The Chron's skewed notions of water and rights


by Amanda Witherell


“Is there a right to water?” The San Francisco Chronicle’s editors asked today. The editorial outlined how water isn’t currently considered a human right by the UN, an issue the Guardian also recently covered. The Chron still found a way to criticize the notion that we all deserve a clean, safe glass of it.

“Enshrining water as a right sounds innocent. But it carries multiple implications. On one level, such a right would put nations on notice to upgrade water systems to make sure all their citizens have access. It's an inarguable ideal for a human necessity."

They go on: “But it also carries a political undercurrent. Such a right would be a powerful signal to international water companies such Veolia, Suez and RWE (all based in Europe) that their attentions are unwelcome in developing countries. These poor nations are prime targets as their leaders wrestle with the costs and engineering needs to improve outdated pipes, dams and spigots. In this setting, water shifts from a [sic] everyday need to an economic issue.”

Doubtless water is an economic issue – it costs money to install pipes, pumps, filtration systems, and monitoring equipment. It costs money to keep the system running properly. It costs money to ensure the cleanliness of water sources. How much should it cost? Should that cost include a profit margin?

Corporations and private companies would contend that governments just don't have enough money to do the massive infrastructure improvements that are called for worldwide – in the US alone water infrastructure needs amount to a $1 trillion investment.

As Poseidon Resources Scott Maloni confidently told the Guardian during an interview about that private company’s construction of a desalination plant in Carlsbad, “I don’t think there’s a public water agency in the country that would be able to continue these desalination projects.”

Maude Barlow, a water rights activist who was recently appointed special advisor to the UN’s General Assembly, is not just a “Canadian anti-globalization activist and longtime opponent of privatizing water systems,” as the Chron characterized her. She’s pro-solutions, and one of them is a call for more “public-public” partnerships -- also advocated by Public Services International, a worldwide union group. “PSI asserts that, if each effectively functioning public water utility in the world were to 'adopt' just three cities in need, public-public partnerships could operate on a global basis, and provide water to all those in need at a fraction of the cost now encountered supporting the private companies,” Barlow wrote in her 2007 book Blue Covenant.

In some ways, the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission is doing this – through the Water System Improvement Project -- by working with their wholesale customers to reduce need. Spokesperson Tony Winnicker told the Guardian, “We get the most calls from other water and wastewater agencies wanting information on some of the more innovative programs we're running.” That includes the water recycling plant being installed on the west side of the city to keep Golden Gate Park and the golf courses lush and green. (As Winnicker also said, “It's insane to be watering golf courses with pristine Hetch Hetchy water.”) The city is also subsidizing a rainwater barrel program for citizens, assisting communities that want to install permeable pavement to reduce runoff, and helping city buildings implement the green building code, which requires aggressive water conservation.

“That's what's really exciting to us here. Probably five years ago we were a much more of a 'deliver the water, take care of the waste' agency,” Winnicker said. “A great credit should go to a lot of the advocates who pushed this agency to see things in a different way.”

Could we expect that kind of responsiveness to the public from a private water company? Would a corporate manager view a phone call seeking more information about the company’s projects as a threat from the competition, and would the company’s information be considered of “proprietary interest,” and thus too sacred for the public eye?

“Globalized business is here to stay, and major corporations with experienced staffs should be tapped - under the right circumstances. There could be terms and conditions that modify and oversee operations, allowing outside operators a stake while home countries keep control over a vital resource that can't be left solely to the marketplace.”

What kinds of terms and conditions? How do you keep control in the hands of the public if the resource is managed and vended by a private company? The Chron has no helpful suggestions here and only goes on to conclude: “As the United Nations studies making water a human right, it should avoid ideological extremes. Privatization isn't the enemy in making the water flow.”

Isn’t privatization based on its own ideological extreme? Isn’t it sold as a “free market” solution to the world’s problems? Didn’t Alan Greenspan just concede there are, in fact, some flaws in his free market philosophy?

“In general I think our water system works better and water policy works better when there’s transparency in government and public participation,” Peter Gleick, president of the Oakland-based Pacific Institute, told me in an interview. "In the 20th century decisions about water were made by white males in back rooms, It solved a lot of problems, but it led to a lot of environmental problems. The days when water decisions made in back rooms should be over. And they aren't over, and that's part of the problem."

But Gleick isn’t entirely anti-privatization, and said that in some cases there’s a way for “proper private participation.” “I think there are all sorts of corporations doing very innovative things in the water area. We’re pretty careful not to paint them all with the same brush. We just think there ought to be principles that everyone adheres to.”

The Pacific Institute outlined those principles in a 2002 report, “ target=”blank_”>“The New Economy of Water.” The report recommends that any privatization agreement guarantees that basic human and ecosystem needs for water are met, that rates should be fair and reasonable with cost increases only linked to system improvements, requirements that companies invest in conservation and efficiency before tapping new sources, that public agencies should still maintain control and monitor quality, and all contracts and negotiations should be open and transparent.

The report also pointed out the inherent irony for poor countries that might actually benefit from a privatization agreement – their governments are often too unstable to ensure these kinds of protections are part of the agreement with the private company. “Unfortunately, the worst risks of privatization are also where governments are weakest, where they are unable to provide the oversight and management functions necessary to protect public interests. This contradiction poses the greatest challenge for those who hope to make privatization work successfully,” the report states.

Gleick told us he doesn’t buy the argument that government doesn’t have enough money. “Public agencies if they want to do something raise public funds. A city can issue revenue bonds at a far lower rate of interest.”

Poorer, less developed countries which – as the Chron rightly points out – are really the most wanting for clean safe water, and money for infrastructure has been provided by the World Bank, attached to conditions for privatization. This hasn’t really worked, as situations in Bolivia, Ecuador, Paraguay, and many other countries have shown. So why not condition the money with something else? Why not use it to connect model public agencies with ones in need of help? Why not use it to send some SFPUC expertise down to Ecuador for a little while?

Public agencies are not without flaws, even when they’re designed with accountability and public control. For example, the strategic plan outlined by Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Delta Blue Ribbon Task Force, calls for the establishment of a delta conservancy council, but as Restore the Delta's organizer, Barbara Barrigan-Parrilla told the Guardian, “Our concept of conservancy is completely different from theirs. Theirs is all appointed by the governor. Ours would be representative of the community.” She didn't speak well of the other public agencies that are already charged with overseeing the delta.

“DWR does not operate water for the common good, for all citizens, as part of the public trust. Though I'm not fighting a corporate interest head on, I'm fighting their surrogates.” She said the Department of Water Resources is too responsive to powerful farmers and their lobbyists, and her requests for specific information are routinely ignored.

Her assessment of another lead agency on the delta was similar. “If the State Water Resources Control Board were to enforce the laws as they were written the Delta conditions would improve immediately. We think one of the keys to saving the Delta is that board needs to be reformed. It needs to be elected, fully funded, with staff separate from the board.”

Currently the state board, which manages water quality and water rights, consists of five members appointed by the governor. A July 2008 report on the authority and effectiveness of the board found that, with regards to the Delta, “many of its major actions have resulted in litigation; much of this litigation has required the Board to revisit its initial actions.” Further, the board is slow to act, causing “the prolonged absence of adequate protection for threatened resources,” and that when it has acted, it was “the result of consensus reached by parties outside the Board's processes.”

Which says a lot about how well the public process is working -- but if the state's water was run by a private company would a report like that even be public?

DWR's Richard Sanchez told the Guardian that the 21 public meetings he's attended have made him feel like the public process is there, but admitted that the agency is anticipating more litigation over the delta. “It's very likely that we will not be able to resolve all the issues and someone will sue us, whether its in regards to environmental issues or water quality. There's going to be litigation on this.”

What does this point out? That water is an extremely complex issue and one that the public shouldn’t be locked out of – in fact, it's committed public inclusion that keeps government honest. Unless you own shares, do corporations offer you a seat in the board room and the opportunity for public comment? It could be argued that one of the few ways people are allowed to comment on a private company’s products is by refusing to buy them – choosing with your wallet. Is that possible if a misbehaving company is the sole operator of what comes out of your tap and stands between you and a clean, safe glass of water?