Mexico City is developing one of the world’s most pressing environmental problems. In the metropolis of 20-million people, rivers of sewage flow slowly through many of its poor neighbourhoods, it loses 40-50% of all its water supplies in leaks and 100 cubic metres of hard-to-dispose waste is generated every second.
Yet every day more than 1Â 000 people come to live in Mexico City and the local authorities are overwhelmed. Last year, a million people depended on water trucks, or pipas, to meet their basic need for water. The rich bought it bottled, the poorest paid by the bucketful and there were clashes between neighbours as people stole water from each other. Even though more than 800km of new pipes have been laid in the past few years, 40% of people still refuse to pay or do not receive bills. The whole system urgently needs several billion dollars’ investment.
This week Mexico City saw the world’s major water companies, environment groups, local authorities, global bodies, international banks and unions, along with farmers, environmentalists and academics, meet to discuss the world’s water problems. They heard a depressing story. Although hundreds of millions of people have been connected to water mains and many have been supplied with sanitation, twice that many still have no access to clean water—now recognised as a human right.
Moreover, the problems are worsening. The United Nations has declared that water quality is declining in most regions, that there is an increasing demand for water to grow crops for burgeoning populations, and that urban areas are exploding. By 2030, about two billion people will live in illegal squatter settlements and slums without access to water.
But what may shock people most is that, after almost 15 years of promises, goals, targets and platitudes by world bodies, national governments, water companies and others, the world’s poorest are still not getting the most basic human need.
There is now no chance that the millennium development goal of halving the proportion of people without access to clean water by 2015 will be met.
At this rate of progress, says the World Water Council, “access to clean water cannot be guaranteed until beyond 2050 in Africa, 2025 in Asia and 2040 in Latin America and the Caribbean”.
Blame for the failure will be put on large institutions, states and international companies that have the money or access to it, but that have failed to target the poor. A report by United Kingdom charity WaterAid shows that 61% of the European Union’s international aid earmarked for water and sanitation goes to comparatively wealthy middle-income countries.
Global water companies will also be roundly blamed. National governments, international finance institutions and bodies such as the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank have all pushed them to provide water for the poor and they have raised about $30-billion in the past decade. The companies claim there have been many successful privatisations, but there have also been a string of others that have turned sour, leaving people paying high prices, with thousands unemployed and local authorities and governments locked into crippling long-term contracts.
New analysis by the UN shows that water privatisation has gone into reverse, with private-sector investment in water services declining and many big water companies have begun to withdraw from or are downsizing operations in poor countries because of high political and financial risks.
Last week, Suez, one of the largest water companies, said that it was now almost impossible for it to work in Latin America or Africa and that it would be concentrating on China, India and Eastern Europe. Bruised by its experiences in Argentina and Bolivia, it lamented the volatile politics that have left it losing money.
Peter Hardstaff, head of policy at the World Development Movement in London, says: “The private sector has received a bloody nose over a range of privatisation failures during the past decade. But it does not mean the end of it. Privatisation is now at a crossroads, but just as critical as what the companies decide to do is what donor governments and institutions decide.”
But the partial retreat of international water giants from poor countries leaves governments and world bodies in trouble. For years, they have all pushed heavily for the privatisation of water, making it effectively a condition of debt relief and loans. Now, says one observer, they must admit they often got it wrong and are going to have to work with the public sector again.
Research by the World Bank and others demonstrates that the public sector is not always incapable of providing clean water. It still provides, in difficult circumstances, water for 90% of the world.
The pendulum is swinging back towards the public sector and, at some point, international donors, banks and governments will recognise that clean water is a human right and that to deny it to people for the sake of a political idea makes no sense. Until then, billions of people will die from water-borne diseases, waste hours of their day collecting water or go into debt to stay alive.—Â