Wrung Dry

‘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
Jacob Wheeler

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