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Land, Energy & Water

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Reclaiming Public Water
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Widespread water privatisation in the 1990s failed to increase efficiency and lower prices in developing countries. Only reformed public services can achieve the goal of delivering water for all, according to a book by the Transnational Institute and Corporate Europe Observatory.

Link to full publication: Reclaiming Public Water - Achievements, Struggles and Visions from Around the World

18th February 2011


March 2007 - Belén Balanyá, Brid Brennan, Olivier Hoedeman, Satoko Kishimoto and Philipp Terhorst (editorial team), Transnational Institute (TNI) and Corporate Europe Observatory (CEO)

Due to the ideology-driven privatisation wave, the 1990s wasessentially a lost decade for the struggle for clean water for all. Thehigh-profile failure of privatisation in major cities of the south, describedelsewhere in this book, provide ample evidence that the water needs of the poorshould not be left in the hands of profit-driven, transnational watercorporations. Almost without exception, global water corporations have failedto deliver the promised improvements and have, instead, raised water tariffsfar beyond the reach of poor households. The rise of grassrootsanti-privatisation campaigns in countries around the world, increasingly linkedin regional and global networks, is starting to turn the tide againstfree-market fundamentalism. The time has come to refocus the global waterdebate on the key question: how to improve and expand public water deliveryaround the world?

This book is intended to contribute to the achievement ofthis much-needed shift in the global water debate. While privatisation is nosolution, neither is the status quo of often bureaucratised and ineffective,state-run water corporations which, in large parts of the developing world,fail to supply clean water to those that need it. This book provides a widerange of inspiring examples of innovative approaches to public water delivery.Important lessons can be learned from people- centered, participatory publicmodels that are in place or under development in Porto Alegre and Recife(Brazil), for example. In these cities, the public water supply is beingimproved through increased citizen and user participation as well as otherdemocratic reforms. In other cities, such as Penang, Malaysia, a rediscoveredpublic service ethos has led to significant improvements in the performance ofthe utility. Water workers play a key role, to the extent that worker’scooperatives are running the water supplies in cities in Argentina andBangladesh. In Olavanna (Kerala, India) and Savelugu (Ghana), local communitieshave taken control to improve water delivery, mobilising their own capacitiesand local resources.

The motivation to compile this book is that these often-successfulexperiments have not received the attention they deserve. The challenge tobroaden access to clean water to the hundreds of millions of people who need itis such that lessons from these approaches need to be shared. While there is noone-size-fits-all solution, there is important information to be found on howto improve and extend public water services, for instance throughpeople-centred participatory processes and inclusion of public utility waterworkers.

This book also includes chapters on struggles around theworld to prevent privatisation and, in some cases, to de-privatise waterdelivery. These chapters include often elaborate visions developed byanti-privatisation coalitions on making public water work.

From Kyoto to Port Alegre

The March 2003 World Water Forum in Kyoto, Japan, was adefining moment for the international water debate. Civil society groups fromaround the world spoke out passionately against water privatisation andtestified to numerous, dramatic failures of privatisation both in the south andnorth. These interventions spoiled the attempts by forum organisers, particularlythe neo-liberal World Water Council (WWC), to promote Public-PrivatePartnerships (PPPs) as the way forward. The response to the withdrawal ofmultinational water corporations from the south, argued the WWC, internationalfinancial institutions and many northern governments, should be to subsidisethe corporations, cover political risks and guarantee profits. Remarkably,there was hardly any mention of the far more obvious way forward: improving andexpanding public water supply.

Straight after the World Water Forum, over 100 activistsfrom around the world attended a seminar on alternatives to privatisation. Theseminar concluded not only that there are numerous examples of well-functioningpublic water utilities, but also that a wide range of new innovative approacheshas resulted in substantial improvements in public water delivery, not least inthe south. Throughout 2003, a concerted effort to advance awareness and debateabout public water solutions took shape. After a successful follow-up seminarat the Third World Social Forum in Mumbai, India, in 2004, a joint project waslaunched involving a diverse coalition of NGO campaigners, grassrootsanti-privatisation activists, academics, public utility managers and tradeunionists. The website was established as a clearinghouseand forum for facilitating discussion. And the decision was made to compile abook, to be published in time for the January 2005 World Social Forum in PortoAlegre, with examples of improvements in public water delivery and a specialfocus on the potential of participation and democratisation.

The focus and format of the book has been shaped throughdiscussions with the authors as well with a large number of advisors. AlbertoVillareal, co-author of the Uruguay chapter, stressed that the book could be animportant source of inspiration for anti-privatisation activists by providingconcrete examples from around the world of both achievements and ideas forreclaiming public water. The book, indeed, presents a broad range ofexperiences in an accessible style. Beyond activists, the book is also intendedto be a resource for water professionals and water workers. They are in thefrontline of the privatisation process and are often bombarded heavily withpro-privatisation messages and pressure. Based on his own experiences as thedirector of a public water utility, Antonio Miranda, another of the authors,confirmed that the role of citizens’ participation in solving urban waterproblems deserved to be a major focus of the book. Carla Montemayor, acampaigner against the Manila privatisation project, echoed the importance ofboth these objectives in the light of the urgent need to outline a concrete,public water alternative to convince policy-makers and the wider population ofthe Philippino capital.

About this book

The introductory chapter discusses the historical backgroundto the global crisis in water access and why the privatisation wave of the1990s has failed. This is followed by over 20 chapters which present concreteexamples and ideas on how urban water delivery can be improved throughdemocratic public utility reforms. All chapters are written by public waterutility managers, civil society activists and others involved first-hand inthese efforts. The chapters reflect the experiences and perspectives of theindividual authors, which may or may not be shared collectively by the others.Many chapters also have a strong emphasis on the different political, financialand other obstacles which may hinder the success of these approaches. Publicwater solutions are likely to emerge from, and be shaped by, people’s effortsto secure safe and affordable water for all. This was another reason forincluding a number of chapters on civil society campaigns against failingprivatised water delivery and inadequate state-run water utilities. In thewords of one of the authors, Dale T. McKinley of the Anti-Privatisation Forum:“In South Africa, the struggle against water privatisation continues to plantthe seeds of an alternative.” Finally, the last chapter of the book attempts tosummarise some of the lessons that can be learned from the experiencespresented and to identify the main challenges for multiplying these approaches.

Next steps

This book is not just a product in itself or simply anintellectual exercise but is part of a continuing process of collectivelearning, with the aim to empower democratic, equitable public water solutions.It is our sincere hope that this book will be not only a source of inspirationto many around the world, but will also spark further sharing of experiences aswell as discussion on each of the key questions addressed. We hope that civilsociety activists and citizens will increasingly engage in how public servicesare delivered, and that trade unions will contribute to the discussion andpractice of assuring public services that actually serve the poor: This processalso has to involve public sector managers and water professionals, many ofwhom are already engaged in emerging international campaign coalitions forpeople-centred public water. Alternatives are our best inspiration to resistthe forces trying to hand over our common resources and fundamental humanrights to private companies. We hope this book provides useful tools to allthose who are striving to stop corporate- driven water privatisation andreclaim our public water.

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