Reclaiming public water

21 December 2006
In the media
Published at
The Philippine Daily Inquirer
A WATER rate hike in Metro Manila is upon us and Ek Sonn Chan is on my mind. There is something that water managers, providers, consumers, conservationists, activists and worriers, etc. might need to read. It is "Reclaiming Public Water: Achievements, Struggles and Visions from Around the World." It is about wide-ranging approaches in reforming urban public water systems that are being practiced in developing countries. It's about vision and against-all-odds innovation. I don't have the book but I have the abstract and lengthy discussion paper on it. It was published in 2005 by the Netherlands-based prestigious Transnational Institute and Corporate Europe Observatory, and it has been going the rounds of international water forums. I picked up the abstract and several papers on water privatization at the recent Asia Europe People's Forum in Helsinki. Water services privatization in debt-ridden developing countries was among the life-and-death topics discussed there. At first I thought, what's water doing in debates on globalization and neo-liberalism? As I listened in, I realized that water, or access to it, is no longer just a basic human right, it has also become a commodity, a merchandise, what with water services being privatized and taken over by giant multinationals out to make big profits. The announcement on the water rate hike the other day was like a douse of cold water on the consumers' pre-Christmas warm-up. On New Year's Day, you'll be paying more. That is also the day when the cold and dry season begins to be felt. Later, it segues into hot and dry, and humid too, and people will need to take a bath more often, wash clothes more often, water their plants more often. It is indeed ironic, for we have just experienced disasters of the watery kind that wiped out villages. So are we wet or are we dry? We're getting a double whammy. For didn't they announce earlier that there will be a water shortage in the national capital region (NCR) in the coming months? The water level in the reservoirs will dip, while the rates will soar. Is this about the law of supply and demand? When water services were privatized 10 years ago, consumers thought their water woes would end. I remember doing a front-page, three-part series on big-time water thieves disguised as water suppliers of parched Parañaque. Privatization, the residents had hoped then, would ease their woes, and it did, but not entirely for the majority of Metro Manilans. At the 2003 World Water Forum in Kyoto, private think tanks pushed and promoted private sector involvement. International financing institution and Northern governments backed them. Well, studies like the one conducted by the London-based Public Services International Research Unit, have shown that "there is no systematic intrinsic advantage to private sector operation in terms of efficiency." In fact, water multinationals, among them Suez, have had to withdraw from concessions in cities in Bolivia, Argentina and Tanzania. (Suez partnered with Benpres in the failed Maynilad.) There is a new and growing awareness that public water operations deserve support as they are crucial in achieving the so-called Millennium Development Goals. And the good news, according to experts, is that good public water delivery is possible. There are new innovative models that are rooted in citizens' involvement. "Reclaiming Public Water" documents these and cites ways of overcoming bureaucracy and other causes of public service failure. A successful model is the "public-public partnerships" or PUPs, where high-performing public utilities are matched up with those that are not performing so well for the purpose of sharing expertise. At the March 2006 Water Forum in Mexico City, the PUPs gained more support. This was a significant shift from the earlier water forums (Hague 2000 and Kyoto 2003), where public water was hardly mentioned. The Jubilee South-Asia Pacific Movement for Debt and Development's study titled "Water Privatization in the Asia Pacific Region" presents privatization as "a deadly enterprise." It cites the partnership between global giant Suez and the Lopez-owned Benpres (Maynilad Water Services) and the partnership between transnational United Utilities and Ayala Corporation (Manila Water Company). The World Bank had hailed these partnerships as the first large-scale water supply privatization in Asia. The study also presents cases in the Asia-Pacific region. Privatization projects, the study says, are either explicitly included as part of loan criteria and conditionalities for borrowing countries or are prescribed for meeting fiscal targets required by international financial institutions. Has privatization resulted in better services and affordable and safe water for many? Have other and better models been considered? There are now many studies on successful schemes in developing countries that the Philippines could learn from. Metro Manila's failures need not be the lot of other areas that still need to have a good water system in place. Ek Sonn Chan of Cambodia, 2006 Ramon Magsaysay Awardee for Government Service, has shown that things could be turned around if there is a will. Ek, an engineer and manager, was honored for his exemplary rehabilitation of a ruined public utility and for bringing safe drinking water to a million people in Phnom Penh. Ek lost his entire family to the killing fields of the communist Khmer Rouge but he moved on to help in his country's rehabilitation. With world support Ek and his team embarked on a major overhaul of the water system and showed that it could be done. It was a heroic feat for a government bureaucrat. Mabuting Pasko.