The week spent at World Water Week has left me with a variety of conflicting feelings. Inspired and humbled by working alongside such committed and interesting people in the fight for an equitable and just allocation of water and sanitation: but, angry by the pursuit still, of market solutions to their provision for those without. Despite the evidence that the investment required to address the lack of clean water was not forthcoming from the private sector, the prescriptions promoted in Stockholm by the vast majority were still to involve the private sector. It really does beg the question which bit of the fact; the private sector won’t invest in providing water for the poorest people in the world, isn’t yet understood?!
The European Union Water Initiative (EUWI) mid-term review of its work in Africa, offered a window into this outlook. Their presentation of their Forward Strategy and Work Plan expressed disappointment at the lack of private finance for the EUWI projects in Africa. Nevertheless, they still recommended that they would redouble their efforts to involve the private sector. Doh! It is now unequivocal, their own and other evidence shows it, the private sector simply won’t invest without the guarantee of profit: and the poorest communities do not offer that guarantee.
Of course, if visiting World Water Week from the wider galaxy you would get the impression that the proponents of private solutions have the interests of the all the world’s poor as their number one priority. And, that their policies are the fail safe way of achieving the MDG’s. If the Martian’s stayed long enough to see and hear the evidence beyond the warm words written by the PR men they would soon see that their private intentions and actions more often than not don’t correspond with their public utterances. Kevin Wall, of CSIR in South Africa, sees water provision in South Africa and elsewhere as an opportunity for local entrepreneurs to open franchises – with all the detrimental implications that that idea brings to the principle of cross-subsidisation. He suggests water franchisees as offering similar opportunities to those like Macdonalds franchisees – no it was no (sick) joke, he really did intimate this!
Listening to asset managers speak at the founders business seminar on Wednesday, led me to question just who actually are the extra-terrestrials? At this meeting, where all were seemingly surrounded by likeminded self-interested souls, their guard came down and their mindset was revealed. They said things like “water is a tremendous business opportunity – because there is no substitute to water”; or, when one was asked what they had learned from this week and answered, “money – I really didn’t realise just how much money there is in water”; or “water systems in the western world are ready for private takeover”. All these alone would illustrate to any would-be visitors from the cosmos that pro-poor speeches are simply rhetoric with little substance.
In relation to the theme of sustainability – the major plank of the week – the conference really sent out the wrong message with the recruitment of Nestle as the main sponsor. This was re-enforced during the synthesis panel on Friday. One of Nestles’ PR team attended – presumably this was part of the package. SIWI asked a question to him on consumption patterns and whether they were supply or demand driven and if it was a question of supply would they alter their corporate strategy in the name of sustainability; even if it ate into profits? The inadequacy of his response and the eventual assertion – after being pressed - that it was demand driven was without any analysis or evidence, and what’s more the supposedly slick PR man knew it himself. Hence his reluctance to say so! While it was good SIWI asked the question it was too little too late: having them in the first place was plain wrong.
One final point on pricing: there was much said by business on it during the week. They regularly spoke of how agriculture were the main users and how it was literally free for them to waste water, even some with links to agriculture said this. Their argument was that only pricing could control use. Indeed some control and regulation of over-use is required – this is undoubtedly an area for discussion and debate. However we should note that they offered only full scale market solutions with no thought on how a pricing system would impact the poor. Indeed it had the feel of a solution that realised water depletion was an issue and that they wanted to use pricing as a means to seize control of supplies - knowing full well that only they had the means to purchase if fully priced.
So often this week, it was said that the finance was there, but there was just not the projects to invest in. This view is puzzling for us mere mortals on earth let alone anyone else. For what greater project can there be to provide water to those 1.4 billion without clean water and those 2.5 billion without sanitation? This is the one and only project: but, for the private sector there is no incentive in striving to achieve the addressing this modern day shame. For us not inclined to promote market solutions, the solution, while not simple, is clear. Focus and redouble our efforts, not to involve the private sector, but to organise and finance world-wide those communities and public utilities that have local expertise and knowledge with social solidarity at heart and a commitment to solve the current, scandalous state of affairs where so many do without.