U.S. Water News Online
OSAKA, Japan -- Protesting corporate investment in public
water utilities around the world, environmental groups said they
would oppose any statement from an international water conference
that supports full or partial privatization of government-owned water
``There's no way we're coming out with a joint statement unless it
recognizes there's no joint position,'' said Maude Barlow, author of
the book ``Blue Gold'' and head of the activist group Council of
The World Water Council, which is organizing the World Water
Forum, has been strongly criticized by some policy makers and
activists for promoting the idea of letting corporations operate
municipal and regional water systems.
Activists here view the joint public-private ventures as a flawed
solution for getting water to the poor people who need it the most.
The council has included activist groups in the triennial forum,
after those groups picketed and protested the previous conference in
The Hague in 2000.
But environmental and anti-privatization activists say their
inclusion has done little to halt the momentum toward greater
corporate participation in the water sector.
The eight-day water forum, held in three western Japanese cities,
aimed to tackle a global water shortage by halving the number of
people without access to water by 2015. Some 1.2 billion people lack
clean drinking water and 2 billion are without sanitation, according
to the United Nations.
In Osaka, privatizing water was at the heart of a contentious
dispute over whether companies such as Suez and Vivendi of France and
German energy conglomerate RWE-Thames can help countries run their
water utilities more efficiently.
Once held up by water policy makers as a solution, privatization
has become something of a dirty word after a few major failures,
according to some conference attendees.
Paul Reiter, executive director of the think tank International
Water Association, likened the dispute to a ``religious debate'' that
has been long on ideology but short on counterproposals to improve
The two sides remain far apart on the topic.
U.N. agencies, the World Water Council, and other international
financial donors stress the need for big spending -- around $180
billion a year -- and point to the benefits of public-private
In many cities of the developing world, more than half of the
water is lost because of leaky pipes or pumps that governments can't
afford to repair. Financial markets can make up for the shortfall in
public coffers, those organizations say.
But environmentalists and non-governmental organizations contend
that water is a basic human right that should be available to all,
and say that water should not be part of global trade talks.
They point to the withdrawal of multinational water companies such
as Suez of France from Atlanta, Georgia, and Bechtel of the United
States from Cochabama, Bolivia, in 2000, when Bechtel's doubling of
water rates led to a revolt that left seven people dead.
Barlow said utilities charging for services should reinvest
profits in cleaning up polluted lakes, expanding water to the poor
and building up infrastructure -- not paying investors dividends.
Caught in the middle, water companies maintain they are only
meeting a demand for their services and that rates are set by
regulators or in contracts.
``There is no ideal model,'' said Richard Aylard of Thames Water,
a unit of RWE-Thames.
The reality is that privatization is a bit of a misnomer.
According to the World Bank, 95 percent of countries retain
ownership of the water utility. In recent years, many have
increasingly turned to companies to handle services, such as
collecting bills and managing water distribution, or financing the
upgrades to pumps and mains, fixing sewers and building new
Eric Gutierrez, a policy strategist with the London-based NGO
Water Aid, said discussions overlooked the low-tech, low-cost
solutions and better hygiene and sanitation education that have made
a difference in African countries, India and other parts of the Third
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