Tuesday, May 8, 2007

What happens when the water runs out?

What happens when the water runs out?

Kalpana Sharma

One billion people in the world lack proper access to potable water. A good number of them are in India. It is incumbent on the state to ensure that the poor are not denied their right to basic necessities.

THE POWER crisis in Maharashtra has occupied many column centimetres in local newspapers. Understandably so as with the onset of summer, life without electricity is hell. It is that in any case in most parts of rural Maharashtra where daily power cuts of up to 15 hours have been the norm for many months. In cities and towns, the power cuts are shorter but still unbearable. Only Mumbai has been spared.

But what no one is talking about is the looming water crisis. One of the fallouts of climate change, the consequence of global warming, will be on water sources. The drying up of water sources will have a direct impact on water availability. As urban areas grow, their demand for water will increase. If on top of this, governments aim to provide 24 hours water to all urban residents, then the demands of the city on the hinterland will escalate hugely. Who will mediate the competing demands between urban water needs and rural survival? Already, the choice of ensuring that urban areas get power while rural areas suffer is laying the ground for inequality and injustice.

At the G8 meeting in Berlin scheduled for June 8, civil society groups plan to launch an End Water Poverty campaign. In India poverty and water poverty go hand in hand. A campaign to bring water to the poorest is closely linked with any campaign to deal with poverty. One billion people in the world lack access to potable water. A good number of them are in India.

The reason the middle class does not agitate quite as much about water as it does about power is because it has the capability to buy water. If municipal water fails, middle class localities order a tanker or two and pay. If the water is released at awkward hours, they have powerful pumps to fill overhead tanks that then ensure water on demand. If the water is not potable, they can afford purification within their homes or buy bottled water — that defining symbol of the commodification of something that ought to be freely available. For the poor, water is available for a few hours, at inconvenient times, and often of poor quality.

The solution that is being offered to deal with the water problem is better management. The government and several municipal authorities, including the one in Mumbai, argue that the problem is not just inadequate supplies of water but bad management practices that affect distribution. Mumbai's residents, for instance, at least on paper gets more water per person a day than residents in most other Indian cities. But although the city gets over 3,000 mld (million litres a day), it loses around 600 mld through leakages and theft. Therefore, officials of the Municipal Corporation of Greater Mumbai (MCGM) believe that more efficient management systems need to be in place.

At a recent meeting of Mumbai citizens on the water problem, a senior official from the water department of the MCGM acknowledged that 45 per cent of water meters did not work and that fixing leaking and old pipes was a major headache. Under the existing system of management, an engineer in the BMC has no power to sanction funds to fix a leak even if it is taking place before his eyes, he said. By the time he gets the requisite sanctions, thousands of litres of clean water would have gone down the drain. Therefore, like others in the MCGM, he too felt that the water crisis could be resolved if distribution was handed over to private management.

Is this privatisation of water by the backdoor? Will the municipality ultimately hand over management to private companies and gradually back out altogether from the business of water distribution? In Mumbai, an experiment along these lines is already being tried in K-East ward, an area with a population of close to one million people. A section of the local residents are strongly opposed to it.

Those opposing private sector involvement in water distribution point out that there are dozens of examples from around the world of water privatisation that has gone completely wrong. A new book, brought out by Manthan Abhiyan Kendra (Water: Private, Limited, Issues in Privatisation, Corporatisation and Commercialisation of Water Sector in India by Gaurav Dwivedi, Rehmat and Shripad Dharmadhikari) lists these failures. They range from the famous privatisation effort in Cochabamba in Bolivia that led to the overthrow of a government to others in practically every continent. For instance, between 1996 and 1999, Shenyang, in China, tried out privatisation of water. Ultimately, the state-owned company returned to distribute the water when the price of bulk water became untenable. Another telling example is from Potsdam in Germany where the unjustified hike in water tariffs resulted in the municipality terminating the contract with a private company. In Nairobi, Kenya, a privatisation contract was cancelled for similar reasons.

In most cases, people have rejected private control of what is seen as a public good. Private businesses are interested in the bottom line, in making a profit. Thus, instead of accessibility, affordability and equity, the values that dominate are financial viability and cost recovery. Although in the initial phases, there are assurances that tariffs will not be raised, in time they always go up due to apparent increased costs.

The supporters of privatisation argue that ultimately a more efficient distribution system will benefit the poor, as water will reach them instead of being wasted. Yet, even if it reaches them, will they be able to afford it? One of the schemes reportedly being considered for Mumbai, although the MCGM denies it, is that of prepaid water meters. Like a prepaid card for a cell phone, residents would have to recharge their cards and only then would they be able to access water. If they don't have the money to recharge their cards, then there will be no water. So rich or poor, you pay as you get. Except that the poor most often cannot pay.

The justification given for such systems is that lack of water is forcing the poor to buy water from private sources at exorbitant prices. In some of the most crowded wards of central Mumbai even today pavement dwellers buy their water from "bishis" — men who walk around with a leather water container slung on their backs. These vendors get the water from a private well. Because of the anomaly in our water policy, the water under the ground belongs to the person who owns the land on which a well is located while the surface water, in lakes and rivers, belongs to the government. As a result, the landless and homeless in the cities, including the slum dwellers, still depend on the mercy of the municipality, or the private water vendor. And the rates they pay work out to more than 10 times of those with access to a regular supply of municipal water.

Yet, the solution to cutting out such private water vendors is not a distribution system that is equally unaffordable. A 24-hour supply of water means little to people who will not be in a position to pay the charges if private companies take over distribution and justify raised tariffs in the name of cost recovery.

Before privatisation of water distribution is accepted, we need to have a close look at the success and failures of the private sector in water elsewhere in the world. The record has been murky with unjustified costs being charged by private companies.

While no one will argue that better distribution of water, or for that matter electricity, and cutting wastage are essential, when there are systemic inequities, such as the absence of decent housing that also means little or no water and electricity, just efficient distribution is not enough. In cities, the wastage is not just due to leakages but the profligate use of water by the better- off. Like electricity, this is the section that needs to be told about saving water, because current usage patterns will ensure that there is never enough water.

Yet, even as governments and municipalities work out schemes to bring in water to cities, they fail to launch campaigns that will make the water-rich aware of a scarce resource.

The state sector has failed on many fronts and has not necessarily been the most efficient. But good management practices and private ownership are not coterminous. Also, where equity and accessibility have to be guaranteed, it is incumbent on the state to ensure that in the name of efficiency, the poor are not denied their right to basic necessities like water, or for that matter sanitation and decent housing.

© Copyright 2000 - 2006 The Hindu

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THE HINDU

http://www.thehindu.com/2007/05/08/stories/2007050803390800.htm


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