We’ve grown accustomed to capitalism’s insatiable drive to privatize everything, but the phrase “privatization of water” is one that many of us find particularly galling. How can such a basic resource be captured by a small handful of corporations to produce profit for a few at the expense of every single person on the planet?
Yet the privatization of water is expanding across the globe, and with devastating effects: waste dumping in the Global South, sewage leakages into water bodies supplying poorer communities, and ongoing shortages — all during the greatest climate crisis humans have ever seen. Fresh water supplies are drying up rapidly, with climate change as a driving force behind the rising sea levels and altered physical borders. Meanwhile, water demand is expected to increase by 55 percent by the year 2050 — made particularly alarming at a time of worldwide water shortages due to the increased demand for water and sanitation services during the pandemic. Service providers require a continuous supply of chemicals needed for water and wastewater testing and treatment, posing challenges in countries where wastewater treatment remains limited. In Arab countries such as Yemen, water stress has risen, owing to increased allocation of water resources to the agriculture sector to offset lower food exports by food-producing countries.
COVID-19 may produce an increase in water privatization. In fact, many national governments and even public health institutions are using the crisis to promote private-sector takeovers in water and sanitation. This can be seen in countries like Brazil, where privatization will inevitably lead to lower distribution of water in the country’s poorer areas. Ironically, this type of action has been supported by large multilateral organizations that have huge influence in the field.
For example, the World Bank has developed a “blended financing” program that requires private-sector participation before public water operators can receive financial support. And the UN-Habitat and UNICEF are promoting public-private partnerships to “engage and empower” small private water vendors. Ironically, this goes against the warnings of the UN special rapporteurs on how the COVID-19 pandemic has exposed the catastrophic impact of privatizing vital services, including the provision of water.
The UK’s Privatized Water
Nowhere have water prices increased more than in the UK. After the industry was privatized in 1989, Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative government claimed that the sell-off would generate funds to tackle major infrastructure work. But water prices significantly increased — 46 percent in the first year alone.
It didn’t stop there. In 1994, almost 2 million British households defaulted on their water bills, and over a million others were behind in payments.
The UK hosted last year’s UN Climate Change Conference in Glasgow. While it set four ambitious goals — including “ensuring promises on emissions reductions are kept to keep 1.5 degrees alive, delivering for climate vulnerable countries by ensuring commitments on adaptation and loss and damage are honoured, getting finance flowing and working together and continuing to be an inclusive Presidency” — it overlooked one of the key aspects of meeting their own climate change ambitions: a detailed plan to improve their water bodies by protecting them as part of our climate solutions.
The UK currently struggles with ocean protection and management, with only a third of UK seas being protected legally. In addition, 40 percent of bill payers in England live in areas that are considered “water-stressed,” areas where demand for safe water outstrips supply.
According to the Environment Agency, 2021 saw over 403,000 spills of sewage into England’s rivers and seas, totaling more than 3.1 million hours of spillage. Nine privatized water companies in England have taken on debts of £48 billion in the past three decades; this debt cost them £1.3 billion in interest in 2019 alone. But rather than invest in water-management solutions that would have greatly reduced the pollution, water companies have paid more than £2 billion a year on average to shareholders since privatization.
This is particularly frustrating because Scotland, England’s neighbor, has shown it doesn’t have to be this way.
A Scottish Counterexample
Scottish water and sewerage services are publicly owned. Since 2002, the country has invested nearly 35 percent more per household in infrastructure than the privatized English water companies. At the same time, it charges users 14 percent less and pays no dividends to shareholders.
The current government has shown it can mobilize in favor of protecting our water systems following their rejection of a sewage amendment to the environmental bill that failed to pass in Parliament in October 2021. It prompted swift commitments from the environment secretary George Eustice, who promised a legal duty on water companies to put measures in place to reduce sewage overspill in rivers, and to show progress made over the next five years.
Unfortunately, it’s not enough. Without the public outcry against the impacts of this amendment, there would be a shocking volume of untreated contaminated wastewater, as it continues to reach water bodies, damaging our ecosystems and inevitably our health. The current approach to water infrastructure needs a radical overhaul.
Water privatization involves the participation of private-sector corporations in the provision of water services, and, in some cases, the complete transfer of water assets from the state to the private sector. Among a set of neoliberal reforms in the Global North, water privatization and public-private partnerships were relentlessly promoted during the 1980s by multinational corporations and international financial agencies, such as the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank, that insisted privatization was key in delivering efficient resource allocation.
Access to clean water is an inherent human right that is essential for the maintenance of life; people should have ownership of water, not corporations.
Corporate claims that privatization can address today’s global water issues are actually about guaranteeing profits to private companies — damaging the environment and blocking universal access to water in the process.
Renationalization of water systems and their management, which would translate to state or collective management, are the best solution.
Running Dry in the Global South
Privatization and deregulation in the Global North have not kept pace with the effects of climate change, which has consequently led to, or is expected to continue leading to, changes in water supply and demand — especially in the Global South. Water privatization started in countries across the Global South, alongside water reforms in the 1980s, through the neocolonial imposition of structural adjustment programs.
This has set a precedent whereby water crises are not new in the Global South. For example, in Southeast Asia every year, droughts and floods plague Bangladesh, disrupting the lives of farmers who rely heavily on irrigation. While several treaties and agreements are in place between Bangladesh and India to address water management and allocation, lately India has not been releasing its agreed volumes of water.
As a result, Bangladesh’s supply is running dry, and, in April 2021, suspended projects like the Ganges-Kobadak Irrigation Project. The suspension came at a time when farmers in the project’s coverage area in the country’s south needed more water than ever before, amid exceptionally low rain causing heat shocks across rice fields. Since then, the project has resumed, but easy access to clean water still remains a major issue.
In Zimbabwe, access to clean water is still a privilege, as the country’s constitutional right to clean water has been denied to many of its citizens, with privatization by some local authorities putting this precious utility even further out of the poor’s reach. This has not only become routine in Zimbabweans’ everyday lives — see, for example, the normalization of the “big flush,” in which residents are required to flush their toilets at the same time when water is restored to unclog the sewer reticulation system, which goes long periods without water flowing through it. It has also prolonged and sustained cholera outbreaks in the country since 2008.
Many in the Global South, including across Africa and Asia, continue to voice strong popular opposition to privatization policies. Throughout Africa, privatization reforms have been characterized as “recolonization” due to the participation of foreign firms.
Research shows that when governments decide to privatize utilities like water, the result is detrimental global health effects. It’s no surprise that safely managed water, sanitation, and hygiene services also play a significant role in the prevention of infectious disease outbreaks.
Global ecological problems like the water crisis do not merely result from the depletion of natural resources; they mostly come from unequal distributions of both natural resources and power. The lack of fair and just regional water-sharing policies leads to the suffering of poor people who depend on natural resources for their survival. They must endure both the floods in the monsoon season and the droughts in the dry season.
Globally, water both defines borders and crosses them. Water not only connects nations, it sustains them: over 40 percent of the world’s population relies on fresh water from rivers that run through two or more countries, and 75 percent of UN member states share a river or lake basin with a neighboring country. With the adoption of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and its seventeen Sustainable Development Goals, the integrated management of water resources was enshrined in goal 6.5: “By 2030, implement integrated water resources management at all levels, including through transboundary cooperation as appropriate.” It’s crucial that, in the coming decades, water cooperation at the political and technical levels be at the forefront of regional, national, and international global health agendas.