Does a focus on access and affordability detract from the question of rights? Join our debate 4 September, 1-3pm BST
What’s the role of big business in improving access to clean water? Photograph: Eranga Jayawardena/AP
In 2010 the United Nations recognised access to clean water as a human right. The declaration, an acknowledgment of the importance of water to many aspects of human development. But support for the idea that water is a human right does not answer the practical questions about how to make it available to all the people who need it.
Speaking to Rick Connor at the annual World Water Week conference in Stockholm, the author of the 2014 UN water and energy report conceded that “there is the assumption people don’t have to pay for water but, ultimately, someone always pays”. The need to think through how this scare resource is managed (demand is projected to increase by 50% by 2050) was echoed by Torgyn Holmgren, head of the Stockholm International Water Institute. He argues that “water efficiency should be our goal”, suggesting that there was much the water sector - mostly managed by public companies - could learn from the largely privatised energy sector.
However, not everyone is happy with the growing presence of big business in delivering - and charging for - what Connor says many see as a “gift from god”. In a recent article for the Guardian, campaigner Meera Karunanantha warned the water debate had shifted “from one of injustice and inequality to a depoliticised discussion of scarcity solved by technological fixes”.
But is it idealistic - and too late - to argue that that access to water can be realised without corporate involvement? Firstly, how can questions over ownership be resolved? Next, what should the collaboration between states, private sector and communities look like and does everyone have the same vision? Finally, among the competitive needs for water in agriculture and industry, how can we ensure that freshwater is provided to the 3.5bn people who have little access to this fundamental right in a way that is affordable and sustainable?
11 views on improving water supply
From realising the right to water to the role of the private sector, experts share their views
The water community is split on how much to involve the private sector in improving water supply around the world. Photograph: Khin Maung Win/AFP/Getty Images
John Oldfield, chief executive, Wash Advocates, Washington, D.C.
Move the debate forward: Water is clearly both a human right and an economic commodity. The questions is, so what? How do we make sure that everyone on the planet has access to that right and commodity? Here is one resource (pdf), from End Water Poverty, that I like to use when considering not whether water is a human right, but how to progressively realise that right.
Aly Ercelan, fellow, Pakistan Fisherfolk Forum, Karachi, Pakistan
Keep the private sector out: I would like the for-profit sector away from allocating uses of water and among users as far as possible - keeping in mind its power over some mechanics of water supply. Let’s rise above the illusion that cost-effectiveness is not a political construct. We all know personally and professionally that prices reflect economic and political power.
Mark Dearn, campaigner, End Water Poverty, London, UK, @mark_dearn
Fulfill all aspects of the right to water: Access and affordability are both integral parts of the right to water and sanitation. Unfortunately the prioritisation of access over affordability and quality detracts from the fulfillment of the whole right.
Stef Smits, senior programme officer, IRC, Stockholm, Sweden, @SmitsStef
Differentiate between water resources and water services: One can argue a long time over whether one should pay for water as a good. But there is little doubt that running a water service has a cost, and that it needs to be paid for from somewhere.
Sam Drabble, research and evaluation officer, Water and Sanitation for the Urban Poor (WSUP), London, UK, @wsupuk
Challenge the pricing misconceptions: We need to be careful with how we communicate that people ‘cannot afford’ water. In urban contexts for example, public utilities tend to wrongly assume that people in low-income communities can’t afford to pay for a household connection. In fact these people are already paying expensive rates to an informal supplier and would gladly pay less for a public supply.
Meera Karunananthan, water campaigner, Blue Planet Project, Ottawa, Canada, @meerakar
Treat water as a public good: If you look at this from a public interest perspective, it is imperative that we treat water as a public good. This is the only way to ensure that everyone gets a fair share.
Alexis Morcrette, programme coordinator, Practical Action, Rugby, UK, @almorcrette
Include the voices of poor communities in planning: The debate is not necessarily about whether to privatise water delivery or not. Water utilities can be a good way of developing better business models. The debate is about how that is regulated and how much say the poor communities have. We need to recognise and value the role poor communities play as part of the solution.
Virginia Roaf, adviser to the UN special rapporteur on water and sanitation, Berlin, Germany
Raise awareness about the rights to water: All too often due to weak governance and corruption, businesses - whether local or international - have better access to water resources. This limits access to water for domestic and personal uses. There needs to be more awareness among both states and businesses about the obligations contained within the human rights to water and sanitation, and how states can be held to account for bad practice.
Pascale Guiffant, sustainable development deputy director, Suez Environnement, Paris, France
Don’t forget to collaborate: Improving access to water and sanitation needs the mobilisation of all the actors of our sector. The challenge is huge. More efficient governance of services and regulation will help surely achieve this goal as well as enhancing knowledge transfer. We need to all focus on making the right to water and sanitation a reality.
Greg Koch, director, Global Water Stewardship, The Coca-Cola Company, Atlanta, USA @gregjkoch1
Follow South Africa’s lead: The South African approach to water points to a way forward. First, the government clearly recognised the need and their shortcomings. Second, they prioritised actions and committed to the long term, beyond political election cycles. Third, all users get basic amount of safe water for free. And finally, those who use more pay more on a sliding scale, consumption-based (those fees support the basic volume delivery to the poorest).
Jack Moss, senior adviser, AquaFed, Brussels, Belgium
Don’t overlook what the private sector can do: In sub-Saharan Africa, private operators have clearly performed better than public utilities in expanding access through household connections. Their projects accounted for almost 20% of the increase in household connections in the region.
Read the full Q&A here.