Who Should be in Charge?
Who owns more water then any other individual in the US today? That would be T. Boone Pickens, the oil billionaire who describes water as “the new oil” or “blue gold.” He sees water as the ultimate commodity, to be bought and sold.1,2
Water is already a $500 billion dollar industry spanning infrastructure, purification, maintenance, product development, and supply and distribution.2,3 The problem? Water is increasingly scarce, with 1.1 billion or 1/6th of the human population lacking adequate access to clean and safe water. The demand curve for water is on the rise. Projections have been made that consumption will double in the next 20 years. This spells trouble for the 46 nations and nearly 3 billion global citizens projected to be at risk for violent conflict over water access by 2030.4
Lack of water is more contentious then the issue of pricing. Pickens sees water as a commodity worth investment and highly profitable if privatized. The government of Bolivia also saw this in 2000 when they invited the corporation Bechtel to mange the municipal water supply of one of their cities. Price spikes led to riots and Bechtel left Bolivia.5
Canadian water rights advocate and adviser to the UN, Maude Barlow, wants to see a shift away from the World Bank “hard path.” This “path” is defined as an over reliance on private companies, to what she calls the “soft path,” water preservation through informed conservation and water harvesting.2,6 She doesn’t deny the need for public-private partnerships as long as they don’t interfere with the right of access to clean safe water. Ms. Barlow’s bottom line on water pricing? First, no one should be denied access to water because they can’t pay. Second, water provision is a public sector responsibility. And finally, when you pay taxes for access to water, you are paying for the service and not for water the commodity.2
As for private enterprise, she sees an important role in infrastructure- from pipes to membranes to pumps, their maintenance, and water quality assurance- but not in distribution. Her view: “It should be delivered by the public sector on a not-for-profit basis.”2
My view? There is no doubt that safe, secure, sustainable and equitable access to water can not be achieved without adequate investment and the involvement of private firms. But this alone will not result in a successful outcome. Success requires thoughtful conservation. This includes our direct consumption and use of water for agriculture and manufacturing – that is, management of our overall “water footprint.” Success will also include the cooperative and integrated engagement of environmental, human rights, and health care communities.7
Water is everyone’s issue.
For Health Commentary, I’m Mike Magee.
1. Business Week. There Will Be Water. 12 June 2008.
2. Alter A. How To Quench The World’s Thirst. New York Times, W7. 8 Nov. 2008.
3. Water Value. National Association of Water Companies.
4. Magee M. Healthy Waters. Spencer Books, NY. 2007.
5. Frontline World PBS. Bolivia Leases Cochabamba Water System to Multinational Consortium Sept. 1999.
6. Blue Covenant. Maude Barlow and the Water Justice Movement. 27 Feb. 2008.
7. Magee M. Healthy Waters: Awareness into Action.