John Paul

Water Wars

1.1 billion people do not have access to safe drinking water, and more than 2 million children die from dirty water and unhygienic sanitation each year. This was the bleak picture painted this week in Mexico City during the 4th World Water Forum. But is privatization the answer?

The Globalisation Institute thinks so. This week they released a report advocating greater use of private-sector management and investment in developing country water systems. Water for Life blames the current problems on the fact that 95% of the world’s potable water is supplied by governments rather than by properly regulated private sector providers.

“Government provision in water has overseen millions of deaths through poor quality and lack of sanitation. Bringing in private sector expertise and investment is needed, both to meet the UN’s Millennium Development Goals and to actively contribute towards social justice the world over. In the vast majority of cases, where the private sector has been called upon, it has delivered the goods–even in cases decried by critics as failures.”

On the other side of the debate are the protesters who chanted “Water is not for sale” during demonstrations this week. It’s hard to argue with that sentiment, nor would it be hard to argue with the idea that clean air, food, healthcare, education, and all the other necessities in life should not be for sale either. But private or public, water utilities need to make money, and according to experts attending the Forum, ?people are willing to pay if the price and quality of the water is reasonable?.

But violent protests have driven away much of the corporate investment needed to upgrade municipal water systems in developing nations. The ironic outcome is that the world’s poor are increasingly paying more to buy bottled water from Coke, Pepsi and other companies than they would on upgraded municipal networks.

According to an AP report, ?Sales of bottled water in China rose by more than 250 percent between 1999 and 2004. They tripled in India and almost doubled in Indonesia, according to a study released by the Earth Policy Institute, an environmental group.?

Is there a middle ground? Several studies unveiled at the conference did show that ?financing delivery of water to those who need it requires a complex dance between governments, private companies and the tariff structures.? In other words, a balance between provision and profit.

Here at NextBillion, we’ve been tracking a number of specific examples that also try to strike this balance. These include low-cost pumps for the BOP, individual or household water filtration, a village-wide solar-powered irrigation systems with delivery via “water credit cards.” , and nutritional supplements to mix with water.

We’ve also recently added a ’Water’ category to our news and blog posts, making it easier for you to find additional information about the topic. Look for more new categories in the coming weeks!