Private sector fulfillment of a universal right to water
by: Akinyi Ochieng
Washington, DC —
Despite near-unanimous agreement that water as human right, it remains more expensive than oil in many parts of the world. In most countries, water scarcity does not stem from unavailability, but rather from systemic inequality and poor infrastructure. Barriers to access often force the poor to pay the highest long-term price for water. Can water be a commodity if access to it is a human right?
As a shared resource, water falls prey to the tragedy of the commons in which individuals exploit a common good at the expense of the community. Mitigating these complications will require policy that emphasizes the need for sustainable water usage at a lower lifetime cost of maintenance. Moreover, while sustained access to clean water has positive effects on education, employment and public health, it often goes underrepresented in far-reaching development plans.
While the government must allocate enough funds to maintain public water systems and ensure that the poorest do not go without water because they can’t afford it, water need not be free for all. The private costs of investing in water infrastructure and its maintenance may be higher at first, but the opportunity costs for business of public health and lost productivity associated with a lack of access are staggering.
Restructuring national budgets is a positive first step, but private sector involvement is necessary to help surmount the challenges of financing expensive water projects. Irrigation and industrial water use comprise 90% of total freshwater use, adding to the private sector’s active interest in supporting effective maintenance and delivery systems for national water supplies, particularly in states where those supplies suffer from poor government management.
With private firms responsible for maintenance and service delivery, government can regulate prices and subsidize water access for those who cannot afford it. The World Economic Forum research indicates that for each dollar committed by government to improve water service delivery, the private sector will leverage two dollars. Programs like Water.org’s WaterCredit will ensure that the investment reaches beyond urban centers in the developing world.
WaterCredit applies the microfinance model to water and sanitation sector, ensuring that communities can access the seed capital to establish water and sanitation systems on their own. The program work has expanded water access to over half a million people in India, Bangladesh, Kenya and Kenya. The program encourages communities to encourage these initial water investments into social enterprises that fund the maintenance and repair of this critical infrastructure. While the development community may focus on large, multi-million dollar projects aimed at expanding country-wide access, microfinance options could help pave the path towards universal access to water by attracting smaller-scale entrepreneurs.
Recognizing water as a human right does not preclude it from having a place in the private sector, particularly in Sub-Saharan Africa. Businesses can provide water broadly and efficiently in partnership with governments that subsidize access to that clean water for the poorest. Since major national utilities might not always have the local reach to manage water delivery effectively in peri-urban and rural areas, entrepreneurs are a welcome entrant to markets dominated by underfunded government agencies and peripatetic NGOs.
Akinyi Ochieng is President of the Yale Undergraduate Association of African Peace and Development. She is a WellDone researcher.