Photograph: Ed Jones/AFP/Getty Images
With inequality blunting progress on the human right to water, countries must stop lining the pockets of private firms at the expense of ordinary people.
he world may have met the target for access to safe drinking water set out by the millennium development goals, but work remains for world leaders assembling this week at the 2015 World Water Forum in South Korea. They must be held accountable for the 748 million people who still lack access to an improved source of water, as well as the estimated 1.8 billion who consume contaminated water.
Despite grand pledges to realise the human right to water, huge inequalities remain across regions, between urban and rural areas, and between rich and poor neighbourhoods.
The global gathering has traditionally been like a trade show promoting water privatisation – and that will again be the message, albeit wrapped in the newer “public-private partnership (PPP) as innovative investment” discourse.
It’s high time we stopped chasing this mirage. The private water agenda is based on a false premise. PPPs are not an innovative financing mechanism. They are a cherry picking exercise, one that grants water multinationals the most attractive contracts (and all profits), while governments assume the risks and citizens struggle to pay soaring bills for often poor quality water services.
Governments and local authorities would do well to listen to the resounding cry from Jakarta. The central Jakarta district court’s 24 March decision to annul privatised water contracts in order to protect residents’ human right to water in the megacity shows how private operators put profit before people.
The court ruling comes after a lengthy class action lawsuit against private operators PAM Lyonnaise Jaya (Palyja) and Aetra Air Jakarta (Aetra) over their poor water service coverage (59%), failure to meet investment obligations, astounding leakage levels (44%) and fourfold water tariff increase over just a dozen years. Far from fulfilling the promise of infrastructure investment and new technology, the private operators in Jakarta simply sat on their guaranteed 22% profit and neglected users.
Not surprisingly, research by the Public Services International Research Unit, which monitors water privatisation, shows that – despite the big expansion of PPPs in recent years – financing for water infrastructure comes predominantly from public sources. The figure may be as high as 90%.
The recent book Our public water future: The global experience with remunicipalisation demonstrates that Jakarta is not an isolated case. It reveals that, over the past 15 years, 235 cities and communities have reclaimed their water system in 37 countries, impacting more than 100 million people. Moreover, the pace of what has been termed the “remunicipalisation” trend has accelerated dramatically, doubling in the 2010-15 period compared with 2000-10.
Policymakers are opting for remunicipalisation for pragmatic reasons rather than ideological ones, as evidence shows that the public sector can provide better services. Interestingly, the great majority of remunicipalisations have taken place in two countries: France (94), home of two of the world’s private water companies, Suez and Veolia, and the US (58).
In the first year following the flagship remunicipalisation of water in Paris, the new municipal operator Eau de Paris realised efficiency savings of €35m (£25m). What is more, the public utility prioritised environmental conservation measures and set up a unique body through which the public can have a say in how the company is run.
If people in countries that have championed privatisation are saying no, isn’t it time to stop imposing it on the rest of the world?
Undistracted from trying to compete for markets, public water operators are now joining forces within and across countries through public-public partnerships (PuPs) to share learning and best practices, and to facilitate the remunicipalisation process.
If the World Water Forum is serious about its goal to implement solutions to the global water crisis, it must change direction. The disastrous privatisation experiment must be put to bed and investment made in accountable public solutions that can deliver the human right to water for all.
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