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Privatization brings the rain?

Anti-water privatization activists from all over Africa met today at the World Social Forum to launch a new African Water Network aimed at strengthening co-operation and co-ordinating efforts to ‘oppose water privatization in all its forms’; to work for a participatory model of public control over water; and to assert that water is a fundamental human right. Virginia Setshedi from the South African Coalition Against Water Privatization explained the significance of the event: ‘Today we celebrate the birth of this network to resist the theft of our water, tomorrow we will celebrate access to clean water for all!’

Water privatization programmes in Africa have been almost universally disastrous and costly. In one case, City Water, partially owned by Britian's Biwater, is suing the Tanzanian Government after the their contract was revoked by officials due to concerns about the quality of the service the company provided as many homes were cut-off and draconian tactics have been allegedly used to get people to pay their bills. ‘Privatization has resulted in higher water bills and, in some cities, these have been compounded by large-scale disconnections of those who cannot pay,’ said Al-Hassan Adam from the Ghana Coalition Against Water Privatization. ‘Yet the World Bank and donor governments stubbornly continue to promote privatization by attaching conditions to debt relief, aid and loans.’

Not only that, but Western agencies have been funding a massive pro-privatization propaganda campaign which at times have reached some dizzying heights of absurdity. In the Tanzania case, the Adam Smith Institute – a British free market think-tank – with funding from the UK's Deparment for International Development (DfID), produced a quarter-million pound pro-privatization PR campaign including a pop song in Kiswahili with lyrics like: 'Young plants need rain, businesses need investment. Our old industries are like dry crops and privatisation brings the rain.'

What is truly inspiring is that many of the Network members can point to positive examples of ‘public-public partnerships’ that challenge the ‘public-private partnership’ mantra so often asininely chanted by Western agencies operating in Africa.

In an earlier session, Abu O Al-Hassan of the Savelugu Water Board described how community-managed water supply in the rural town of Savelugu in Northern Ghana has led to increased public access to potable water to 74 per cent (compared to a national average for rural areas of 36 per cent). Peter Werikhe of the Public Employees Union in Uganda explained how democratic reforms have helped the National Water and Sewerage Corporation boost its service coverage from 48 per cent in 1998 to 70 per cent in 2006, while keeping water tariffs affordable. The NWSC now works in ‘not-for-profit public-public partnerships’ with utilities in Tanzania and Zambia to share expertise and improve services. Many more examples abound.

There was a real sense of energy, optimism and purpose among the activists present here. As water is such a crucial issue in Africa, such momentum is desperately needed. The launch of the Network and the coming together of so many resilient activists working to improve access to such a fundamental resource is one of the real success stories of this World Social Forum.
With this year’s motto: ‘People’s Struggles, People’s Alternatives’; it seems like at least in this case, it certainly rings true. As Virginia Setshedi ended a rousing speech: Down with privatization! Viva World Social Forum!'

Al-Hassan Adam from Ghana reminded people that much work was needed to pressure Northern countries to cease and desist from supporting such disastrous privatization programmes all across the world. Here are some links to groups who are doing some stellar work in this area:

Corporate Europe Observatory

Council of Canadians

The Transnational Institute

World Development Movement (with a very useful interactive map of water privatization projects).

and other groups listed here.

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