Water is not a product, it is a basic good

Water is indispensable to life. While it is scarce as well as insufficiently treated and distributed, the efforts to privatize water resources have been unabated.  Managing water as a commodity does not ensure that people will have access to it.

Water is a basic good, highly valued and fundamental to life, hence people have striven hard over time and space to ensure access to it. Due to a growing population demand for water is expected to rise while supply may be compromised due to climate change, overconsumption, uneven distribution etc. – FAO studies estimate that 1,8 billion people will live in absolute water scarcity by 2025 [1].

At present, while others have plenty many people (mostly in the developing world) do not have access to (safe) water. Corporate appropriation of water resources causes the prices to rise in order to maximize profits, thus water becomes unaffordable to the world’s poor. Currently, 800 million people do not have access to safe water [6] while 2,6 billion people do not have access to water that is properly sanitised [2].

Source: WHO

Apparently, although water is the most basic good and logically it should be shared among all peoples, it is quite a complicated issue. Public-oriented policies claim that ‘the one who pollutes pays’ principle should be directed towards precaution policies in order to prevent water pollution. Besides this, it is necessary to promote and safeguard public tenure and management of water resources. Finally, in order to frame this topic sufficiently, it is necessary to include some issues about the quality and access to water.

Privatizing water resources: a dangerous project that has failed to provide water to people

Before, water was an inextricable, fundamental resource of human communities worldwide – it was not yet a commodity. The lack of proper water has been persisting but during the 1990s, due to mainly demographic pressure and environmental degradation the number of people without access to water increased. During the last decades, World Bank and the IMF have invested huge quantities of money promoting unsustainable projects where privatization has been a required condition.

These were the times when ultra-neoliberalist policies were implemented in South American countries like the promotion of structural adjustment and the privatization of public sectors directed to dismount the state. Like in all cases of water privatization, the prices skyrocket while improvements of services stagnate. For example, in Manilla, Philippines water prices went up by 450-850% since privatization started [7].   The result is that many people cannot afford water.  In the case of Bolivia citizens strongly reacted to these measures and finally, after harsh fights,  succeeded in safeguarding their right to water. Later on the union leader, Evo Morales, was elected prime minister and he is still in power. This shows how erroneous the neoliberalist policies in the region have been.

Actually, all the policies that we are facing nowadays in Europe have been enforced before; they are still promoted as vehicles out of the crisis, even now when we know that they totally failed in South America.

The right to water: oblique and still not enforced

Since the United Nations conference at Mar de la Plata back in 1977, ‘the Right to Water’ has been recognised, although in an incomplete manner as it only addresses the access to water [3]. Although during international forums some criteria have been drawn, the right to water was never defended, just the necessity of it – and this ‘ambiguity’ allows the ongoing exploitation and trade of water.

During the Dublin Water Conference in 1992 [4] the policies for the privatisation of water were established as well as the models for water interventions were presented. On this conference water was presented as a limited and vulnerable resource (principle No 1) with  economic value (principle No 4), which justified the necessity for decentralization and multi-sectoral policies recognized also by Agenda 21 [5]. This narrative resulted in a ‘stated necessity’ to implement privatisation models.


 Principle No. 1 – Fresh water is a finite and vulnerable resource, essential to sustain life, development and the environment

Since water sustains life, effective management of water resources demands a holistic approach, linking social and economic development with protection of natural ecosystems. Effective management links land and water uses across the whole of a catchment area or groundwater aquifer.

Principle No. 4 – Water has an economic value in all its competing uses and should be recognized as an economic good

Within this principle, it is vital to recognize first the basic right of all human beings to have access to clean water and sanitation at an affordable price. Past failure to recognize the economic value of water has led to wasteful and environmentally damaging uses of the resource. Managing water as an economic good is an important way of achieving efficient and equitable use, and of encouraging conservation and protection of water resources.

Even if in Social Fora water is considered a common good and the access to water is recognised as a Human Right by the United Nations, the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) refer to the cost of providing water; they question if water will be affordable  and  the answer is that it can be only through the private sector.

In this context, the World Bank agreed to give credits to re-structure the sector if the provision of water would be privatized. The reality shows that this kind of public-private collaborations in the case of countries like Chile, Malaysia and Philipines meant that while the risks for the private companies were minimum their profits were huge. The side effect is that water sources are appropriated and inaccessible to the people who cannot afford it. Thus, proper water policies must involve collaboration between public institutions and refuse the collaboration with the private sector.

By 2002 the U.N. recognized the Right to Water as a Human Right, so water is both  a limited resource and a common good. In July 2010 U.N. approved water as a Human Right – although this decision was not legally-binding for the member states. In September 2010 the UN bond this decision to the States, so now Water Right is legally exigible by citizens. This is an example of how feasible is to move from a claim to an implementation.

So although the right to water implicitly recognizes the right to enjoy it, now there is a necessity to create systems of provision and legal instruments to implement this right. At the moment, the sixth World Water Forum is taking place in Marseilles, France but many argue that in order to see some improvement, decision making should be changed first [7]. Those who decide about the future of water should act on behalf of people not corporations.

-Chamo and Freegas


[1] UN water (2012). Statistics and graphs & maps. Retrieved on the 15th of March 2012 from: http://www.unwater.org/statistics_use.html

[2] GLAAS (2010). UN-water global annual assessment of sanitation and drinking water (GLAAS) 2010: targeting resources for better results.World Health Organization. Geneva, Switzerland.

[3] UN Water Conference report (1977). Mar del Plata, 14-25 March 1977. United Nations publication, Sales No. E.77.II.A.12. Available here: http://www.ielrc.org/content/e7701.pdf

[4] UN (1992). The Dublin statement on water and sustainable development. International Conference on Water and the Environment. Available at: http://www.wmo.int/pages/prog/hwrp/documents/english/icwedece.html

[5] Agenda 21 (1992). Chapter 18: Protection of the Quality & Supply of Freshwater Resources: Application of Integrated Approaches to the Development, Management & Use of Water Resources. Available here: http://www.un.org/esa/dsd/agenda21/res_agenda21_18.shtml

[6] The human right to wáter (2010). Retrieved on the 15th March 2012 from: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vQ-9Iokcsxc

[7] Cernansky R (2012). World Water Forum: Fight Against Privatization Continues & UN Says to Value Ecosystems, Not Just Agriculture. Retrieved on the 15th March 2012 from: http://www.treehugger.com/corporate-responsibility/world-water-forum-fight-against-privatization-continues-un-says-value-ccosystems-not-just-agriculture.html

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