Keep the baby, throw the bathwater
A 16th century idiom “throwing the baby out with the bath water” leaps up in front of me ever so visually during my interactions with people these days. Whether it is nuclear power generation or capital punishment or religion, I wonder why entire concepts are considered flawed because they did not work sometimes. A number of media-hyped failures or mistakes lead to wholesale rejection of an idea or solution. People do not bother to see the whole as composed of parts and to see which part has failed. Puerile, uninformed discussions are held at meetings in the real and virtual space without considering all the facts.
The water sector has been much splashed with discarded “bath water” along with “babies”. Big dams top the list. Constant drumming by well-organised, rich NGOs has deluded a large number of well-meaning people into thinking that big dams always mean disaster. It is hardly understood that a proper strategy should put all options on the table – big dams, small dams, rainwater harvesting, wastewater reuse, water conservation, non-revenue water management, desalination. But blind opposition to big dams never goes out of fashion.
In today’s world of complex water problems, an array of solutions are often required simultaneously right from leakage reduction to dams. A city with ten million people in Asia may not be well-served by just rainwater harvesting and small dams. Instead of focussing the discourse on how to design and construct dams where they are needed while avoiding the mistakes of the past, how to recycle wastewater or how to harvest rainwater so as to maximise benefits and lower costs, we see emotional, ideological debates. Ironically, the people who suffer most from delayed or cancelled dam projects are often the farmers waiting to irrigate their crops and women who have to wait at dried-up taps.
A similar outcry against private sector participation in water supply and distribution is putting many good projects in jeopardy. Activists do not explain the context of failed privatisation projects and avoid talking about the successes of public-private partnerships (PPPs). Poorly designed contracts, improper risk-allocation and poor management are equated with a failure of the concept of PPP itself.
Why do the real issues such as using PPPs to improve the capacity of public water utilities or tailoring PPP contracts to suit the needs of a city never form the subject of a debate?
The biggest lie propagated by activists is that PPPs are responsible for inflated water tariffs. What is not highlighted is that public utilities which are unable to recover their costs from tariffs become slaves at the hands of their masters in governments. These masters who sanction funds for the utility also interfere in its functioning. Making utilities autonomous, allowing them to recover their costs from tariffs so that they can run their business in a transparent manner is a much-desired proposition that has never been communicated to people.
Unless people internalise the habit of critical thinking and intelligent evaluation, there might not even be enough water to bathe in, let alone throw the bathwater.