Water Commercialisation: A Threat to Human Rights

Posted on May 23, 2012 in Specials

By Satyendra Tripathi:

Providing usable water is a challenge for all countries of the world today. If water becomes commercial, it’s not shocking or surprising. And in India too, commercialization of water will become a very hot issue and will be discussed on all platforms. The recent National Water Policy Draft 2012 attracts the attention of activists, human right defenders and policy makers on the issue of commercialization of water. Water became a commodity in the early 1980’s in Europe, United Kingdom, some places of the US, as well as in Arab countries. It is thus not surprising to us that distribution of ordinary drinking water — a basic human right for survival — has become a commodity, delivered by private global companies or other agencies. As the ground water declines gradually, it is not surprising that the big challenge of availability of water stands in front of us. The shortage of water is so serious that one country or state will forced to buy water to others. In this scenario, the geopolitics also seems very interesting — how a state behaves with the other, for water availability could soon become the cause of tense politics.

In the UK and even the whole of Europe, water is provided by network systems which use huge pipe channels. As if the scarcity of water is not enough, huge quantities are lost through leakage, which leads to system errors, forcing society to pay for leakages. Another socio-economic prospect of this issue is that of water pricing. Water prices will be set on the basis of expansionary projects worked out by the water companies themselves, and include the cost of capital investments to reach international standards. As the rate of inflation changes, the prices of water will also be changed.  Between 1989 and 1994, a 55% increment in price was noted in Europe and the United Kingdom. Also, in case of sudden disease attacks like cholera, it will be the responsibility of private companies to solve problems relating to health and sanitation. But to provide basic health is the natural responsibility of government and so does operating water services, as well. So, there is need of such agencies which can implement policies so as to regulate the water and sewerage industry. Its functions would include ensuring that water companies deliver good services, looking after consumer interests and placing a limit on how much could be changed for water. At the same time, water agencies have to be guaranteed the economic resources they require, to be able to provide good services and make investments, which would, though, figure into additional costs to be borne by the common man.

Some people can afford to pay their water bills. But there are large numbers of those who can’t afford a single water bottle. Increasing numbers have had their water supplies cut off when they could not pay their bills. In this case, the conflict between the common man and the government will be increased, and as a result some extreme conditions will come upfront.

Water as a Global Commodity

The system of contracting out the operation of water services to private companies began to spread quite quickly around the world. In the wake of the neo-liberal wave that swept the world in the latter part of 1980’s, the private sector was regarded as the most effective means of supplying people with water as it could provide the necessary capital.

In 1992, an International Water Conference was held in Dublin, organized by the United Nations for Sustainable Development and various environmental issues. Four main principles were adopted:

  1. Fresh water is a finite and vulnerable resource, essential to sustain life, development and the environment.
  2. Water development and management should be based on a participatory approach, involving users,    planners, and policy makers at all levels.
  3. Women play a central part in the provision, management and safeguarding of water.
  4. Water has an economic value in all its competing uses, and should be recognized as an economic good.

The conference was a big breakthrough for market solutions. In addition, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank had already made privatization a condition of finance for water projects.

The Dublin Declaration of 1992 postulates that if water is free, people do not regard it as valuable, and so waste it while the shortage of water in the world is growing. Operation, maintenance and investment should therefore be covered by the payments, made by consumers and not by state subsidiaries. This means, in turn, that citizens must pay more for their water.

It is important not to waste water. Water is not an infinite resource. There are some who seriously maintain that water may become as expensive as oil in the future. Who is wasting water? Without thinking about the wastage, Europeans take daily showers, thereby using 30-60 litres of water. It is worth reflecting that 30 litres of water is more than a poor family in a barren area like Sahara, Ethiopia or Rajasthan can manage to obtain in a day. Nor is it certain that such a family would have the cash to pay for something as basic as water. Today, 1.5 billion people in the world lack access to clean drinking water, while 3 billion have no sanitation facilities. Many city dwellers throughout the world lack even rudimentary toilet facilities. They have to defecate in open spaces or into waste paper or plastic bags. The population growth of the world is outpacing the provision of potable water especially in the cities. Less than half the populations in the largest cities in Africa, Asia and Latin America have piped channel system in their homes for supply.

The world’s governments and international agencies have committed themselves to UN Millennium Development Goals. At the summits held in 2000 & 2002, would leaders decided that by the year 2015, half of the people who presently lack drinking water facilities would have access to it, and that the number of people who live in unacceptable sanitary conditions should be halved by 2015. Long before these decisions were taken, though, private companies were already engaged in providing many cities with water and sewerage — on the condition that they could make a profit.

Now there are some fundamental questions which arise — on one side governments show their responsibility to provide basic human rights, and on other side convert water as commodity good. On one side they promote heavy industries which consume more water and hydropower projects that stop the flow of the river. I agree with the fact that we need development, and with the increasing population, providing basic needs is a challenging job but are we going towards sustainable development or a sustainable society? This is the big question in front of policy makers, and the answer lies in the Gandhian Rural structure to use local resources to fulfil the needs of locality.

In Gandhian philosophy, sovereignty of commonly available materials like Jal sovereignty and Seed sovereignty (Beej sovereignty) leads to sustainability and self-reliance in communities. Globally vulnerable climate becomes the biggest threat to society, and it amplifies the importance of environmental challenges and its cycle. Gandhi believed that the locally available material should be used in a controlled way for development and survival. Increasing population growth leads to extra exploitation and mismanagement of available natural resources, which finally leads to a vulnerable society. Climate change is a global phenomenon but its solution lies in local management practices. We can mitigate the impacts of climate change with local management practices. We have to understand the villages and natural resources as central bodies and create our management practices according to existing conditions.

The only solution for this global challenge is lies in philosophy of sovereignty — “By the community, for the community”.


The writer is Founder of Mahatma Gandhi Center for Rural Sustainability, an autonomous center of Bhartiyam Science Society, India, an environmental activist associated with the Save Ganga Campaign, Ganga Action Pariwar and other international campaigns.