No single course for providing water

TNI publications challenge anti-privatisation with alternatives

23 March 2012
Claire Provost

Two new books seek to challenge the claims that anti-privatisation activists present infinite criticisms but few alternatives.

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Two new books seek to challenge the claims that anti-privatisation activists present infinite criticisms but few alternatives.

Launched in Marseille last week, Remunicipalisation: putting water back into public hands, looks at how unequal access, unkept investment promises, environmental hazards, and scandalous profit margins have prompted cities around the world – including Paris, Buenos Aires, and Dar es Salaam – to regain control of their privatised water services. Alternatives to privatisation: public options for essential services in the global south, which will be launched in London this Friday, is a broader global survey of alternatives in the water, energy, and health sectors, looking at cases in 40 countries.

Earlier this month, the UN announced that the international target to halve the number of people without access to safe drinking water had been met, five years before the 2015 deadline. If correct, this would still leave 783 million people worldwide without access to safe water, while billions continue to lack basic sanitation. There is no doubt that significant investments will be needed to meet these needs. Companies argue they are best-suited to fill the funding gap but, time after time, privatisation, and the more innocuous-sounding "public-private partnerships", have meant that corporations reap high profits while governments and local communities are left to shoulder significant social and environmental risks.

All heads are now turned towards Rio+20, the UN conference on sustainable development in June, and some particularly heated debates have already come to the fore.

This week, 22 independent UN experts warned that human rights obligations and accountability concerns could be sidelined on the road to Rio. At the WWF, ministers released a controversial declaration that activists said focused on investment and new technologies while failing to reaffirm the UN declared rights to water and sanitation.

Debates on the "green economy", and the "financialisation" of water and other natural resources, continue. But, it seems, a key distinction between last week's WWF and Fame meetings is how decisions on water policy and the future of essential services should be made. There is growing discontent, for example, with the centralised power structures in which "solutions" are often proposed and top-down, one-size-fits-all, blueprints devised. So will Rio+20 be another game of "show and tell" or will we see a bit more of that unruly "democracy-of-action"?

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Recent publications from Public Services & Democracy

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From South Africa to Brazil, from Italy to the US, in Uruguay, Greece, Norway, the UK and in many other countries, municipal councils are taking services back under public control. Public Service workers and their fellow community members are not only defending public services but are also struggling to make them democratic and responsive to the people's needs and desires.

Susan George Classics

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Conventionally, the concept of ‘labour’ is understood as referring to waged labour – the capacity to labour as exercised through a market. It was precisely this narrow understanding of labour that the discussions in this stream challenged from several angles.