Water for Sale

Water for Sale August 6, 2014

Karen Piper’s Price of Thirst is an expose of the global cabal of five companies that controls some 73% of the world’s private water supplies. Private companies provide an increasing proportion of water: “By 2025, the number of people served by private water companies is predicted to reach 21%. In the United States, it will reach 39%.”

Building on what Piper characterizes as a colonial legacy, these companies are not producing clean water, but rather the conditions for a “dangerous global social unrest.”

These companies have reignited a nineteenth-century trend toward privatized water: “Powerful in the nineteenth century in Europe and the United States, private water companies were failing by the early twentieth century due to poor and inconsistent management and regular outbreaks of cholera and typhoid.’”

According to Piper, these private suppliers did not make good on their promise of giving universal access to clean water: “Because of the massive health emergencies that followed in the wake of large-scale urbanization and industrialization, governments began to regulate and buy out private water contracts. By 1900, over fiftythree percent of U.S. water services had been taken over by the public sector.” Deregulation of water over the past several decades is part of the broader trend toward deregulation and privatization.

Piper’s book is a spirited, informed polemic against the privatization of water, but the issues are not so clear-cut as she claims. At a practical level, precisely because private water suppliers aim for profits, their prices are closer to the real costs of providing clean water. Public water suppliers keep prices artificially low, and this makes it difficult for many to innovate or invest in the ways that they need to do continue to provide their service. Privatization may be a bad idea in some cases, but public control isn’t always the best way to meet Piper’s goals.

At a more theoretical level, the whole discussion gets skewed by the insertion of the notion of “rights.” Water is a fundamental human right, Piper argues, and because governments exist to protect rights governments must be in the water-provision business. This makes it more difficult to assess the costs and benefits of public water supplies with any sort of objectivity. A less absolutist paradigm than “rights” might provide more flexibility.

Perhaps we should go medieval: Instead of treating water and other basic necessities as “rights,” we might consider them as universal gifts from heaven, provided by a generous Creator for the common benefit of all human beings. What sorts of policies might flow from such a revised metaphysics?

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