By Peter Niggli, director of Alliance Sud
In the past two years several cities in Hungary, Ukraine, Georgia, Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan have taken back control of their drinking water supply systems, which had been privatized years earlier. So far the highpoint in this trend has been the re-municipalization of the Paris water supply system in early 2010 – and this in the very heart of what is home to the largest private water companies.
Up to 10 years ago, our governments and economic elites were pushing the idea that drinking water supplies could not be expanded without private sector participation. That was particularly true of developing countries: Their dysfunctional public enterprises would never ever be capable of supplying the hundreds of millions of people who lacked access to clean drinking water. They therefore had to enter into public-private partnerships (PPPs) with private water companies. At the time the Swiss State Secretariat for Economic Affairs (SECO) was also providing official development assistance funds for water PPPs.
Water privatization was stubbornly opposed. From Latin America through Africa to Asia, «beneficiary» populations put up staunch resistance. In the international arena, the privatization of water supplies stirred controversial discussions and calls were made for a human right to water. At the instigation of Bolivia, a resolution to that effect was adopted at the United Nations in late July. Besides, the water PPPs did not deliver the promised improvements: the private corporations demanded hefty amounts of public monies in order to enter into «partnerships». As illustrated by the new film «Water makes money», which is worth viewing, their gratitude to «partner authorities» took the form of bribes, but they were rather stingy when it came to maintaining and investing in the supply networks.
Ten years ago Alliance Sud advocated public-public partnerships (PuPuPs) with public water companies in developing countries as an alternative for those countries, along the lines of the partnership between the water utilities of Zurich and Kunming in China. This summer the European Union set up a fund to promote partnerships between public water supply systems in Europe and corresponding utilities in subsaharan Africa. Seasoned observers disagree over whether or not this represents a definitive break with the old strategy of privatization. Switzerland could nonetheless follow this example and incorporate the promotion of PuPuPs into its water-related aid.