New Internationalist

Africa: trapped in water privatization

A friend of mine recently complained that she now had to pay for water as it was no longer included in her rent. She now has to be more conscious about the amount of water she uses for showering and washing dishes.

Water is one of those natural resources which those living in the Global North take for granted: turn the tap on and the water flows. No need to think about where it comes from or whether it’s connected to rain patterns. It’s like buying roast chicken in a supermarket – people don’t always make the connection between a live chicken and the packaged end product, as in something that died in the process.  

This distance between the raw resource and the end product is huge. By distancing ourselves from the origins of a product we are less likely to be concerned with any abuse and exploitation that takes place before the final product reaches us.

The water situation in Africa is even more sinister. The continent’s re-colonization in the form of land grab and privatization is compromising autonomous and sustainable community development. The new colonizers are not just countries such as Saudi Arabia, Korea, Kuwait, Japan, or corporations – Goldman Sachs and Morgan Stanley – but also US academic institutions such as Harvard University and Vanderbilt University. Sékou Diarra describes this logic of capitalism as the ‘commodification of life’ in Pambazuka News:  

‘Nowadays, politicians in Africa are generally more concerned with market efficiency, economic growth rates, productivity of financial capital and the security of the rich than they are about human rights and the security of the people. In African countries, if progress is identified with economic growth alone, it leads to the gradual loss of the representative aspects of their institutions and an increasing gap between public institutions and citizens; the latter are considered as consumers, clients, people with savings, all merely aimed at benefiting the stock exchanges.’

Mali is one of the countries that experience both land grab and privatization of their water. Mali’s neighbour Niger continues to suffer the effects of the 2010 drought and famine. The majority of Niger’s people are poor, so the country cannot afford to privatize water because it would lead to disastrous consequences for its already impoverished population.

But the trick is that Niger, as well as many other countries, receives World Bank/IMF funds on condition that their utilities, including water, are privatized. Privatization of water is also one of the main demands the G8 leaders are imposing on countries seeking debt relief and further aid.

Since 1992, six privatization contracts were awarded to foreign, mainly French, companies in South Africa. The losers of this affair are the poor communities for whom the right to water – a fundamental and inalienable human right – is denied. Following this, environmental pollution, preventable diseases and violence against neighbours increased. What decreased was the people’s dignity, because they’re forced to steal water from each other to survive.

In Ghana, after privatization water charges increased by 95 per cent; one third of Ghana’s population has no access to clean water. Immediately after independence, President Kwame Nkrumah set up a policy of nationalization, but it changed in the 1990s, when the period of ‘liberalization’ and water privatization began.

Water privatization is not the only way in which people are being disenfranchised and impoverished – multinational corporations also exploit their water resources and commercialize natural spring water (they then sell it back to the source countries in bottles). An excellent example is Nestlé. As I wrote two years ago:

Nestlé is the global leader in the exploitation of water across the globe. It has 67 bottling factories and sells in more than 130 countries. In Pakistan, Nestlé, the world leader in bottled water, invented a “blue-print factory” that could be shipped to any location in the world. It chose Pakistan for a number of reasons, one of which is that it is the only country in the region that has an unregulated groundwater sector, meaning that anyone can simply dig a hole and extract as much water as they want without paying a penny. The Pure Life water has been produced in Pakistan, Asia, Africa and South America and is marketed as “capturing nature in its purest form”. In short, Nestlé now owns and distributes “nature” on every continent.’ (New Internationalist)


The small village in Spain in which I lived for a while had two natural springs, each with its own mineral content. The water came from the mountains and was available for everyone through two water fountains in the village. That’s how it should be – water in its purest form, free for all.

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  1. #1 jill bascome 21 Jul 11

    I don't know if this would help anyone, but here in Bermuda we don't have ground water. All of our water is collected when it rains. Been that way for centuries. Every house collects rain water which is stored below ground under the house. That is why our roofs are constructed the way they are and painted white with lime. I always hoped that bigger heads would come and check out our system and that maybe that could solve some of the water problems facing the rest of world.

  2. #2 Chris Noakes 20 Dec 11

    Sadly this piece appears to adopt a far too simplistic stance in regards to what is a very complex situation. By simply stating that privatization is bad because people must now pay for water implies that prior to this there was ample water available for entire populations. This has never been the case in Africa and remains the target of Millennium Development Goal 7, and follow up GoAL WaSH Programme.

    There are many states across Africa who have neither the money nor willpower to ensure their populations have access to clean drinkable water. There are many states who have the willpower yet lack the funds to put their plans into action. Privatization of water is one way in which states attempt to increase the efficiency and reach of the water access to populations.

    The mention of Ghana in your article is in fact a perfect example of where privatization is in fact providing cheaper water through tariffs than what is being sold through shops and street sellers. Currently many millions of people are buying sachets of highly questionable quality water at many thousands of times the price of water that can be bought through water taps with fixed tariffs. The dilemma in Ghana appears to be convincing the population that is it better to buy water at a lower price from fixed taps than it is to buy it in small quantities at many times the price. Sachet water is simply collected from ditches, lakes and many other untreated water sources and as such is increasing the risk of disease.

    The main point of your piece appears to be that privatization removes the right of people to a human right of clean, drinkable water. I would argue that privatization of water in many African nations would increase this human right through extending the provision of water to those who currently are failed by nationalised water bodies. It is by no means the only answer, as proved by the rise of Private-Public Partnerships since the 1990s, but it does appear to not be the denier of human rights as you portray it. Such unbalanced pieces lacking proof of both sides of the argument do this highly important issue no favours.

  3. #3 tim 24 Apr 13

    water should not be owned it to much money leave me a comet if think so

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About the author

Sokari Ekine a New Internationalist contributor

Sokari Ekine is a Nigerian social justice activist and blogger. She writes an awardwinning blog, Black Looks, which she started in 2004, writing on a range of topics such as LGBTI Rights in Africa, gender issues, human rights, the Niger Delta, Haiti and Land Rights. She is a IRP 2013 Fellow.

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