Water is, simultaneously, the most precious resource for sustaining human and all life, and the most wasted. Every day, 2 million tons of human waste are disposed of in water courses. Over 80% of wastewater is not collected or treated worldwide. Half of the world’s wetlands have been lost since 1900. In developing countries, 70 percent of industrial waste is dumped untreated into waters where they pollute the usable water supply. At the same time that water is wasted, nations are fighting over it, and the use of invasive methods for obtaining water is transforming the world. Beijing is sinking at an average of 4 inches (around 10 cm) a year, as the water in the giant aquifer below it is pumped. “Parts of Shanghai, Mexico City, and other cities are sinking, too. Sections of California’s Central Valley have dropped by a foot, and, in some localized areas, by as much as 28 feet”. The United Nations predicts a global shortfall in water by 2030, and running short of water will inevitably cause a decline in economic growth.“(…) food prices will spike, raising the risk of violent conflict and waves of large migrations. Unrest in Yemen, which heavily taps into groundwater and which experienced water riots in 2009, is rooted in a water crisis.” – National Geographic.
Nestlé is worth $200 billion and has 6,000 brands to protect – it’s the biggest food company in the world. But it’s also been through a series of PR nightmares and controversies, some of them intimately connected to the topic of privatization of water. From draining aquifers, sourcing water from certain places without permission (like San Bernadino), exceeding water pollution, taking the only accessible clean water from communities who don’t have access to it (so they can sell it back to them in the form of Nestlé bottled water) and selling suburban well-water and claiming it’s “100% Natural Spring Water”, to using cocoa beans from plantations that profit from child slave labor and selling breast-milk formula as an essential baby development aid in developing countries, Nestlé seems a lot less sweet. But the cherry on top is the fact that its chairman says water isn’t a universal right. On an interview, Peter Brabeck, the man in question, claimed that declaring water a public right, and having the right to water as a human being, is an extreme solution. Around the world, Nestlé is bullying communities into giving up control of their water, and promoting bottled water as a status symbol, since safe water becomes a privilege only affordable for the wealthy. Every year the company pumps out millions of cubic meters of water, for transportation in road tankers to huge bottling factories. “In the United States and Europe, the company sells mainly spring water with a designation of origin. In developing countries, however, the corporation pursues another concept – namely Nestlé Pure Life. This product is purified groundwater, enriched with a Nestlé mixture of minerals.”
A lot of companies are moving towards the privatization of water in certain areas, and it has some support. “It is argued that it has increased investment and has contributed to expanded access. They cite Manila, Guayaquil in Ecuador, Bucharest, several cities in Colombia and Morocco, as well as Côte d’Ivoire and Senegal as success stories.”. And, without a doubt, there have been cases of improvement, and there are positive aspects, which should not go unnoticed. “Access, quality of service, operational efficiency and tariffs have evolved under 65 public-private partnerships for urban water utilities in developing countries. (…) A World Bank study argues that the most consistent improvement made by public-private partnerships in water supply was in operational efficiency. (…) A study of household water expenditures in cities under private and public management in the U.S., however, concludes that ‘whether water systems are owned by private firms or governments may, on average, simply not matter much.'” But what are the risks?
- Privatization has an impact on key factors, like access – water privatization can hinder the accessibility of water. When for-profit companies invest in the water system, the desire to make returns on the investment can create a top-heavy distribution system. In this scenario, the desire to supply poor districts decreases because the poor are unable to pay the tariffs -, quality – multinationals have the opportunity to alter the water they provide to benefit the consumption of certain products or treatments they provide or provided by business partners – , tariffs, and efficiency.
- Private water is no one’s responsibility: by privatizing water and sewer systems, local government officials abdicate control over a vital public resource, and multinational water corporations are primarily accountable to their stockholders, not to the people they serve.
- Input, control and transparency: the public has an input on who controls water through elections, by choosing the public officials who manage it. When proper communication between those officials and the people fails, or when those officials fail to respond to opinions about the operation of their water systems, the community can vote them out of office. The same doesn’t happen with the private sector, which tends to separate itself from public opinion, and lacks the mechanisms to accommodate it. Also, the public sector works with a lot more transparency, whereas companies tend to restrict the public’s access to internal essential information. This lack of transparency is intrinsic to the very structures of privatization, and fosters corruption.
- Profit and restricted access: companies usually strive and strategize to maximize monetary gains, and water would be no exception. So, those same companies would focus on providing water services to those who can afford them, purposely ignoring poor areas or neglecting the service to those areas.
- Private operation is not more efficient. Empirical evidence indicates that there is no significant difference in efficiency between public and private water provision in developed countries.
- Privatization can worsen service as a way to reduce expenses: when private operators attempt to cut costs, practices they employ could result in worse service quality. They may use shoddy construction materials, delay needed maintenance or downsize the workforce, which impairs customer service and slows responses to emergencies.
- Unemployment: as another attempt to cut costs, having fewer employees to make repairs and respond to customer service requests is definitely a budget saver, but at the expense of quality service.
How the private sector can help prevent a global water crisis
“From developing new technologies to providing construction crews for new treatment plants, the private sector plays an important role in protecting our water resources and finding innovative solutions to the water crisis. Although the public and private sectors work well together in many areas, businesses should not operate, manage or own public drinking water or wastewater systems. Those duties should fall under the purview of local governments, who have a responsibility to ensure safe and affordable service for all.” – here.
My concerns aren’t that privatization might not work (because there are cases of it working), it’s that it gives companies the potential to promote ulterior economic motives. Ultimately, privatization is risky because it subjects us to very volatile financial and stock market fluctuations, since these will have an impact on how those companies operate and on our access to a basic human right. At an average cost of $1.22 per gallon, consumers are spending 300 times the cost of tap water to drink bottled water – so, would you trust your tap water to the companies that sell you bottled water?
The problem, in my opinion, is that, from the moment we’re born, we’re not people – we’re consumers. Multinationals nowadays are present in and control most aspects of your life – basic needs and actions are seen as ways to give someone money, so we’re monetized, bought and sold – and brands are represented everywhere and represent everything. But, while you still have (in some places) the choice to eat something you or a local source produced, without it having gone through transformation processes by companies, and without it being a profit source for some corporation, toying with water and the people’s access to it is very dangerous, especially on these terms. Because those with this mentality of capitalism and greed won’t stop their control over us at food, clothes, furniture and services – they’ll try to monopolize every aspect of our lives so that everything that’s human and necessary brings some kind of profit. It sounds twisted (because it indeed is), but you can only be sold what you need or think you need, so it’s essential for multinationals to create that need, and develop very solid marketing strategies. The companies that create antivirus software are the same ones that develop the viruses, the ones that grow our food are the ones that create our vaccines, and, now, the ones that control our access to water are the ones that bottle and sell it.