The debates drag on

At the recent World Water Forum in Istanbul, it was good to hear some new topics being discussed such as the energy-water linkage, the need for water-related data and the impact of the financial crisis on the water sector.

But one set of debates that never seem to go away are the ‘Is water a human right?’ debate which leads to the ‘Shouldn’t water be free?’ debate which opens the floodgates for “Should water be managed by the public or private sector?” debate.

All the three questions have been debated at so many water forums that it amazes me how they surface all over again at another forum with a new set of speakers as if it is being discussed for the first time.

At the end of the Istanbul forum, 20 countries officially challenged the ministerial declaration because it defined water as a ‘human need’ rather than a ‘human right’. Maude Barlow, a Canadian activist declared amidst cheers that water is a fundamental human right and not a commodity.

While it is unquestionable that water is needed for life, it is also true that rights bring on a sense of entitlement which then leads to the premise that water should be given free. But providing water to homes, factories and farms is a service. Many of the water problems that afflict the developing world today such as lack of connections, intermittent supply, poor quality and over-use of resources have been precisely caused by not charging a reasonable tariff for this service.

However, some of the advocates of the right to water argue that including these rights this would make governments more accountable and help to push them towards good water management. They believe it will generate the political will necessary to stimulate reforms in practices, policies, laws and monitoring. They also insist that spelling out water clearly as a human right would not clash with paying a price for it nor does it have anything to do with the public-private sector debate. Alas, if only these fine distinctions could be made by the radical activists!

Meanwhile, the good governments that understand the benefits of providing water and sanitation to all are going ahead to provide it whether or not it is declared a human right. The bad governments which have anyway done little for existing rights such as right to equality or right against exploitation are certainly not going to implement any more new rights.

Similarly the issue of public or private water management needs to be better understood by water forum participants so as to focus on the right debate. It looks fairly clear now that the future will see a mix of public and private participation in the water sector. How to optimise the roles of public and private entities, how to get financing and how to get all stakeholders to work in alignment is the real debate that we need to participate in.

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