Wrung Dry

A debate on water privatization

| July 15, 2004

'Should providing safe, affordable water be the role of governments, corporations, or partnerships between the two?' Grist Magazine is posing that fundamental question in a debate this week between Peter Cook, executive director of the National Association of Water Companies, and Maude Barlow and Sarah Ehrhardt, anti-privatization activists with the Council of Canadians. The back-and-forth banter coincides with the airing of 'Thirst,' a PBS documentary by Alan Snitow and Deborah Kaufman that addresses the topic of water privatization.

In the Grist debate, Barlow and Ehrhardt slam private corporations in several instances throughout history for failing to provide everyone with safe drinking water because, they conclude, providing water for the city's poor was simply not profitable. In 1837, for example, one of the first water systems built by a private contractor in North America failed as two cholera epidemics swept through town before water management was finally taken into completely public hands. Barlow and Ehrhardt summarize that 'all around the world, we have taken water for granted and massively misjudged the capacity of the Earth's water systems to sustain the demands made upon it. Instead of taking great care of the limited water that we have, we are diverting, polluting, and depleting it at an astonishing rate as if there were no reckoning to come.'

Peter Cook defended the water-service business in his reply on Tuesday, claiming that 97 percent of the literally thousands of public-private water partnerships currently in place in the United States function property and are renewed by the cities and towns when it is time to do so. In short, writes Cook, 'It has been shown again and again that public-private partnerships save customers money and improve environmental compliance.' To counter Barlow and Ehrhardt, Cook cites successful examples of water privatization in Bolivia, La Paz, and El Alto. 'Since the beginning of the private operation, both communities have gained universal availability of potable water (increased to 100 percent from 82 percent in El Alto and 92 percent in La Paz) ... These are clear success stories.'
-- Jacob Wheeler

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