World Water Forum: Fight Against Privatization Continues & UN Says to Value Ecosystems, Not Just Agriculture

water privatization protest photo

Keith Bacongco/CC BY 1.0

The World Water Forum is underway in France. The World Water Council has claimed the bold intention of finding real solutions for the water crisis that has emerged around the world—but unless there are some changes to who controls the decisions made about managing the world's water supplies, as well as to how they do so, the Forum is likely to either make things worse for many of the approximately billion people who lack access to clean water around the world, or at best be just another "elitist" meeting in another lush setting that has little to show for itself.

A key debate underlying the global discussion about water is over public versus private control of water resources. This is by no means a new debate, and experiences in city after city [PDF], particularly in developing countries, have shown that when private companies take the reins from a municipality, usually in the name of efficiency, prices jump while services plummet.

Privatization, Continued
Yet the conversation about privatization continues this year. Wenonah Hauter, executive director of Food & Water Watch, was invited to debate World Water Forum participants on the merits of public versus private involvement in the water sector. She declined the invitation, as did Maude Barlow before her, and encouraged them to instead involve Maria Theresa N. Lauron, Water for the People Network coordinator, who could testify to the disaster that privatization brought to her community in the Philippines.

Corporate Accountability International explains what happened there:

Under pressure of a heavy international debt load, the Filipino government turned over the management of Manila’s water supply to two private corporations in 1997. With over 3 million residents of metro Manila lacking access to water, the system was unquestionably in need of improvement. The deal was touted as the largest-ever water privatization to date, and a trial balloon for the concession structure...

Since then, water prices have soared, with increases between 450% - 850% for residents of each zone. Quality has suffered, with severe public health consequences, and the much-needed infrastructure investment which was used to justify the privatization has failed to materialize. Instead, the privateers have cracked down on unbilled water and taken a heavy hand with their workforce and regulators to ensure a steady stream of profits without making the required investments to expand water access in the city.

And this isn't just a past, buried example; the story continues today:

the World Bank continues to tout this as a flagship “success” story to justify further promotion of water privatization. Manila Water, the IFC’s new poster child, was given a 15-year contract extension in January, 2010 with no competitive bidding, extending the current arrangement through 2037.

But the trend toward privatization is not limited to the Philippines. There have long been widespread concerns that the Forum is led by private interests. Shayda Naficy from Corporate Accountability called the Forum a "tool in the corporate move to shift policy debates to opaque, elite forums insulated from broad democratic participation, asserting market assumptions as a starting-point for water policy."

Naficy explained more:

The World Bank and its corporate clients have sought for decades to remove water policy-making from transparent governmental spaces to business-oriented forums like the World Water Forum... The 2030 Water Resources Group (2030WRG) convenes a consortium of water profiteers and water-intensive corporations ranging from bottlers Coca-Cola and Pepsi to beverage corporations SAB Miller and Diageo, to the world’s largest private water utility corporation, Veolia, in a powerful lobby group housed at the IFC and headed by the Chairman of Nestlé, Peter Brabeck-Letmathe. The stated aim of the group is to “transform the water sector” by introducing “new normative models of water governance,” one country at a time.

Making Ecosystem Services Count
Privatization is not the only debate when it comes to global water supplies: there are also growing concerns about which needs are prioritized and how "efficiency" is calculated in the first place.

In a new report, the UN Environment Program is encouraging policymakers and planners to think not just about agricultural crop yields in determining the most ‘productive’ uses of water, but to also take forests, mangroves, and other ecosystem services into account. The Stockholm Environment Institute, which prepared a report on this topic for UNEP, drove home its key message:

It is important to consider water productivity in terms of the trade-offs between managed agricultural ecosystem services and the surrounding landscape ecosystem services, and think of resource efficiency in those terms.

"A narrow definition of 'water productivity' considers only the value of agricultural produce, but doesn't put a price on lost drinking water, reduced fish populations, parched pastures, or shrinking groundwater reservoirs," said Jennie Barron, a coauthor of the report.

So rather than focusing on water productivity per unit of agricultural yield, the report urges policymakers to consider the value of water regulation and purification, pollination, erosion control and other ecosystem services that can be adversely affected when water is siphoned off from rivers or streams, or drained from marshes, for agricultural use.

“Water may soon be a critically restricted resource for a growing number of people," said UN Under-Secretary-General and UNEP Executive Director Achim Steiner. “Assessing water productivity narrowly – for example, by simply looking at crop, fodder and forest produce – will continue to under-value the role of water for wider society and the economy.”

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