Implications of a Human Right to Water

Another question raised by explicit human rights to water is: how are developing nations with limited economic resources to provide for minimum needs? A human rights based approach to issues of water access has many implications for the financing of water resources in developing nations. Some have already turned to privatization, hoping that large, international water corporations with the capital to invest in the infrastructure can save the day. Under a human rights mandate, developing nations will be forced to take whatever short-term measures are necessary to get the required infrastructure in place. In the context of globalization, the tendency of developing nations to rely on foreign water companies to provide water infrastructure and services is dangerous at best. If water services are included in global trade agreements, large-scale privatization could result in a monopolistic state in which municipalities are unable to compete, leaving foreign, private services as the only option. As mentioned previously, it would be both bad economics and bad science to allow foreign companies to decide the fate of a nation's water resources. Therefore, outside funding would almost certainly be necessary for most developing nations to get the infrastructure in place and avoid being held in violation of human rights.

Though there have been some success stories involving private water companies, privatization of water services has not met with success across the board. A good example of privatization gone badly is that of Buenos Aires, Argentina. In 1993, with a loan of US $30 million from the World Bank, the government of Argentina contracted water services for the city of Buenos Aires to the French conglomerate Aguas Argentinas. By 1997, the World Bank issued another US $911 million in loans to Aguas Argentinas. While Aguas Argentinas was successful in bringing water services to 700,000 homes by 2000, the government failed to regulate the water company's activities, resulting in huge connection fees (US $800) and rate hikes that many poor people could not afford. In addition, the promised water treatment plant was never built and sewage services were never completed. By 2002, Aguas Argentinas had defaulted on over US $700 million in loans, and over 1 million people were still without the running water and sewage that they had been promised [22]. As Nickson points out, organization of urban water supply must be strong enough to support self-financing, regardless of who controls or owns the supply [23].

This is not to say that private companies have nothing to offer in the provision of water services, however. As General Comment No. 15 asserts, effective regulation must be in place if private services are to be used. The Buenos Aires situation is a perfect example of the need for such a requirement. Private sector participation comes in many forms, and there have been several success stories involving public-private partnerships (PPP) that may provide other avenues for involvement of the private sector. There are two major forms of PPP: corporatization and joint venture. Because corporatization relies heavily on investment in bonds, it is not feasible in many developing countries where the bond market is either absent or weak. The joint venture model may be useful in many areas where the government does not have the funds to create the infrastructure alone, but where full privatization might create a conflict of interest for the poor. Shared ownership in this model results in the public partner's retaining a largely regulatory role, while the private partner performs daily operations. The public partner is also a shareholder in the company, giving it a vested interest in maintaining political acceptability of the company's actions [24]. Anton Earle asserts that this mutual interest could potentially facilitate conflict resolution. Nevertheless, he also points out that conflicts of interest can arise as the public partner tries to maintain its regulatory role while simultaneously trying to maximize returns. Also, productivity can be impeded as public and private partners approach project development from different perspectives and with different timetables [24].

Mike Muller has highlighted the struggle South Africa faces in meeting the constitutional rights of its citizens to safe water and adequate sanitation in light of the "gross inequalities inherited with the end of apartheid in 1994" [6]. He explains that the emphasis on the ends over the means has resulted in many private water interests taking hold; without which, he notes, South Africa could not have achieved as much improvement as it has since 1994. Through public-private partnerships, the South African government has been able to provide a free basic water supply of 25 l per person per day to the poor. Nevertheless, Muller notes that international trade agreements such as the GATS should not mandate private services, as it would have long-term ill effects on the water management systems in developing countries. He also notes that, due to huge disparities in South Africa's distribution of wealth, the provision of public services in many areas will require outside funding at the regional and global levels.

Perhaps an even better answer for some, especially in rural areas, may be the water cooperative. In Bolivia, several cities have formed water cooperatives, most notably the Cooperativa de Servicios Publicos "Santa Cruz" Ltda, or SAGUAPAC. The cooperative has been operating in the City of Santa Cruz, with a population of 1 million, since 1979. The 96,000 customers of the cooperative are all automatically members, and the system is divided up into nine water districts. The members of each district elect the administrative board, which appoints the general manager. The members also elect a separate supervisory board, which evaluates the performance of the administrative board. Andrew Nickson of the University of Birmingham reports that the water system has a low level of unaccounted-for water, 100% metering, a 96% bill collection rate, 80% water coverage, and a 24-hour supply. He concludes that the success of SAGUAPAC can be attributed to two key factors:

■ The bottom-up structure of the cooperative facilitates the implementation of projects faster and more efficiently than in public sector companies; and

■ The cooperative structure helps to protect the general manager from political interference [25].

The water cooperative may work best in areas where population is somewhat limited or where several cooperatives operate over a larger population. However, cooperatives have their problems, as well. Paul Constance notes that SAGUAPAC faces serious long-term challenges in the extension of its services because cooperatives must find their own sources of funding. The decision to abstain from political interference hurts them when they lobby for public funding. He attributes SAGUAPAC's success in large part to the fact that most of its customers are in the middle- to high-class ranks. He notes that SAGUAPAC customers pay as much as 50% more than customers in areas with public services. Nevertheless, he says that participation in the decision making process gives customers a sense of ownership. He also cites governance as a key factor in the success of SAGUAPAC, noting that several Bolivian cooperatives have failed to insulate themselves successfully from political interference [26].

Eduardo Chilundo and Joel das Neves Tembe have examined the centralized public water management system in Mozambique. Observing water use in three similar towns, they conclude that though Mozambique has been able to provide for the basic needs of its citizens, some reform is needed [27]. Centralized water management consists of maintenance, repair, and operation of water supply systems. Though metering is in place, costs cover no more than operation, repair, and maintenance. Lump sum fees are charged for use of public water systems, and water from the river is free. The result is overuse by irrigators and domestic users alike. The authors propose the following reforms: development of a national irrigation policy; enactment of water pricing; more equitable distribution of water resources; adoption of the river basin for irrigation planning; involvement of all stakeholders in planning; strengthening coordination among water institutions; arrangement for cooperation with Swaziland, the upstream country; and investment in irrigation research. Though the government of Mozambique has taken a step in the right direction, it may benefit from a more structured and locally managed system.

The problems cited in these examples are representative of the water management problems that many nations around the world are facing. As Mike Muller states, "South Africa's inequalities are mirrored on a global scale and its experience is thus relevant to the global water policy debate" [6]. Even so, it is important that the international community recognize that similar problems do not necessarily have identical solutions. Several authors have recognized the need for alternative approaches to solving the freshwater problem, many of which are presented in specific contexts. The following section explores some of these alternatives, noting their strengths and weaknesses.

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  • Ave
    What is bad about a human right to water?
    8 years ago

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