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Serving Sri Lanka

This web log is a news and views blog. The primary aim is to provide an avenue for the expression and collection of ideas on sustainable, fair, and just, grassroot level development. Some of the topics that the blog will specifically address are: poverty reduction, rural development, educational issues, social empowerment, post-Tsunami relief and reconstruction, livelihood development, environmental conservation and bio-diversity. 

Tuesday, April 26, 2005

Is Water a Human Right, or Just Another Widget?

DEVELOPMENT (IPS): by Haider Rizvi

UNITED NATIONS, Apr 19 (IPS) - Despite strong opposition from the world's leading civil society groups, multinational corporations in the Western hemisphere continue to push the international agenda on sustainable use and distribution of water toward privatisation. Taking part in the ongoing global dialogue, the private sector, as one of the major stakeholders in policy debates on sustainable development, says it can play a key role in helping poor countries create sustainable water management systems by offering efficient means and technical expertise. But the non-governmental organisations (NGOs) participating in the U.N.-sponsored discussions argue that the private sector has failed to deliver in the past, and that it is more concerned with profits than giving poor people easy access to clean water. In addition to development and environment ministers from around the world, both water industry leaders and NGO representatives are currently attending a two-week meeting organised by the U.N. Commission on Sustainable Development to explore policy options related to water, sanitation and affordable housing. "We are against privatisation," says June Zeitlin, executive director of the Women's Environment and Development Organisation, which represents hundreds of women's groups worldwide. "We view the right to water as a basic human right." Industry executives say they recognise the principle that access to clean water is a human right, but argue that many governments cannot achieve that goal alone unless they are assisted by the private sector. "No one in the business is talking about privatising water," insists Pierre Victoria, a vice president of the France-based Veolia Water Corporation. "We are not the owners of the assets. It's about privatising water delivery systems." Providing safe drinking water and basic sanitation are important parts of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), which promise to reduce by half the number of people who have no access to clean drinking water by 2015. "Access," according to a U.N. document "is a question of physical accessibility by consumers of urban and rural areas and of the affordability of such services." Development experts say that more than one billion people have no access to safe drinking water at all and that over two billion continue to lack basic sanitation. Critics of privatisation say most companies involved in water management projects in the past have shown a consistent trend of hasty retreat from countries where they jacked up water rates and cut off services to those who were unable to pay the bills, mostly the urban poor. In July 2002, for example, the French-based Suez, one of the largest multinational water companies, terminated its contract with Argentina when the country's economic collapse ruined its profit margins, leaving behind a confused mess of water systems in the capital, Buenos Aires. "During the first eight years of contract, weak regulatory practices and contract re-negotiations that eliminated corporate risk enabled the Suez subsidiary, Aguas Argentinas, to earn a 19 percent profit rate on its average net worth," noted Maude Barlow and Tony Clark of the Canada-based Polaris Institute in an article published last year. "Water rates, which the company said would be reduced 27 percent, actually rose 20 percent," they said. "Fifty percent of the employees were laid off, and Aguas Argentinas reneged on its contractual obligations to build a new sewage treatment plant. Over 95 percent of the city's sewerage is now dumped directly in the Rio del Plata River." Despite such disasters, critics note that the World Bank and other international financial institutions continue to pressure developing countries to commodify their water resources and put them on the auction block to the highest bidder. "The Bank is taking advantage of the 'Washington Consensus' model of development now adopted by its donor countries and promoting the interest of a handful of transnational water corporations," observed Barlow and Clarke. On World Water Day last month, more than 50 NGOs sent a letter to the European commissioner for development aid, Louis Michel, urging him to use his influence to "renegotiate the policies of the World Bank and other international financial institutions to end privatisation conditions linked to financial support to those requesting it." "European aid money and political influence is being used to promote policies that are not working and hinge on providing extra money to European companies," the letter said, "rather than meeting real development needs in water and sanitation." Although less than 10 percent of the world's water resources are controlled by the private sector, industry watchers predict that in the next 10 years, Veolia and other leading companies will control 70 percent of the water systems in North America and Europe alone. According to the Polaris Institute, the water industry earned 160 billion dollars in 2001, and revenues are believed to be growing at 10 percent a year. Asked if business was doing well, Victoria replied: "Oh, yes. Our company provides water to eight million people in Africa. We have a lot of success in these countries." In response to NGOs' charge that his and other companies were more concerned about profit-making than providing water facilities to the poor, he added: "We are not for free water. When you have free water, then there's a lot of waste." Waste or no waste, environmental and women groups say the liberalisation of the water market is pushing large section of the population further into poverty by forcing the use of unsafe drinking water. "Governments should recognise the negative impacts of water privatisation on the livelihood of poor and indigenous women," declared the women's caucus of the U.N. meeting on water. "Water is a public resource not a commodity," adds Sierra Club, a U.S.-based environmental group. "Access to clean, sufficient and affordable drinking water is a human right necessary to human health and survival." But reflecting the integrated views of all the stakeholders on the issue of water, including youth, labour and indigenous people, a U.N. document shows that despite its influence and backing from the World Bank, the water industry stands quite isolated. "Public water utilities in developed countries should be encouraged to assist in meeting the water MDGs through non-profit public-public partnership," suggests the U.N. Commission on Trade and Development, urging the international financial institutions "to put less emphasis on privatisation conditions and pay more attention to concessional financial support to public water and sanitation." (END/2005)
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