Global Policy Forum

Water as a Basic Human Right Has a Market Price, Says U.N. Chief


In a recent statement, Secretary General Ban Ki-moon has asserted that water, a human right, has a market price.  Water distribution has become increasingly profit-driven as governments have shifted this service to private companies, often with disastrous consequences. In Argentina, for instance, the price of water increased 88.2% after privatization. Governments should be responsible for providing a clean and affordable water supply, particularly if the alternative is an unreliable and expensive private system.  Public-public partnerships (PUPS), a method of providing water through not-for-profit partnered municipalities, are an option that would increase the quality and range of water distribution, ensuring that water remains a right rather than a business opportunity.

By Thalif Deen

August 3, 2011

UNITED NATIONS, Aug 3, 2011 (IPS) - As the 193-member General Assembly commemorates the first anniversary of its landmark resolution pronouncing water and sanitation to be a basic human right, Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon triggered a political controversy last week when he implicitly declared that even human rights have a market price.

"Let us be clear," he asserted, "a right to water and sanitation does not mean that water should be free."

Rather, he said, it means that water and sanitation services should be affordable and available for all, and that member states must do everything in their power to make this happen.

But what if member states transfer their obligations to the private sector, known to extract a heavy price - even from those who cannot afford to pay in the world's poorer nations?

Darcey O'Callaghan, international policy director at the Washington- based Food and Water Watch, told IPS the important distinction is that while water delivery has a cost, water itself cannot be assigned - as many argue - an appropriate market price.

"Advocating for the human right to water is defined as water for basic health and safety needs," she said. "It does not mean free water for swimming pools and golf courses."

She pointed out that when poor slum dwellers pay five times what the wealthy pay for water, it is a clear example of discrimination and thus a violation of the human right to water that is now enshrined in a U.N. General Assembly resolution, adopted in July 2010.

"States are now duty bound to respect, protect and fulfill the human right to water and sanitation," she declared.

According to the United Nations, nearly 900 million people worldwide do not have access to clean water, and more than 2.6 billion people do not have access to basic sanitation.

In his statement last week, the secretary-general admitted it is not acceptable that poor slum-dwellers pay five or even 10 times as much for their water as wealthy residents of the same cities.

"And it is not acceptable that more than one billion people in rural communities live without toilets and have to defecate in the open," he said.

But the reality is far different from the platitudes of the secretary-general, says a new report released by Food and Water Watch.

According to the study, private operations can create obstacles to the human right to affordable and accessible water and sanitation services.

In Guayaquil, Ecuador, water prices increased by 180 percent after the water system was taken over by Interagua, a subsidiary of Bechtel.

The study also said customers of the private water provider in the Indonesian capital of Jakarta experienced a 258-percent increase in tariffs and poor water quality, while only 54 percent of low-income households were provided with new water connections.

A similar pattern of exclusion was also evident in La Paz and El Alto, Bolivia, where a private contractor was accused of denying water service to 80,000 families.

"Many couldn't afford the cost of setting up a connection, which for the poorest households cost the equivalent of more than two years of food expenses," the study noted.

At a U.N. press conference last month, President Evo Morales Ayma of Bolivia, one of the strongest advocates of water as a basic human right, told reporters: "Water is life. Water is humanity. The right to water is just as important as any other human right."

Backed by a 100-million-dollar loan from the Venezuela-based Andean Development Corporation, Bolivia has launched a major development project to supply rural municipalities with water for human consumption, irrigation and cattle rearing.

Sue Yardley, senior public policy officer at Tearfund, and a member of End Water Poverty, told IPS that cost recovery is a sound principle, often necessary for sustainable water and sanitation services over time.

But it has to be applied flexibly, focusing on those that can afford to pay alongside measures to ensure that cost recovery doesn't become a barrier to access for poor people, she added.

In its report, Food and Water Watch categorically says that entrusting water utility operations to private enterprises is an inadequate method of realising the human right to water.

The study, titled "Water = Life: How Privatisation Undermines the Human Right to Water", shows that poor, rural communities with weak governments can better deliver safe, clean, affordable water to their residents by partnering with one another.

"Yet the same communities that struggle to access this essential resource are also vulnerable to privatisation schemes that hike up prices, and leave the poor unable to afford basic water services,"

says Food and Water Watch's Executive Director Wenonah Hauter.

While privatised water service has been shown to obstruct the human right to water, research shows that municipalities can deliver safe, affordable water to residents by pooling resources in public-public partnerships (PUPs).

According to the study, PUPs can mitigate price increases and allow communities to avoid other problems associated with privatised water service because they eliminate the profit margin that is mandatory in privatised water delivery.

Mundia Matongo, policy and research officer at WaterAid Zambia and a member of End Water Poverty, told IPS, "Just to be clear, the general understanding is that water is both a social and economic good."

As such, he said, it should be available first as a matter of right, and then that supply should be sustainable, which entails the users paying the right price. Too low a price would mean the supply won't be sustained.

Taking the Zambian case as an example, he said, the water pricing model is based on a cross subsidy, with the rich paying for the poor.

Serena O'Sullivan of End Water Poverty told IPS: "I would say that there needs to be much closer regulation and enforcement of correct pricing plans."

"What we also find is that those communities most marginalised, such as families living in informal settlements, are forced to pay huge and poverty-inducing costs for water by unscrupulous government contracted firms or private suppliers - even in emerging economy countries such as India."

This is absolutely not acceptable and the United Nations and its member states must ensure this ends by ensuring practical and funded country plans for water access, O'Sullivan declared.


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