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Jan Lee headshot

Who Should Control the World's Water?

Words by Jan Lee

As organizations around the world search for ways to ensure that impoverished communities have dependable access to drinking water, a new concern has surfaced: Just who will own the rights to managing that water access in the years to come?

In 2010, in what seemed at the time to be an awesome example of prescience, the United Nations labeled 2013 the International Year of Water Cooperation (IYWC). Of course, the branding wasn’t intended to recognize accomplishments the world has made in sharing its water resources, but to spur countries and communities around the globe to acknowledge that the potential for a global water crisis is real and that according to the UN, challenges such as “water diplomacy, transboundary water management, financing cooperation, national/international legal frameworks” need to be addressed.
Authorities on water management, like Canadian author Maude Barlow, point out that the problem may not necessarily be related to a lack of interest in water rights in the private sector, but in fact a struggle by private companies to grasp control of world water resources.

Barlow, who co-founded the Blue Planet Project to highlight the vulnerability of people who don’t have access to safe drinking water throughout the world, has contested the UN’s statement.

“We don’t need the United Nations to promote private sector participation under the guise of greater ‘cooperation,’” she said, “when these same companies force their way into communities and make huge profits from the basic right to water and sanitation.”

Companies like GE, Proctor and Gamble and Dow Chemical, Barlow says,  have already recognized their opportunities to manage water distribution and use through recycling of dirty water and control over when and how it is resourced. Others, like Nestlé, have proposed settling the world’s water resources by allocating a specific amount (1.5 percent) for the world’s most impoverished, and relegating the remaining amount to the open market to be managed by the world’s economy.

It’s easy to see how this suggestion might have put ecology and human rights activists off.  In September 2011, Nestlé’s CEO, Peter Brabeck-Letmathe (to Wall Street Journal) suggested that an equitable way to both manage water resources and ensure that there was a portion left to public necessity would be to divvy up the resources in the way that they are actually used: human needs for washing, drinking and bathing, and agricultural/manufacturing, etc. needs, which consumes the world’s greatest portion, and is the most responsible for its squander.

“Take the emotion out of the issue,” Brabeck-Letmathe said, suggesting that the 1.5 percent be protected for “human need.” And then “give me a market for the 98.5 percent so the market forces are able to react, and they will be the best guidance that you can have.”

The only way for the world to manage water distribution properly, he said, was to make it something for which we actually had to pay out of pocket.

But while economic management of water resources may, in fact, temper its waste, the vote is still out as to whether it actually manages efficiency.

In France, where municipal water resources have been managed privately, cities assert that reclaiming that control by municipal governments has actually reduced distribution costs.  Some forty cities in France, including Nice, have reclaimed the rights in past years for this reason, according to the Council of Canadians.

The biggest test of this concept is yet to be fought in Barcelona, Spain, where water has been privately distributed and controlled since the late 19th century. It will be interesting to see how the battle between water giant Aguas de Barcelona and the municipal government plays out. It’s worth noting that both Aguas de Barcelona and Nestlé have stepped forward in recent years to answer the UN’s call for more attentiveness to water management issues during the International Year of Water Cooperation.

Water drops image courtesy of fox kiyo.

Image of woman watering plants courtesy of UK Department of International Development.



Jan Lee headshotJan Lee

Jan Lee is a former news editor and award-winning editorial writer whose non-fiction and fiction have been published in the U.S., Canada, Mexico, the U.K. and Australia. Her articles and posts can be found on TriplePundit, JustMeans, and her blog, The Multicultural Jew, as well as other publications. She currently splits her residence between the city of Vancouver, British Columbia and the rural farmlands of Idaho.

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