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WATER: Services in Public Hands Gaining Popularity

Diego Cevallos* - Tierramérica

MEXICO CITY, Mar 22 2006 (IPS) - Publicly supplied water costs consumers 50 percent less than water controlled by private firms, and management could be more efficient, say activists and local authorities. With that argument, they are doing everything they can to stop the expansion of foreign companies in the water sector.

Successful examples in cities of Argentina, Brazil, Ghana, Japan and Venezuela, among others, where water and sanitation are in the hands of the national or local government, are the banner waved by those who believe that nobody should be treating this essential resource as a business.

But the cases of water privatisation are in the minority worldwide, and it is in state hands where most of the water distribution problems emerged – now affecting millions of people.

Silvano da Costa, president of Brazil’s National Association of Municipal Sanitation Services; Julián Pérez, leader of the Federation of Neighbourhood Councils in the western Bolivian city of El Alto; and André Abreu, delegate from France’s Danielle Mitterrand Foundation, are just some of the staunch defenders of publicly controlled water services.

The three, in attendance at the 4th World Water Forum in Mexico City, Mar. 16-22, said in conversations with Tierramérica that the privatisation of water, much touted in the 1990s, was a failure worldwide.

As an alternative, they are pushing for better public management through associations of governmental agencies, non-governmental organisations and communities.


Many activists see it as a positive step that this issue is being debated at the World Water Forum, because in the previous meetings they say it was practically ignored.

The Forum is organised by the World Water Council, created in the mid-1990s by representatives of the business, academic, scientific and civil society sectors, and came under fire for what has been seen as its pro-privatisation stance.

Unlike other economic sectors that were transferred almost entirely to private companies in developing countries in the 1980s and 1990s, there were no dramatic shifts in water services. Worldwide, 90 percent of water and sanitation services remain under government administration.

And under these conditions, the problems in distribution continue. Of the planet’s 6.5 billion inhabitants, 1.1 billion do not have adequate access to water, and 2.6 billion lack basic sanitation services.

The United Nations report, “Water, a Shared Responsibility”, suggests that private participation should not be ruled out, and warns that governments subject to budget restrictions and strict regulations would have a hard time posing an alternative for resolving deficient management of water services.

“We defend public service in everything related to water, but not just any service. It has to be one that improves, that shakes free from ‘bureaucratism’ and is open to monitoring and to community participation,” said the Brazilian sanitation association leader Da Costa.

At the Water Forum, Da Costa presented 20 cases of successful water administration by Brazilian municipalities, exclusively under the control of those local authorities, and in some cases with direct participation by communities. In most of these cases, the population has 100 percent coverage of water and sanitation services.

One of the most celebrated cases in Brazil is that of the southern city of Porto Alegre, where, under a model of public control and with citizen participation, water services reach the homes of most of the population.

“It’s true that there are many cases of poor management and deficiencies in the public sector,” but the approach is to work on those problems and turn them around, not turn over the services to private companies, said Da Costa.

“The public service of water cannot be a business, because it is a basic necessity, and it has been made clear that privately run services are costly and bad,” he added.

According to his own studies of costs per cubic metre of water, Da Costa says that when it is privately managed it costs 50 percent more than when it is controlled by the state.

Many other examples of successful state water management were considered during a meeting held in parallel to the World Water Forum.

Activists pointed to the efforts since January by environmentalists in Argentina’s northeastern province of Santa Fe to ensure that the state-run Aguas Santafesinas operates efficiently. The provincial government recently rescinded the concession for water services it had given the French company Suez.

In Ghana, the independent but state-owned Ghana Water Company works with the northern town of Savelugu. It provides water in bulk to the residents, and they are in charge of distribution, establishing rates, and management – a model that activists say is worth repeating elsewhere.

They also highlighted efforts in Venezuela by several communities and public water management agencies to work together to define plans, carry out improvements, and designate funding.

Another example among many is Japan, where the public water system is highly efficient. The companies are not limited to working only in their home territory, but are deployed through cooperation and technology transfer to help the countries of the developing world.

According to Abreu, of the Danielle Miterrand Foundation, private water management turned out to be so inefficient even in France, where private firms supply 80 percent of the services, that many cities began to “municipalise” water and sanitation.

This has already occurred in the cities of Cherbourg, Grenoble, Neuf-Chateau and Varages.

The French activist agreed with Da Costa that when water is publicly managed it costs half what private firms generally charge.

Pérez, head of the federation of neighbourhood councils of El Alto, Bolivia, lamented the existence of “a general policy of discrediting the public sector in water management” and that this attitude has led to privatisation.

“Through our experience in Bolivia, we realised that the private company doesn’t meet its objectives and is corrupt,” he said. “There is no privatisation model that is on the side of the poor.”

In 2005, in the wake of widespread mobilisations and protests against high costs and poor service, a decree by the Bolivian government suspended the Suez corporation’s contract in El Alto. However, through legal manoeuverings, the firm continues operating to date.

“We hope that in a couple months Suez will leave Bolivia forever,” said Pérez.

(*Diego Cevallos is an IPS correspondent. Originally published Mar. 18 by Latin American newspapers that are part of the Tierramérica network. Tierramérica is a specialised news service produced by IPS with the backing of the United Nations Development Programme and the United Nations Environment Programme.)

 
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