World Water Day: Privatisation risks leaving people behind!

Roughly 2.1 billion people in the world lack access to clean water. 80% of countries in the global south having insufficient public financing to meet national water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) targets. Official Development Assistance (ODA) for WASH is in decline, leaving a big financial gap to meet Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 6: Ensure availability and sustainable management of water and sanitation for all. Mobilising private sector financing, to help close the gap, is in fashion, but governments and donor countries need to make sure that SDG implementation does not lend itself for privatisation of public and community water supply systems.

In many countries of the global South, communities have self-organised to satisfy their water provision and sanitation needs, when state involvement has been absent. In Latin America there are almost 80.000 community and small public water supply and sanitation organisations providing water to more than 70 million users. These organisations often organise their supply systems on the basis of solidarity and reciprocal relationships. Rather than a romanticised notion, this is the actual condition that endows communities with the social power to protect, derive, treat and distribute water within a specific geographical space and socio-hydrological setting, and to sustain these systems over time.

In addition, community water supply organisations conceive water as a social good with traditional, ancestral, and spiritual dimensions that guide its management and provision. Water fees, which finance the upkeep, are defined communally with the objective of dignifying community members’ lives rather than maximising profits. In some cases, water is provided for free to people who are going through economic difficulties. Sometimes, water ‘fees’ are not paid in cash but through in-kind contributions, such as maintenance work on the system or community work. By building relationships of mutual trust and support, water supply systems strengthen social networks and function as social ‘glue’.

Involving the private sector implies a pressure to develop a business model for water management. This comes with the enforcement of business-like ‘performance standards’ (= profit first!). If these standards are not met, management can be transferred to private companies and the privatisation of water provision is a fact. Under this management model, communities and their members are demoted from being managers of the systems that they constructed to being clients of private water companies, a position that leaves them vulnerable to market rules (no money, no water!) and price hikes that in general accompany privatisation.

Decision-makers need to be aware of possible trade-offs and to recognise the importance of communities as managers of natural resources and water in particular. In order to achieve SDG 6 and to ensure ‘water for all’, ODA spending needs to continue at levels that relieve pressure on public funds for water infrastructure. At the same time, it is important to legally recognise and support community water supply and sanitation organisations and to foster public-public partnerships and public-community partnerships that support communities in improving services.

Leaving no one behind requires a focus on ‘people first’ rather than a private sector ‘profit first’ focus! #WorldWaterDay #LeaveNoOneBehind

This article is based on DIE-GDI The Current Column: Privatisation risks leaving people behind.