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Privatisation cloaked as concessions and decentralisation?

By Nitya Jacob

At the Fourth World Water Forum in Mexico City, everybody agreed that governments have failed to provide safe drinking water to their people. The new management mantras proposed were decentralisation and handing over the management of water supply to private concessionaires

 The corporate dominance of water, privatisation and the marginalisation of civil society marked the Fourth World Water Forum (WWF4) that concluded recently in Mexico City. Asia's major multilateral lender, the Asian Development Bank (ADB), announced plans to re-enter the water sector in a big way.

From the start, the WWF4 was a corporate show, reflecting the priorities of the organiser, the World Water Council (WWC). This is an international body set up in the early-1990s by the World Bank and two large water multinational corporations to provide a meeting place for people working with the issue of water. However, given its history and current composition, the WWC is now dominated by representatives of water companies, consultancies and government water departments. Civil society organisations are few and far between on the WWC.

Learning from the "mistakes" of previous forums, where NGOs and other civil society groups staged protests and demonstrations against a perceived corporate takeover of water, the WWC restricted the space for these groups. Apart from a few really large NGOs, like the World Conservation Union and the Worldwide Fund for Nature (WWF), civil society was only thinly represented. Much of the space for exhibitions and the water fair, as also session time, was occupied by private companies and national governments.

Another problem for civil society groups at the WWF4 was the high cost of participation. Each day's attendance cost US$ 100, or a total of $ 700 for the whole conference. Even the stalls were costly, at over $ 300 per sq m. The high costs effectively kept most civil society organisations out of the main conference venue. Instead, they had to be content with organising an alternative water forum around 5 km from the main venue.

Their anger and frustration at being excluded spilled over into the WWF4 for a day. A collective of 150 activists from Latin America, Africa, Asia, Europe and the US held a demonstration at the conference venue. Their theme: anti-commodification of water and its classification by the World Trade Organisation as a 'good'. Around six speakers spoke on how private corporations had tried, and failed, to "grab this community resource" in different parts of the world. All said they were committed to opposing this creeping privatisation of water.

The interesting part of this debate, however, centres on alternatives to government failures. It is here that rifts begin to appear. One group comprising governments and civil society favoured the careful and supervised induction of private players' technical expertise and capital to speed up the provision of safe drinking water. The other group, made up entirely of civil society activists and grassroots practitioners, favoured decentralised community-based initiatives; they see no place for the private sector at all.

But the question remains: What happens in the interim? Initiatives in the water sector have long lead-times. In the mean time, people have to carry on as they always have.

The old agenda of water privatisation, that has proved so contentious at the three previous water forums, was more muted here. Although not entirely abandoned, the major water companies did not push it in a big way, having already burnt their fingers executing large projects in the developing world. They appeared more content to land contracts in the developed world.

However, the private sector's influence at the WWF4 reflected its priorities. It was dominated by companies in the business of water treatment and extraction. A whole range of new technology to extract water from the ground and atmosphere was on display. Also on show were technologies to treat this water and make it fit to drink.

These were the themes that dominated the discussions as well, with most of the outcomes relating to the investments needed to provide clean, safe drinking water. Nearly all the figures quoted were in billions of dollars, which governments around the world would have to spend to ensure safe water and sanitation to their people.

Concessions are being trotted out as the new management mantra. It is admitted that nearly all governments have failed miserably to provide enough safe drinking water to their cities and villages. The alternative is not the slow, painful process of reforming public water utilities. It is to appoint "where appropriate" a private entity to "efficiently manage the water supply system". This build-operate-transfer arrangement disguises the handover of a public resource to a private concessionaire. At session after session, governments admitted their lapses and advocated such arrangements, even as civil society organisations vehemently opposed any such private intervention in water supply.

Decentralisation emerged as another buzzword at the WWF4, although the issue was taken up by civil society groups many decades ago. Now, companies, donors and governments have begun chanting it as well.

But there is a difference of definition here.

Civil society groups view village assemblies or urban municipalities as the unit of decentralisation. Local action for them begins at the bottom and moves to the top. Governments, companies and donors see it the other way round. They favour large projects with components that will supply water to smaller units, maybe a development block or district. This is the classic trickle-down model of development.

The worrying thing is that the ADB and other donors are pushing their concept of decentralisation, and trying to impose a discredited paradigm in the name of helping the poor. Understandably, it is easier for governments and donors to sanction and monitor one large project than a thousand small ones. But this definition of decentralisation disempowers rather than empowers people to manage their own water resources.

In the end, the final declaration by the 140 country delegations at the forum placed the onus of providing water to communities back on governments. This is precisely where the failure has been. Governments have been empowered to decide the best course of action for their people. This goes against the spirit of decentralisation. The forum also toed the line of major lenders, including the World Bank, in supporting the construction of big dams.

The theme of the conference was 'Local Actions for a Global Challenge'. However, during its course and declaration it seems to have gone against that spirit. The only saving grace is that it is promoted by an agency that lacks the legitimacy of, say, the United Nations. So the declaration will probably remain just another piece of nice-sounding rhetoric.

(Nitya Jacob is a Delhi-based development writer.)

InfoChange News & Features, March 2006