Flawed water summit ends with lively debate

(22 October 2013) It had been billed as a summit to push for universal access to water, but attending the Budapest Water Summit held last week felt like grasping at a mirage of water in a desert. The slogans and appearance were attractive, but held no prospect of delivering the human right to water for all.

The final plenary session of the Budapest Water Summit entitled 'Investment in and Financing of a Water related SDG (Sustainable Development Goals)' probably did not expect to hear the word ‘shit’ in their discussion. But they were forced to move beyond mealy-mouthed platitudes, when the Norwegian water activist Jorgen Magdahl stood up without a microphone and called on the chair, a representative of the European Investment Bank, to allow participants to have a say.

This gave Jakarta-based activist Sigit Budiono the chance to tell the panelists that “it seems lessons are not being learned: Public Private Partnerships (PPPs) are shit in Indonesia”. The panelists, which included representatives of the World Bank, African Development Bank, CocaCola and Nestle, appeared a little shocked by the blunt statement. But how can one better describe the mess of massive debts and terrible service created by 15 years of failed privatisation in Jakarta ? Budiono also shared the example of French food multinational Danone, which extracts large amounts of ground water for producing bottled water  in Indonesia, with the result that local farmers and communities don't have sufficient water. “Where are these private sector solutions?”, Budiono pointedly asked.


Another example is England where water services were fully privatised in the 1980s. They used to be portrayed as a showcase of privatised water operations working under a strong regulatory framework.  Yet very few dare to highlight England as a positive example anymore.  Throughout 2013, media coverage in the Guardian and other newspapers exposed how private water companies - of which 75% are owned by private equity firms - avoid paying tax using complex offshore holding structures . While these companies pay billions to shareholders and pay little or no tax, water bills in England have risen by 64% compared with 28% for average earnings in last 10 years. Moreover, it has also been revealed that the most persistent polluters of England's rivers are the privatised water companies.

There is, clearly, more than enough evidence to be critical about private firms’ engagement in water sector in the North and South. Budiono’s intervention changed the tone of discussion at the plenary session. Margarete Batty from Water Aid,  stressed that governments cannot rely on the private sector but have the  responsibility to ensure universal access to water and sanitation, by developing policies and action plans to make these succeed. Encouragingly, the Nicaraguan and Nigerian ministers on the panel seemed to agree.

Instead of an ideological obsession with illusory private sector ‘solutions’, the international community would do better to support socially ambitious public operators working together in partnership with other public utilities. These solutions can be based on social justice, prioritizing increases in access to services and water resources conservation rather than profit making for a few corporations.

Read the full article by Satoko Kishimoto here: http://www.tni.org/article/blunt-speaking-reality-privatised-water-opens-important-debate-budapest-water-summit?context=599

Also read Budapest Water Summit offers mirage of water for all