Water For Sale

By Adrianna Kuzma

Water is essential for life. Everyone, not just for the rich, needs water to survive. Three major companies from Europe have supplied water to countries suffering from a lack of public water structures: they are Suuez, Thames Water, and Vivend (Flow). Supporters of privatizing water utilities claim success both in service quality and efficiency.

Summarizing the benefits, a writer who has published a book for the free-market think tank called the CATO Institute, notes: “Superior competence, better incentives and better access to capital for investment have allowed private distributors to enhance both the quality of the water and the scope of its distribution” (Segerfeldt). While the United Nations has verified limited improvements after privatization occurred in some countries, “the overall record is not encouraging” (qtd. In Evans). The practice of giving water rights over to private control is one people come to regret.

Business people, such as those at the CATO Institute, view water as a good economic commodity. This is because water is a lucrative investment– water is something that people will want forever. The company’s executives are saying that water is just like any other product they are trying to sell. It is not. To sell water to poor people is wrong. People are not variables that a company can manipulate. People need water to live, and water is a human right. Water is like air—something we all share– because it is necessary not just to satisfy thirst but so people can bathe, and clean their dishes. [i]

From the perspective of the World Bank, private enterprise can solve the problem of the water crisis by applying pressures on countries to take action. Using the availability of loans to force developing countries to build water infrastructure appears to be a great idea. The country must provide water for the people, or they won’t get a loan. They are told they will be cut off from water loans if they do not privatize their water utilities.

PHOTO: Tanzania Mission to the Poor.“A Woman Fetching Water From Unimproved Traditional Water Well.” 16 July 2008. Web. 25 Oct. 2011. http://peerwater.org/apps/116–Provision-of-Safe-water-to-four-villages-in-/attachments/476

Opponents counter that privatization results in increased costs. They contend privatization benefits primarily those in the water industry, not the poor people who typically lack the means to pay. Private companies must satisfy shareholders. There are two problems with this for-profit approach: the motive of the company and the increased cost to the water consumers. A company must make a profit. Because a company needs to make money with water, they will be reluctant to invest unless there is evident profit for shareholders. As a result, designs and later improvements in infrastructure will always depend on the ability of the people to pay for them. A related problem is cost. It costs more money to turn a water project over to private hands than if it were publicly funded. This is because companies need to pay their workers, supply materials, and provide the profit for shareholders. When public water utilities are built by a national government, they are not in it for profit, so the expense covers just workers and material costs. Instead of profiting shareholders from Europe, the country’s government then controls the water as a “public trust” and operates as a local community service.

PHOTO: Dustin VanOverbeke. Water Privatization Conflicts. The Blue-Gold Business. AcademicWebPages Evergreen State College Web 26 Oct. 2011. http://www.bibliotecapleyades.net/sociopolitica/sociopol_globalization38.htm

Privatizing water resources results in decreased access to clean water. Contrary to the claims of the water industry, poor people have not benefited (Shah). [ii] This is because poor people resort to unclean water sources to avoid the fees (Flow). A human health issue is that a human without water will become sick or die. Bill Marsden, an investigative journalist, notes that the 2002 outbreak of cholera in South Africa has been linked to the privatization of water supplies there.

PHOTO: “Tanzania: Living Water Wells.” Beautiful Feet Task Force. 14 Feb 2011. http://beautifulfeettaskforce.blogspot.com/2011/02/living-water-wells-tanzania.html

People cannot survive without clean water. It is a common good, one to which people have an inalienable or God-given right. There is an equity issue as well. Since water is part of the public good it belongs to everyone and the principal of the commons applies. [iii] Water is part of our shared rights or “commons,” not for any one company to make a profit. [iv] It is morally wrong to treat it as a commodity or keep it from anyone (Velasquez). Because it is for the life on this planet, we must safeguard it.


[i] Fredrik Segerfeldt has likened water to food, arguing that we do not assume food is a right. However, water is even more necessary to life than food. People can withstand a shortage of food more readily than a shortage of clean water. A better comparison is to air, which is fundamentally necessary to sustain life. It is perhaps only when substances like water can be controlled that they begin to be regarded as commodities to be purchased at a profit. What happens when a fire is burning? We put water on it. We do not tell the owner to pay for the water that is taking out the fire. It is the same when someone is thirsty. We give them a drink. But with privatization, people are expected to pay for the water that should naturally be a God-given right.

[ii] “’Making people pay the full cost of their water “was the direct cause of the cholera epidemic,” David Hemson, a social scientist sent by the government to investigate the outbreak, said in an interview. ‘There is no doubt about that.’” (Marsden).

[iii] An expert on issues of water use, Maude Barlow, founder of the Blue Planet Project, has commented: “Water must be declared to be something that belongs to all of us, which is not that it’s a free-for-all, but that it must be equitably divided and shared — and only government can do that” (Qtd. In Evans).

[iv] Robert F. Kennedy, an environmentalist and founder of the Waterkeeper Alliance, calls the privatization of water supply morally wrong. “It’s intrinsically a government function. It has to remain in the hands of the government. The government has a responsibility to all the people, and that this is part of the commons. And the law of the commons is that whether you’re rich or poor, everybody has the right to the public trust asset. Nobody has the right to use it in a way that will diminish or injure its use and enjoyment by others. (qtd. In Evans).

PHOTO: Abbe, Andre, Guatemala: Women Carrying Water. “From water wars to bridges of cooperation: Exploring the peace-building potential of a shared resource.” Ten Stories the World Should Hear More About. the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) http://www.un.org/events/tenstories/06/story.asp?storyID=2900

Works Cited

Evans, Tom.”’Water justice’ advocate: Don’t privatize.” Ottawa Riverkeeper 8 Jan. 2010 Web. 26 Oct. 2011. http://ottawariverkeeper.ca/news/water_justice_advocate_don_t_privatize/CNN

Flow: For Love of Water. Dir. Irena Salina Perf. Maude Barlow, Shelly Brime and Anthony Burgmans . Group Entertainment, 2008. Film.

Marsden, Bill. “Cholera and the Age of the Water Barons.” The Center for Public Integrity 3 Feb. 2003 Web. 25 Oct. 2011. http://projects.publicintegrity.org/water/report.aspx?aid=44

Segerfeldt, Fredrik. “Private Water Saves Lives.” Financial Times, 25 Aug. 2005 Web. 25 Oct. 2011. CATO Institute: Individual Liberty, Free Markets, and Peace. http://www.cato.org/pub_display.php?pub_id=4462

Shah, Anup. “Water and Development.” Global Issues. May 27, 2006 Web 26 Oct. 2011. http://www.globalissues.org/article/601/water-and-development

Velasquez , Manuel, et. al. “The Common Good.” Markkula Center for Applied Ethics. Santa Clara University Web 25 Oct. 2011. http://www.scu.edu/ethics/practicing/decision/commongood.html

About the Author: Adrianna is a homeschooler from Indiana. She loves to sew and has made Regency ball gowns as well as fleece pet beds. She plays the cello, loves cats, and is passionate about caring for the planet. She recently produced a video on bottled water that won a national award.


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  1. Very nice article, Adrianna. Great job and congratulations on being a published author!

  2. Jennifer Keating


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