Saturday, December 29, 2007

(HERALD) Privatisation of water not the answer

Privatisation of water not the answer
By Mabasa Sasa

SAMUEL Langhorne Clemens — known to the world as Mark Twain — occupies an uneasy place in American literary history. America would like to celebrate him as one of their greatest literary products by virtue of authoring Huckleberry Finn and Tom Sawyer; classics that anyone educated by the remnants of empire soon after our own independence would no doubt be more or less familiar with.

At the same time, Twain is an ideological headache for the simple reason that the man abhorred slavery, imperialism and colonialism.

In fact, America has celebrated him so disinterestedly that it was only in 1992 — 82 years after his death — that the first comprehensive volume on his anti-expansionist beliefs (Mark Twain’s Weapons of Satire: Anti-Imperialist Writings on the Philippine-American War) was published.

Twain was highly critical of the USA’s incursions into the Philippines following the Spanish-American War and the Treaty of Paris (1898), and he attacked both Cecil John Rhodes and King Leopold for their European imperialism.

He is quoted as once saying: "I am said to be a revolutionist in my sympathies, by birth, by breeding and by principle. I am always on the side of the revolutionists, because there never was a revolution unless there were some oppressive and intolerable conditions against which to revolt."

Since the American political and economic establishment would rather not harp on about Twain’s ambivalence towards the USA’s expansionist tendencies, they would prefer the world to read only those writings they consider more acceptable.

However, even then, Twain has offered the world an observation that probably when first said must have sounded foolish and totally unfounded.

Twain said, "Whiskey is for drinking, water is for fighting over."

The simple logic behind this is that though two-thirds of the world are water, there just is not enough water to go around and sooner or later, man is going to fight over it.

Ismail Serageldin, a former World Bank vice president brought this saying into common currency when in a 1995 interview with Newsweek he aid, "If the wars of (20th) Century were fought over oil, the wars of the next century will be fought over water."

Before that, Egypt’s Anwar al-Sadat had already pointed out that: "The only matter that could take Egypt to war again is water."

Though it is not often said, the reality that we will all have to face, particularly in the developing world, is that water supply is being gradually privatised and commodified with a value beyond the reach of many ordinary folk.

In fact, one magazine has postulated that water "is one of the world’s great business opportunities. It promises to be to the 21st Century what oil was to the 20th".

It is a sobering thought when one considers what competition for oil has so far done to the world.

Over the past decade, three companies have grown to control the water supply of some 300 million people: Vivendi and Suez (France) and Thames Water of England (owned by a German company).

According to the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, 12 years ago these companies had operations in 12 countries and this has since grown to 56.

Those in the industry have even coined a new term for water: ‘blue gold’, and rightly so as it has earned these three companies in excess of 10 billion British pounds according to one source.

Gerard Payen, one of the masterminds behind Suez’ expansion is credited with saying, "Water as a business is very effective when you look at the needs. We purify water and bring this water to your home. We provide a service, it has a cost, and somebody has to pay for it."

And the reality is that many people unfortunately cannot pay for it.

So what happens when governments surrender their duty of providing water to the citizenry? What does this mean for the high-sounding Millennium Development Goals that seek to drastically improve the number of people with access to safe drinking water and sanitation?

Water is not a commodity that people can simply opt to do without because the costs are too high.

Currently, 1,1 billion people across the globe do not have access to safe water sources and with increased industrialisation and the need for greater agricultural output; water stress is increasing.

From 1950, global water use has trebled and it is predicted that in the next two decades, three billion people will not have access to safe drinking water.

Some predictions have it that even the US and China will in the near future experience water shortages and it is in the face of such statistics that some have argued for the privatisation of water supply.

In 2005, the World Bank warned Zimbabwe that the country needed US$10 billion for the rehabilitation and refurbishment of its water and sanitation infrastructure.

Harare alone was told that it would have to invest over US$100 million in order to ensure a steady supply of water to residents.

At the same time, Zimbabwe is barred from accessing meaningful assistance from multilateral lending institutions such as the World Bank itself due to its bilateral dispute with Britain that America has waded into.

This leaves our Government with very limited options.

Either Zimbabwe slowly runs dry and its people resort to drinking water from unprotected sources resulting in the outbreak of diseases, or it listens to the voice of NGOs and ‘‘thinktanks’’ and invites private contractors to supply water.

According to Ann-Christin Sjolander Holland, author of The Water Business: Corporations Versus People, companies have devised ways to profiteer from the Third World’s water crisis.

She details how the water corporations make low bids when trying to get into national water markets but steadily increase costs once they are awarded the contracts.

They insert severance clauses that Third World governments cannot afford and these are used as sticks whenever the authorities try to push these expensive contractors out.

In Argentina, Aguas Argentinas, a subsidiary of Suez, won a tender to supply water but immediately sought to re-negotiate terms and increase prices once the tender had been awarded.

The company eventually only supplied 54 percent of the targeted water users in a six-year period in addition to only investing about 40 percent of the money it had promised to pour into the development of Argentina’s water system.

These companies justify their existence like typical neo-lib structural functionalists on the existence shortages and the publication of World Bank reports decrying poor countries’ inability to provide clean water.

None of these companies are into capacity building and even the World Bank itself only engages in small-scale localised projects for ‘approved’ communities.

Meanwhile, governments are emasculated as they are elbowed out of the provision of key services to the people.

The end result is that the State becomes non-essential and a country is basically run from the offices of trans-national corps working hand-in-glove with the World Bank.

Zimbabwe has had a close brush with water privatisation.

In 1999, Biwater International a British-German entity almost came into Harare.

The company pulled out with an executive of the company saying: "Investors need to be convinced that they will get reasonable returns. The issues we consider include who the end users are and whether they are able to afford the water tariffs.

"From a social point of view, these kinds of projects are viable but unfortunately from a private sector point of view they are not."

A Biwater subsidiary, City Water, was chased out of Tanzania in 2005 after winning a 10-year contract to supply water to Dar-es-Salaam.

The World Bank had told Tanzania to privatise this key service as a precondition to access debt relief. But after just two years, Tanzanians were fed up with the false promises and the government kicked the company out.

Hence, no one should be fooled that privatisation of water is for our benefit; profit is king. The challenge for the Zimbabwe National Water Authority is thus: provide an efficient service and there will not be an excuse to lobby for the privatisation of water in the country that could result in fewer people accessing the resource.

It surely would be cheaper in the long run for the Government to capacitate Zinwa than to privatise water supply.

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