Should we privatise water?

  • Privatisation of water is unwarranted, unjustified and unnecessary.
  • In pushing for it, we are not really addressing the key issue plaguing the water sector, which is a need for better governance.
  • We need a democratic, transparent, accountable and participatory governance in a bottom-up approach, on each aspect of the urban water sector where water privatisation is advocated.

Widespread gaps

  • There are lacunae in the urban water sector which are being used as a justification for pushing water privatisation.
  • Lacunae include losses, inefficiency, unreliability, corruption, issues of quality, and mismanagement.
  • All of these are symptoms; the root cause is lack of democratic governance.
  • If we look at the experiences anywhere in the world with privatisation of water, nowhere has it sustained over a long period of time in a comprehensive manner, encompassing most of, or even large parts of, the urban water sector.
  • What has been attempted is privatisation of some small sub-sector, say, water distribution, keeping the rest of the issues still in the public sector.
  • Water is not merely a commodity, and the urban water sector is not just about supplying fresh potable water to people in urban dwellings.
  • The urban water sector also involves multiple layers, including sourcing of water, deciding which is the best among available options, getting potable water through purification plants for equitable distribution through huge infrastructure, and managing the sewage generated through another set of huge infrastructure.
  • It involves not only creating infrastructure at so many different levels and managing such created infrastructure along with natural sources, but also aims to achieve a sustainable and optimum system. For example, how do we use rainwater in an optimum way, in connection with lakes, ponds, tanks, wetlands, forests like the ridge in Delhi, groundwater aquifers, river and streams, and storm water drains? How do we manage all this? How and where do we treat sewage? What happens to treated sewage? How do we manage the system? Considering all aspects of the urban water sector comprehensively is necessary to achieve better water management and good governance. This becomes even more important when the urban water footprint is growing fast and when changing climate is also affecting the way we deal with various aspects of the water sector.

Not only a commodity

  • In many places where most of the water sector remains in the public domain even where some piecemeal water privatisation has been implemented, re-municipalisation is the trend.
  • The private sector works on one bottom line: profit maximisation. But the management of water supply is an issue of rights and a basic need, as acknowledged by the judiciary. Moreover, water is embedded in the ecosystem. Any attempt to see water only as a commodity is bound to have multiple disruptive consequences.
  • When privatisation is mooted as a solution, it comes with a promise that it will create competition and that the consumer will benefit.
  • A look at the power sector shows that this promise has not been delivered. The power sector is not only a monopoly but refuses to submit itself to public audit. This is not to suggest that people should not pay for the water they consume. Those who can must be made to pay. The current government in Delhi has not only provided free water to the lowest consumers, but has also managed to expand the distribution network and bring down losses. It is possible and necessary to improve public water governance and the only way forward.

Source: The Hindu

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