Water for African Cities

Tuesday, Johannesburg – ‘I like privatisation of water if it’s the kind of privatisation where the private sector consult with the public to improve efficiency’ of water delivery, claimed South African water minister Ronnie Kasrils today. He is apparently more distrustful when ‘water resources are owned by private shareholders’, but he has come a long way from his former days as a communist member of the military wing of the African National Congress.

The Water for African Cities initiative launched earlier today by Minister Kasrils and the UN Habitat agency in concert with the UN Foundation (a private entity distributing the billion dollar donation of media mogul Ted Turner) wants to increase access to clean water for the poor in urban centres. It’s a classic private public initiative, which targets eight African cities, including Johannesburg. According to its Director, Tim Wirth, it will have a very positive effect in improving access for the poor in those locations. And initiatives like this seem necessary with over two billion people lacking access to good quality water and over three million that die every year from water-borne diseases. It’s ironic that because of the vagaries of supply, ‘the poor pay much of their income on water, sometimes 20 times as much as the rich’ says Ms Anna Tibaijuka the Director for UN Habitat.

The fact that the poor often pay so much for water seems to add weight to complaints by major groups like Oxfam and Friends of the Earth that water is being made a commodity for sale, when it should be ‘a global human right’. These groups, under the banner Eco-Equity, demand that privatisation should be reversed and that aid should be increased to prevent so many deaths from water related diseases.

However, Richard Tren a writer on water and a consultant to the South African Government’s Water Research Commission criticised the approach of the UN Foundation and the major groups saying it was very Northern focussed. It was true that water access was a problem in urban areas but that the main reason for this was because so much water was wasted in agriculture. ‘If 20% of the water wasted in agriculture was used for domestic use (both urban and rural) then the poor would have ample supplies’ he explained. ‘Minister Kasrils seems intent on blaming the lack of international aid for the poor state of water access in our country, yet he will not countenance considerable private investment in water projects, or allow water trading, for fear that he will lose control of domestic water issues’, concludes Tren.

The World Bank seems to be weighing in more on Tren’s side than the Ministers. It has called for greater private involvement in water supply and sanitation provision. Although sensitive to the political nature of water privatisation it remains firmly committed that privatisation, coupled with market mechanisms, is the main way to improve access of the poor to water. It cites evidence from around the globe including Chile where water access for the poor has increased faster than in any other developing country, and nearly all because of trading of water rights.

Water rights trading is one of the thorniest of political issues in water management. Like other environmental trading, for example the successful trading in reducing sulphur dioxide emissions in America, the idea that market mechanisms in water can more efficiently allocate water than old fashioned command and control, is widely accepted by economists but adamantly opposed by green NGOs. Yet all NGOs call for improved efficiency in supply, and want large increases in price for rich domestic customers, but seem to ignore the fact that water trading can be (and often is) carried out between the poor and impoverished, not just rich businessmen and rich white farmers.

Indeed, there seems to be widespread confusion that a market mechanism (such as water rights trading among farmers and other rights holders) is the same thing as private company water provision. As Tren explains, he is pro-market and pro-consumer, but is also wary of large private water companies owning water in the developing world. He thinks that ‘the Eco-Equity alliance intentionally conflate the two issues since they don’t like market solutions to anything, even when they can help the poor’.

This confusion is set to continue and will maintain the focus on the demand for aid. Minister Kasrils even called it ‘scandalous’ that rich countries had reneged on the development aid targets agreed at the first Earth Summit in Rio ten years ago. Whether its aid or market-based solutions that are used, all participants agreed that something needs to be done. Since the summit began yesterday over 10,000 children died from water borne diseases around the world.

Author: Roger Bate is a Director of the International Policy Network based in Washington, DC, USA. This article may be reprinted without prior consent but with acknowledgement to the author. The Patrons, council and members of the Foundation do not necessarily agree with the views expressed in the article.

FMF Article of the Week\27 August 2002
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