Privatizing Public Water

by KYRSTAL KYER

President Bush, the United Nations, and the rest of the “Washington consensus” are offering up privatization as a solution to water and sanitation problems around the world, as well as inside the United States. Worldwide, an estimated 1.1 billion people lack access to safe drinking water, and 2.4 billion people don’t have adequate sanitation services according to the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization.

At home, the problem lays more with state and federal budgets, and spending priorities emphasizing military spending while cutting social services, including water.

The nation’s largest aquifer, the Ogallala, is being mined so fast by Midwestern farmers that a significant amount of the groundwater supply may actually dry up by 2010. The Ogallala contains 3.3 billion acre-feet of water, which would take an estimated 6,000 years to refill if it were drained completely.

Corporations claim that they can sustainably manage precious natural resources–like freshwater–better than public utilities currently do. Yet water companies face the same trouble as oil companies–quick unsustainable profits, fraud, accounting scandals, and collapse–leaving employees, consumers, and taxpayers to clean up the mess. One-time oil giant Enron may soon meet its water match in France’s Vivendi.

Corporations, no matter the product, all make decisions based on the same bottom line–short-term profits. Before Aguas de Illimani won the water concession contract for the cities of La Paz and El Alta, Bolivia in 1997, a series of water tariffs were put in place. When the private company took over operations, the company improved productivity, efficiency and service (via employee layoffs). Yet the higher water rates led people to decrease their consumption. As a result, the World Bank noted earlier this year that Aguas de Illimani is actually considering waging a campaign to increase per capita water use! So much for environmentally responsible corporations.

Are corporations responsible enough for us to trust them to take care of an infinitely complex and ever-changing environment we call home? To answer that question, we need only look at their aggregate track record:

Rapid deforestation in the Amazon, spurred by over consumption of cattle and wood products by the world’s richest countries, is effecting global climate change leading to habitat loss, species extinctions, and destruction of cultures and knowledge systems. According to NASA, 230,000 square miles or 16.5% of the Brazilian Amazon has been affected by deforestation. All of the world’s rainforests will vanish before the end of the 21st century if the rate of deforestation remains unchanged.

Oil and automobile corporations have marketed the consumption of fossil fuels that led to global warming, and a rise in sea levels of up to three feet in the next 100 years. Sea rise is already threatening the very existence of dozens of small island nations, such as Maldives, Barbados, Kiribati and Tuvalu.

The agricultural revolution of the 20th century produced synthetic petroleum-based chemicals–pesticides, insecticides, and herbicides–that lead us all down a path of slow suicide. These powerful chemicals are double-edged swords. Modern agricultural science and technology have increased food production worldwide–thus feeding billions of hungry people. Those same miracle chemicals are also powerfully destructive–poisoning society’s invisible farm workers and flaunted consumers, while disrupting ecosystems, inadvertently endangering species of birds, amphibians, and insects, while causing devastating crop infestations. Thus, even as these man-made chemicals solved one problem, food shortage, they created many more.

Why have corporations faired so poorly in managing natural resources? The answer lies in their interests: making money, not protecting the public interest. The marketplace has its own set of rules for playing the corporate game, but they aren’t the same rules for survival of life on earth. In some instances, especially when it comes to human necessities such as water, the rules are mutually exclusive.

If companies don’t operate efficiently–squeezing the most money out of a product or resource–then their competition will step in and drive them out of business. So, how can we expect private corporations to sustainably manage our common resources, given the market’s rules? We can’t.

The quotation, “the significant problems we face cannot be solved at the same level of thinking we were at when we created them,” has been attributed to Albert Einstein. It doesn’t take a genius to see the truth in that statement. For the most part, corporations as a whole–capitalism itself–has worked at steadily destroying our environment, and that continues to be the case today, as we depend on fossil fuels and chemicals designed to kill living organisms to fuel our economy and feed us. We shouldn’t look to them for solutions.

Improving public utilities is preferable to privatizing common property resources like water, forests, fisheries, and our atmosphere.

Private companies, through the rules of their markets, and by their extensive track record, are not capable of responsibly managing the planet, let alone their own accounting systems. If we allow them to do so, we can be certain that they will not be held responsible for any negative results–nor will they be willing or able to repair or replace the fragile ecosystems, natural resources, and human lives destroyed by their profit motives.

Capitalism as a natural unfolding of human history is a powerful myth. If we buy it, then we are inclined to agree that privatization of publicly owned enterprises is the best (and only) way to take care of our environment (i.e. ourselves). And if some of us believe that, we’re all doomed to a worse fate then the Enrons, WorldComs, and Tycos of the world.

Krystal Kyer has a Master of Environmental Studies degree, and is a highly unpaid activist writer. She can be reached at: klynn@nocharge.zzn.com

2002 Copyright 2002 Krystal Kyer

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