch and rendered that water which is available is practically useless due to the huge quantity of pollution. (See Table)
Inequity in access to clean water and sanitation
An average use of water for a person in a day in American countries is 585 liters/day. In India it is around 100liters/day and in African countries less than 10 liters/day by a person. Although several successful initiatives have been launched to supply safe drinking water to urban populations, efforts still fall short of the required targets for sustainable development. In developing countries water delivery systems are plagued by leakages, illegal connections and vandalism, while precious water resources are squandered through greed and mismanagement. The World Bank recently estimated that US$600 billion is required to repair and improve the world’s water delivery systems (UNCSD, 1999).
Disadvantages of water privatisation
1. Price hikes are unaffordable for poor: Water privatisation has invariably led to price hikes.
2. Unsustainable water mining.
3. Creation of water monopolies: Privatisation by definition eliminates the public control of the resources, and removal of right towards the water right (UN Warns, 2002).
4. Water quality compromised: Corporations in search of profits can compromise on water quality in order to reduce costs. This is especially true in country such as India, where the water quality regulatory boards do not have the plans to enforce their standards.
5. Potential export of bulk water.
6.Corruption and lack of transparency.
Solutions to overcome privatisation
1.Public motivation towards importance of water. Water conservation programmes in different cities have resulted in huge water conservation as compared with previous years. People are encouraged to reduce water consumption while they are outdoors and indoors. By educating people to retrofit their faucets and showerheads, displace water in their toilet tank, and fix water leaks, millions of gallons of water can be saved every day.
Encourage the people (especially children) to save the water by using it wisely and taking advantage of alternative methods. The children who conserve water should also motivate others.
An immediate solution to India’s water crisis is to change water management practices by regulating usage with effective legislation.
3. Inter Linked River Projects
4. Repairing old water systems, using less water for agriculture by using drip irrigation, stop polluting the water, increasing water conservation and focusing resources on watershed management.
An attempt to privatise water in Delhi by the present government
After the failed attempts of the present Delhi government to privatise water supply in Delhi, which was prevented by the vigilance and opposition of progressive forces, the Delhi Government has not given up. “Pilot Project” has been launched in South Delhi Colony of Vasant Vihar, Malviya Nagar and Nangloi to give away water supply and pipeline maintenance, to be followed later by meter reading and perhaps revenue collection, to a private contractor. It is alleged that four multi-national corporations have been short-listed. The Delhi Government is trying to hoodwink the citizens of Delhi by claiming that the intention is to plug the theft and leakage of water, estimated at around 40-60 per cent. The fact is that is it another shameful attempt to reintroduce the earlier plan to place water distribution in private hands in Delhi in phases, starting with 24×7 supply of water in selected areas. To add insult to injury to the so called aam admi, the Jal Board has also embarked upon total privatisation of the tanker based water supply which will hit the poorest section to the hardest.
As Dr Raghunandan of Delhi Science Forum rightly articulates privatization was brought in using the excuse that the corruption associated with the license-permit raj would be curbed. But experience has shown that corruption has not only increased but assumed gigantic proportions, witness the growing number of scams and the huge sums involved, of over 1, 76,000 crore in the 2G Telecom spectrum scam, several thousands of crores of subsidy transferred to the two corporate houses involved in privatisation of electricity in Delhi, the thousands of crores siphoned off in the Commonwealth Games. Is there any doubt that water privatisation will bring more such scams in its wake? That huge kickbacks will be involved in awarding contracts and more money will be made by permitting frequent tariff increases as in electricity supply?
Government wants to shirk its responsibilities in sector after sector offering privatisation as the panacea. Privatisation of health care, education, electricity are making these facilities and utilities beyond the reach of even middle class homes and so would happen to water if privatised. The unusual outcome of privatisation is higher expenditure, poor services, less accountability, and more burden on the common man.
(The writer is former Health & Education Minister, Delhi Govt. and also Advisor, World Health Organisation on various issues)