The challenges of access to water


Association Internationale de Techniciens, Experts et Chercheurs (AITEC)

This fact sheet outlines the challenges of access to water in the world in terms of public services and also presents the ambiguous game played by the major water multinationals.

State of the art

1.5 billion people do not have access to sufficient quantity and quality of water ; nearly 2.5 billion do not have sanitation. An estimated 15 million deaths per year are due to bacteriological infections related to poor water quality. According to a recent study1, this water crisis could affect 4 billion people by 2025.

Despite the commitment of the United Nations Committee on Economic, Cultural and Social Rights2, most states do not yet consider access to water to be a basic human right, even though they all agree that it is a vital need. More often, states and governments consider water as an economic good to which a value must be attributed based on the market price to recover the total cost of production, including profits. The Millennium Goals against poverty (adopted by the United Nations Assembly in New York in 2000), taken up by the Johannesburg Summit on Sustainable Development in 2002 and by the Kyoto Forum on Water in 2003, aim to reduce by half the number of people without water and sanitation by 2015.

The proposals of the association for the world water contract (Acme)

Faced with a threatening future - water crises and water wars - the international committee of the association for the world water contract (ACME) has proposed, among other things, to 3 :

This vision is based on the fact that water is essential for life. For human beings as for all living beings, nothing can replace it. The association therefore proposes that water be considered a global public good4.

For ACME, considering water as a global public good would imply that structures be put in place to ensure its preservation. The World Water Parliament, with a legislative function, would be in charge of elaborating and approving the rules and principles of the global commons, of its valorisation and of its solidary and sustainable use. The World Water Tribunal would be in charge of settling inter-state conflicts regarding water use (legal function). An evaluation agency, responsible for ensuring that the objectives are respected, i.e. guaranteeing access to water for all, would guarantee the control of investments.

The notion of «  Global Public Good  »

A network of associations working on access to water on a global scale have pleaded for water to be considered a «  Global Public Good ". This notion refers to the collective responsibility towards current and future generations and ecosystems.

To advocate for water to be recognized as a global public good poses a number of new problems. To which legal and political entity should one turn in the event of a violation of this right? The public authority, the legal political power capable of guaranteeing such commitments has yet to be invented. However, the Unesco declaration establishing the common heritage of humanity or the United Nations Convention on the Right to the Sea, which considers the resources of the oceans as common, can show the premises of this conception of global public commons. To the non-substitutable character of water, to the globality of its cycle on the planet, we must add that, in the world, out of 214 river basins, 155 are shared between 2 countries, 36 between 3 nations, and 23 basins by a number of countries up to 12 !

A good managed at the local level

The global nature of water is reflected in its local management: it is usually exploited, managed and distributed at the local level.

We can imagine a public water service, a fortiori a European public water service or a world public water service, in the form of a network coordinating and pooling experiences and means at the various territorial levels.

The Indian eco-feminist Vandana Shiva thus evokes «  a public service rooted in local communities  ». The Water Supply and Sanitation Collaborative Council (WSSCC) affirms that «  it is not enough to improve access to water and sanitation, we must also strengthen access to the management of water and sanitation services, which will determine the sustainability of the progress made[>(note) 5]  ».

The local level crystallizes a double challenge that is not always easy to dissociate: on the one hand, the existence of a natural territory, that of the hydrographic basin, in which the ecosystem is located, and which often does not correspond to the recognized administrative and political limits ; on the other hand, the participation of citizens, of local communities in water management and the democratization of water management. It is indeed essential that citizens participate more dynamically in the definition and implementation of water policy, from the local to the global level.

Privatization of water management and the role of multinational water companies

The private sector brings very little investment to the water sector. Compared to the three billion dollars of official development assistance (bilateral and multilateral) devoted to the water sector, the contribution of the private sector represents 5% of the funds devoted to water. Specifically, the private sector spends $153 million per year on water, which represents less than 0.3 percent of its total projects across all sectors6.

Water was managed by public utilities almost everywhere in the world. This system is being challenged by the privatization and commoditization of water, undertaken by multinationals, most of them European, particularly French.

In the early 1980s, the two main private French water companies operating internationally (Générale des Eaux, which became Vivendi Environnement, a subsidiary of Vivendi Universal, and then Veolia ; and Lyonnaise des Eaux, which became Ondeo, a subsidiary of Suez) provided water to 300,000 people (outside France). In 2000, the population served by private companies in the world rose to 400 million, including 250 million by French companies alone. The Swiss private bank Pictet predicts that, if the current trend continues, the private sector will serve about 1.7 billion people by 2015.

This process may take the form of full privatization along the lines of the British model or a public-private partnership along the lines of the French delegation. Large multinationals can then have the advantages of ownership (control, decision-making power, etc.) without the disadvantages (maintenance, investments, responsibility, etc.). The water majors who, in France, proclaim that «  infrastructure ownership must remain public  » do not balk at making themselves direct owners of networks outside…

The consequences for the water sector

No serious and independent evaluation of the impact of privatizing the management of this sector has been undertaken. Yet, we already know that :

A UNDP report states that «  public-private partnerships are based on the principle of customer payment for services. The privatization of water and sanitation services has led to a sharp increase in tariffs, sometimes overnight and with disastrous consequences[>(note) 7]  ».

In France, too, prices rise from the moment management is delegated to the private sector. On average, the price difference between leasing (management delegated to the private sector) and direct management is 27% for drinking water and 20% for sanitation8.

Thus, in 2002, the price of water (excluding tax) in two large neighboring cities, Grenoble and Lyon9, was €0.73/m3 in Grenoble (public management) and €1.614/m3 in Lyon (delegated to the Compagnie Générale des Eaux, formerly Vivendi). This is a twofold difference! The economies of scale made possible by the considerable number of contracts held by three companies (Compagnie Générale des Eaux, Lyonnaise des Eaux and SAUR) and their joint subsidiaries do not benefit users.

It should be noted that after the announcement effect of the private sector’s commitment ("water for all, quickly" declared Gérard Mestrallet, CEO of Suez) to improve the quality of service, the time has come to withdraw and break off many contracts (Manila, Jakarta, Atlanta…). Generally speaking, the water multinationals are primarily interested in solvent populations: rural areas and slums are forgotten.

Multinational water companies operate in an opaque manner, excluding citizens and local authorities from water management. Worse still, according to the UNDP, «  multinationals rarely respect the agreements they have made with the host country[>(note) 10] » [[Human Development Report, 2003, UNDP]].

In Latin America, 55 percent of transport concession contracts and 74 percent of water concession contracts were renegotiated during the period 1985-2000. In 66% of cases, it was the private sector that requested renegotiation.

Attacks on popular sovereignty are on the rise: the example of Manila

For Carla Montemayor of the water vigilance network Bantay Tubig, the privatization of water in Manila can be considered a dramatic failure. The commitments made have not been kept and the price of water in the part of the city managed by Suez has increased by 500% since 1997 (and even by 700% in the other part, managed by a joint venture including Bechtel). And this system is being replicated in the rest of the Philippines. Plans for faster price increases were partly accepted by the regulator. However, Suez decided to leave Manila, seeking financial compensation through the arbitration court of the International Chamber of Commerce in Paris (chaired by Jean-René Fourtou, CEO of Vivendi Universal). The implications are strong in terms of sovereignty, with Suez directly interfering with the power of the local regulator in Manila through continuous and powerful lobbying, notably via the French Embassy in Manila.

In Latin America, the breach of the contract with Bechtel followed a popular insurrection in Cochabamba (Bolivia). Bechtel sued the Bolivian government before a private international court (WTO arbitration court, World Trade Organization), claiming US$25 million in damages for lost profits. The budgetary consequences of such an operation for a country such as Bolivia would obviously be disastrous.

As far as the WTO’s GATS (General Agreement on Trade in Services) is concerned, it is the European Commission that negotiates on behalf of all the countries of the Union, including France. In the water sector, France has been very aggressive in the community negotiations, with the continuous lobbying of French water multinationals indirectly influencing these trade negotiations. Indeed, the European Commission has sent requests for the liberalization of all services related to drinking water and wastewater treatment to 72 of the 109 countries to which it has sent requests. In each case, the countries were asked to commit to the national treatment clause. Supporting the idea that liberalized access to groundwater does pave the way for the privatization of groundwater, the European Commission has asked Taiwan to repeal its law prohibiting a foreign company from owning water sources11.

Finally, the privatization of water in developing countries is also driven by the injunctions of the World Bank and other international donors. This is what Wenonah Hauter, director of the environment department of the American NGO Public Citizen, relates for Ghana: « The World Bank dictates its conditions and puts pressure on the government of Ghana, which fears the collapse of public companies. The World Bank is withholding a subsidy for the public water companies : repairs are not being carried out for lack of funds and the funds will only be released once the water is in the hands of private companies12 ".

From the refusal of privatization to the elaboration of a public alternative, the long path of the alterglobalists of water

For several years, national and international associations and networks of very diverse origins and inspirations have been converging to elaborate and build sustainable and participatory public options for managing this vital good. In March 2003, the first World Alternative Water Forum brought together 1800 participants in Florence, Italy. Some 20 organizations made up its international organizing committee, including ACMEs and ATTAC chapters from various countries, the Coordination for the Defense of Water and Life of Cochabamba (Bolivia), the National Coalition Against Water Privatization (Ghana) and Public Citizen (United States).

As a counterpoint to the World Water Forum, which was held at the same time in Kyoto, at the initiative of the World Water Council13, the Florence Forum denounced the current failure of water policy and the headlong rush to privatization. The Forum was an opportunity to elaborate the principles of another global and local water policy, by developing the notions of the right to water, of a common good whose ownership, government and political control must remain public, in renewed, participatory and solidarity-based forms. The Florence Forum resulted in the manifesto « For another water policy » and the Rome Declaration.

Based on this declaration, ACME has launched an international campaign to ensure that existing institutions take decisions that will make the realization of the right to water for all by 2015-20 a reality, with the collection of endorsements of the Rome Declaration, primarily from municipalities and local authorities, parliamentarians, organizations active in the field of water and social rights, and trade unions. This approach also includes analyses, proposals and debates on two essential issues: the financing of the right to water for all and of public water management; local democracy, through the creation of Citizens’ Councils for Water. The last meeting was the 2nd World Water Forum in Geneva in March 2005.

4 Published in Mexico City on March 22, 2004 by the World Water Council]]

1 In November 2002, the Council formally recognized the right to water in its General Comment 15.

2 In the Rome Declaration, adopted on December 10, 2003, on the occasion of the 55th anniversary of the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights.

3 L’eau, bien commun public, Riccardo Petrella, éditions de l’aube, 2004.

4 «  Listening  » WSSC document, published on March 22, 2004, p6.

5 Environment resources management, Financing the EU Water initiative, 2002, p18; Camdessus Report, 2003, p. 27

6 Human Development Report, 2003, UNDP.

7 IFEN and SCEES, April 2001

8 Communauté de l’agglomération havraise

9 Human Development Report, 2003, UNDP

10 Summary Of the EC’s Initial Requests to Third Countries in Negotiations, Brussels, 1 July 2002, p.6

11 in L’eau, respublica ou marchandise, La Dispute, 2003.

12 The World Bank and private companies created the World Water Council in 1996 with the support of the United Nations specialized agencies.

13 Available at