We are regularly told in Britain that water is vital to the health of many millions of people in Africa and elsewhere. So it is. But never is it suggested that the reason there is such a problem with water in Africa is because water supply is run by governments, not private companies. That would be to undermine the ‘government is best’ assumption of virtually all broadcast media coverage in Britain.
Now, at last, comes a paper from the Globalization Institute putting the argument that millions of people in Africa have died because of this misguided belief that government is best.
These are the opening lines of the paper, by Mischa Balen, apparently a Labour Party activist:
Over a billion people worldwide do not have access to safe drinking water, and 2.6 billion people have no sanitation facilities. More than two million people die each year from diarrhoea, and over six million people are blind as a result of trachoma, a disease strongly related to lack of face washing. In Sub Saharan Africa, 42% of the population lacks access to decent water.
Other diseases which are caused by water poverty include scabies, typhoid and malaria. The need for clean water to prevent the spread of these and other diseases is therefore paramount.
This is one of the greatest problems humanity faces. It is a problem which is taking place under the auspices of the state sector: 95% of the world’s population gets its water from state-run services. Government provision in water has overseen millions of deaths through poor quality and lack of sanitation.
Balen goes on to argue that access to clean water has increased significantly in those countries which have allowed some privatisation. (He is virtually always talking about government-regulated privatisation, incidentally. It would be interesting to know if there have been any complete privatisations, without heavy government controls, and how well these have improved supply.)
In Tunja, Colombia, access to water increased by 10% folllowing privatision; in Gabon the figure was almost 15%. Cartagena, Colombia posted access increases of 25%, Conakry, Guinea of 20% and La Paz – El Alto, Bolivia of 10%. In Chile, 99% of urban residents, as well as 94% of rural residents are now supplied with water all day round, which contrasts fabourably with pre-privatisation figures of 63% and 27% respectively. Finally, Corrientes, Argentina, and Cote d’Ivoire saw increases of almost 15%.
He makes the point that a private company only makes any money if a water connection is sucessfully made. Meanwhile an employee of a state industry goes on getting paid regardless of how many connections are made.
Private companies are also less wasteful. Money is spent replacing leaking pipes, for example.
Under public ownership, the amount of water leaked from Buenos Aires’s system as a percentage of the total water available was 45%. Now just 0.18 metres cubed per connection per day is lost.
There are fewer unnecessary workers employed, too, which reduces the cost of supply water and thus increases its affordability.
In Chile, the private sector managed to reduce its workforce by 30% during 1998 to 2001, a period which saw public sector employment fall by just 5%. This was achieved alongside an increase in the customer base of 6%.
The website of the Globalization Institute is here.
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