This post is written by a fellow INDEVOUR Keith Mai on his blog the-k-movement.tumblr.com.
Last week, INDEV hosted conference* on the issue of whether water should be a human right or a commodity. It reminded of the debacles on water privatization in Bolivia in the early 2000s. Here’s an excerpt from one of my past papers.
For millions of Canadians, the phrase “to go get some water” means walking over to the nearest tap and turning it on. However, for millions more around the world, it may mean traveling long distances or waiting in a queue for water that may not even meet hygienic standards. The issue of water privatization continues to haunt the minds of urban planners everywhere in the developing world as cities continue to grow while the resources that sustain them dwindle away. Traditionally, the construction and maintenance of city-wide water supply was funded by the public sector. Starting in the 1990s, private sector participation in the provision of water and sanitation became much more common. This policy spread from the United Kingdom, which turned over all public shares of water companies to the private sector, to other parts of Europe and finally to the Global South. Starting in the late 1990s, privatized water companies took over control of several of Bolivia’s largest cities. Originally contracted to expand the existing water and sanitation services, the private companies quickly ramped up prices with little to no effective change in service in order to start recovering their investment. The citizens of Cochabamba, Bolivia rose up in a violent revolt that shook the world and changed the outlook on private sector participation in the provision of urban services forever.
Even today, the challenge of addressing the problem of water is a contentious issue in Bolivia. Cochabamba continues to have chronic problems in water supply. The three major actors of development, state, private sector, and civil society, have all attempted to find solutions for this predicament. The state built the original utilities and operated them as public services. However, this type of governance became prone to corruption and heavily favoured more affluent areas which dominated both politically and economically. The private sector provided funding to revitalize the facilities through investments with foreign capital. The unpopularity of their attempts to recuperate profits from their investments before any noticeable difference brought about a revolt. Civil society has built up services that cater directly to the needs of the poor who have been most deeply affected by the actions (or inactions) of state and private sector. Nonetheless, only time will tell if they will be able to manage water resources in this era of global climate change.
Peace & Love
* The INDEV “Water: Human Right or Commodity?” conference was host by the Student Association for International Development on March 23, 2012
For more information on the conference please read this article