Pipe dreams (Blog Action Day 2010)
Living in Britain in 2010, we take clean water for granted, and turn on the tap to drink or take a shower without thinking twice. But over a billion people worldwide cannot reach or afford clean water; more than double that do not have access to adequate toilets and sanitation. Nearly two million children die every year because they don’t have safe water to drink, and the lives of communities across the global south are blighted by the illness and preventable diseases that result from dirty water.
For years, western governments and organisations like the World Bank have promoted the myth that bringing in private sector managers and leasing out water assets – water privatisation – has been the solution to this global water crisis. They have the investment, the technology and the know-how, it was said, that could extend pipes and taps to everyone around the world – even the very poor.
But the evidence of the impacts of water privatisation across the global south, from Bolivia and Argentina to Tanzania and Ghana, illustrates that this has been nothing but a pipe dream.
The private sector has not been interested to invest in providing the poor with clean water, because they cannot make sufficient profits. Meanwhile, the international private sector has been shown to be lacking when it comes to know-how and the ability to work in developing country environments.
But the threat of water privatisation remains in countries around the world, and trade unionists are working hand in hand with local communities and civil society to resist.
In Malawi in southern Africa, the World Bank has offered US$50 million to help revamp the water infrastructure. Yet, to receive the funds Malawi had to accept the services of a private contractor.
Anthony Chimphepo, a leader of the Water Employees’ Trade Union of Malawi, an affiliate of Public Services International, wants Europe to directly invest instead in the public water utility:
“[The corporation] is going to come in, and instead of using all that money to rehabilitate our machines so we can do a better job, that money will go right back to [the corporation]. In the next 20 years fresh water will be scarce on earth and water will have the value of oil. European companies are angling to profit off of this priceless resource.”
Tackling the global water crisis is urgent, but there can be no substitute for investment and capacity-building in governments across the global south to provide water and sanitation as a public service, accessible and affordable by all.