Turning the tap off

Unisphere Fountain, NY 

There are echoes of Amarya Sen in the recently-published UNDP 2006 Human Development Report, which is entitled ‘Beyond Scarcity: Power, Poverty and Global Water Crisis’:

Throughout history water has confronted humanity with some of its greatest challenges. Water is a source of life and a natural resource that sustains our environments and supports livelihoods – but it is also a source of risk and vulnerability. In the early 21st Century, prospects for human development are threatened by a deepening global water crisis. Debunking the myth that the crisis is the result of scarcity, this report argues poverty, power and inequality are at the heart of the problem.

The report goes on to argue that in a world of unprecedented wealth almost 2 million children die each year for want of a glass of clean water and adequate sanitation and that water-borne infectious diseases are holding back poverty reduction and economic growth in some of the world’s poorest countries.

ODI’s Tom Slaymaker welcomes the report’s findings not least ‘because it exposes some of the myths which have infiltrated global water discourses including efforts to link lack of access with supposed ‘scarcity’ and scaremongering about imminent water wars’. From Alex Kirby on the BBC to Sandra Postel at the Worldwatch Institute, all seem all too eager to remind us that water-shortages are the Next Big Thing.

But a closer – and more sophisticated – look at the issue reveals that access, not scarcity, might be the real issue. Sen’s analysis of the causes and dynamics of food shortages, explained in his seminal study on Poverty and Famines: An Essay on Entitlement and Deprivation, was clearly on the minds of those who wrote this UNDP report.

One of the central themes in the current debate on water management is of course the role of the private sector in delivering what is considered by many a public good. The UN report appears a little wary of the recent wave of faith in the private sector:

From Argentina to Bolivia, and from the Philippines to the United States, the conviction that the private sector offers a “magic bullet” for unleashing the equity and efficiency needed to accelerate progress towards water for all has proved to be misplaced.

Unfortunately Wateraid still makes no mention of the report on its website, although its views on the subject will probably be not too dissimilar to past arguments:

Privatisation and the involvement of the international private sector in water and sanitation services have met [sic!] with stiff opposition in many developing countries, yet donor governments have still to develop a different approach to helping reform water and sanitation services. WaterAid’s experience and research show that the only way to achieve more access to water and sanitation for the world’s poorest people is through the public sector taking responsibility to ensure equitable and sustainable access to basic water and sanitation services.

The Economist, on the other hand, backed by a recent study on the feasibility of cost recovery for water and electricity in Latin America by the World Bank’s Vivien Foster and Tito Yepes, could not disagree more:

Whether or not water is a right, it is also a commodity which […] is costly to provide. If those costs are not covered, water will not be supplied. […] If some people underpay and overconsume the stuff, there will be less of it for others. As the human development report puts it: “Underpricing (or zero pricing in some cases) has sustained overuse: if markets delivered Porsche cars at give-away prices, they too would be in short supply.”

Global Nomad adds a useful comment to the debate:

It is unfortunate that the best of intentions had led many to focus on an argument of public or private water supply, the HDR’s determined focus on practicalities and reality is refreshing. It would be marvellous if UNDP could translate this call for action into a concerted drive by its country offices to inform, monitor and shape government practice in support of appropriate private sector service provision.

Once more, the heated debates will spread like fire. Let’s hope there’s some water at hand to put out the flames…


2 responses to “Turning the tap off

  1. Pingback: Water is a right. The price is wrong! … HDR 2006 UNDP « Global Nomad101

  2. I don’t know much about water issues, but drawing on the parallel with food, it may be that for the poor the issue is access, but for the world as a whole, the issue is matching supply to growing demand, or conversly constraining demand to sustainable supply.

    When people talk about scarcity they are probably talking about whether there will be enough water for *all* the things people *want* to do, not simply the basic needs of the poor.

    For example, it’s argued that as countries get richer, people want and can afford to consume more meat, which takes more water to produce than the traditional diet.

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