USC Dana and David Dornsife College of Letters, Arts & Sciences > Blog

April 17, 2013

Water Privatization

Filed under: California Drought — Tags: , , — lecollin @ 10:55 am

“Food and water are basic rights. But we pay for food. Why should we not pay for water?” 
-Ismail Serageldin at the Second World Water Forum

Water privatization is a current, controversial issue that also seems to be relatively misunderstood. Water privatization is the private ownership of water-related infrastructure, and is not a new concept.

World Bank data indicates a sharp rise in the investment into private water projects. Source: Bakker --same article as in citations/works cited

World Bank data indicates a sharp rise in the investment into private water projects. Source: Bakker –same article as in citations/works cited

Public and private, artisanal and industrial, corporate and community controlled water supply systems coexist around the world (Bakker 36). “Privatization” of the water sector can be understood as private enterprises, rather than governments, obtaining control of water-related infrastructure. Examples include “operation of a water delivery or transport system, a complete transfer of system ownership, or even sale of publicly owned water rights to private companies” as defined by the Pacific Institute. Water, when privatized, is then treated like any other economic good.  *

Deaths due to sub-par water quality and availability are prevalent in poor countries. Proponents of privately owned water believe this would be improved by replacing public infrastructure. IMG source

Deaths due to sub-par water quality and availability are prevalent in poor countries. Proponents of privately owned water believe this would be improved by replacing public infrastructure. IMG source

Proponents and opponents of water privatization stand divided on a number of issues, ethical as well as environmental and economical. Those in favor of water privatization believe that private management will encourage conservation of water, and it can be priced accordingly. It is believed that privatized, clean water could also better be delivered to those humans normally struggling to find safe access to it.  Opponents believe water ought to be protected by more than market forces, and may find it unethical to make a profit supplying people with a resource essential for life, ecological health, and human dignity (Bakker 47). Opponents also find the possibility of private management, driven by greed, will create environmental harm–namely pollution and scarcity of water.

A question Susan Spronk poses in her article, is privatization really the alternative if a government fails to supply its citizens with a basic factor to all life? Bolivia provides an excellent case study to examine privatization efforts, as well as provide a case study from which we can base recommendations.

Bolivia is the poorest country in South America and also home to one of the world’s most contentious water privatization programs. With the World Bank’s assistance in the 1990s, the water systems of some of Bolivia’s poorest regions were put up for sale to private investors and shareholders. A US-owned company, Bechtel, in Cochabamba, Bolivia, gained rights to administer and distribute water in this specific area.  Bechtel extended water access to many communities who had little to no access to water. However, a consequence of their involvement was less welcoming to neighboring cities—the prices for water had a sharp increase.  Bechtel consumed and controlled local wells, water pumps, public system infrastructure that was already in place, and many other resources used by the community for water supply (Mulreany, Calikoglu, and Ruiz ). The costs for these improvements and additions were far too expensive and unrealistic for their generally poor customers–costing up to twice the previous cost people had been paying when water was government-owned. Access for them was still not possible.

bolivia water

These results highlight the complexities of water privatization and differences between economic theory and what happens in the real world–social factors play a huge role. Positive impacts of privatization–ie, access to clean water for underprivileged areas–must have a way to subsidise the cause for poorer communities, as in the case of Bolivia.

Buenos Aires, conversely, experienced a water-privatization case with better results. Image source: (Pacific Institute -- same article cited in text.)

Buenos Aires, conversely, experienced a water-privatization case with better results. Image source: (Pacific Institute — same article cited in text.)

There are understandably many more factors to consider when, where, and how water would ideally be privatized (strength of current system, appropriate market, environmental concerns in the area), but from the Bolivia case study we can draw these conclusions:  We propose that, when water becomes privatized in certain regions for economic gain, a strict set of regulations must be upheld in order for the practice to be fully supportable. Beyond making sure it remains affordable for local communities, human and environmental needs should be prioritized, and all those dependent on the source should have a voice in the decision-making process.

By Meghan Heneghan and Renee Daniel

Works Cited:

Bakker, Karen J. “A Political Ecology of Water Privatization.” Studies in Political Economy (2002)

Gleick, Peter and Gary Wolff, Elizabeth Chalecki, Rachel Reyes . “The New Economy of Water: The Risks and Benefits of Globalization and Privatization of Fresh Water.” February 2002. Pacific Institute.

Mulreany, John P., Sule Calikoglu, and Sonia Ruiz. “Water privatization and public health in Latin America.”SciElo Public Health. 19.01 (2006): n. page. Web. 5 Apr. 2013. <>.

Spronk, Susan . “Roots of Resistance to Urban Water Privatization in Bolivia: The “New Working Class,” the Crisis of Neoliberalism, and Public Services1.”International Labor and Working-Class History. 71.01 (2007): 8-28. Web. 5 Apr. 2013. <;jsessionid=4CD04064EA4920D7942DDE5BC7393B19.journals?fromPage=online&aid=1354424>.



April 22, 2012

If You’ve Drank Water Today—Consider Yourself Lucky

 The United Nations has declared water a basic human right, saying that “the human right to water entitles everyone to sufficient, safe, acceptable, physically accessible and affordable water for personal and domestic uses.”  Many hold similar views as the UN, while others differ in opinion and think water is a privilege not a right.  As the human population increases alongside the demand for clean, safe sources of water, this issue will only escalate in significance and severity.  Humanity as a whole must answer the question: Is water a privilege or a right?

Currently access to safe drinking water is not universal. With almost 900 million people lacking access and more than 1.5 million children annually dying due to this reason, the United Nations has recognized clean water and sanitation as “integral to the realization of all human rights.” Providing access to drinking water does not have a simple solution; when dealing with the right of humans to access water: political, social, economic, and industrial changes are needed. At the 2011 United College London (UCL) Annual Conference, the issue of water security was brought up and concluded that the global North cannot simply expect the South to generate access to clean drinking water. For the most part water abuse comes from the North and the South is the region in need of more clean drinking water. Many believe the global North should treat water as a commodity since they tend to overuse water and are not penalized for doing so. With this implementation, water may be better conserved in the North which may help the South receive economic deductions to increase clean water access.

Many take the opposite view on this issue, arguing that water is a privilege and treating water as such does not violate basic human rights.  Specifically, some take the stance that water is a simple human need, not a right we all hold. One argument that supports this stance is water privatization.  Some believe that the government should not hold the responsibility for providing adequate water to its civilians.  Because the privatization of water has been successful before, where companies control the supply and accessibility to water, people cannot assume they are entitled to clean water without paying a price.  Also, it is arguable that the number of people living in the world today without access to clean drinking water is proof enough that water is a privilege not a right.  History has shown that many people do not have access to safe drinking water, and this issue will only become more severe as human population increases alongside demand.  In fact, the number of people currently without access to clean drinking water totals the number of people living in the US, Canada, Argentina, Chile, Singapore, United Arab Emirates, France, Germany, England, Italy, Spain, Japan, Australia and Norway.  Thus, critics argue that water is a privilege, because it is not sustainable to treat water as a right where it will become more difficult to supply as we progress into the future.

For those who see water as a privilege, their idea generally revolves around keeping sustainability of the resource. We see water being abused daily through agriculture and private consumption.   According to Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, water is a basic physiological right that is essential for survival. Allowing people access to clean drinking water would not set up a system of abuse, but would rather create a need for stricter guidelines. Fracking for example could become a safer practice after the creation of more regulation, because the risk of water source contamination would decrease as water quality and technology improve. If water is granted to everyone, we would see a growing need for protection.  Consequently, the enforcement of stricter guidelines and policies would be needed to ensure the well-being of mankind.

Connor Schroeder and Albert Perez are undergraduates in the USC Dana and David Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences.