Earlier in the week several of us attended a debate on whether water supply should be private or public: Is it appropriate for private, for-profit companies to allocate a resource essential to life, or is that a role only public providers can play ethically? The panel included Gerrard Payen, president of AquaFed, a consortium of private water providers. As he suavely spun his way through the debate extolling the benefits of private control of water services, I was struck by the counterexample the World Water Forum itself provided to his arguments. Unlike UN-sponsored meetings, the World Water Forum is run by a private entity – the World Water Council. At best, it is a public-private partnership with all the limitations that come with the territory. For instance…
1. Private provision is more efficient because companies have to be competitive.
The World Water forum does not function efficiently. Their WiFi lounges are guaranteed to lack wireless, and there are no computers available for public use. The Forum also has no Spanish translators, creating yet another barrier to participation. Although perhaps one could consider their first aid station efficient—they were quite thrifty, I had to carefully wheedle two band-aids from the medics this afternoon for Barbara’s blisters. They were, on the other hand, happy to give us mountains of plastic items with the WWF logo for free. I’m sure the costs balance out.
2. Private providers are simply doing the job they were asked to do by the public sector, and only have jobs so long as they satisfy the needs of consumers.
As the above examples exemplify, the needs of participants—especially less affluent ones—are not fully met. This includes the dire need for discussion around issues of access, commodification, and the future of water governance. Events are structured as lectures rather than conversations, and more radical voices have been pushed out of the forum by high registration costs and highly regulated interactions. Youth have been repackaged as young professionals rather than voices for radical change. But these disenfranchised voices are not in position to shift the Forum structure, and they continue to do the job they were asked to do by the private sector.