Please send me SCA's fortnightly briefing:

July 2, 2008

The Governance of Water

Many citizens believe that allowing the ownership of water to pass to the private sector is not only dangerous but wrong. This excellent piece about the governance of water argues for legislation to enshrine Scottish water for all time As a common good in community control

Tommy Kane and Kyle Mitchell

Worldwide there is a water crisis. The crisis is one that is often addressed in terms of scarcity. The crisis, however, could instead be defined in terms of over-use, unequal production and distribution and a lack of political will to deviate from the present direction and policy that promotes the commodification and privatisation of water services. We find ourselves in a global dilemma: at a time when First and Third World governments are adhering to neo-liberal policy demands and increasingly slashing public spending, billions are required in order to build and improve water infrastructure.

Today’s reality is that water is unfairly shared and distributed and those who are doing without find themselves in a situation where they are doing without because they lack the financial wherewithal to gain access to adequate levels of water. Those lacking access to clean water and adequate sanitation are, disproportionately the world’s poor. It is our belief that the free market is not, and indeed cannot, remedy the unjust correlation between poverty and insufficient access to clean water and adequate sanitation. Moreover, and more disconcerting, because private water providers not only seek to re-coop costs but also profit from their capital investments and service provision, they exacerbate all forms of inequality thus making water scarcity a reality for those unable or not willing to pay.

The commercialization of a public water utilities is not exclusive to Scotland. From North America – Canada and US; to Latin America – Bolivia, Argentina, Mexico, Chile, Ecuador, Paraguay, Nicaragua; to all over Europe; Asia Pacific – India, Indonesia, the Philippines, Korea, Australia; and Africa – South Africa, Namibia, Ghana, Tanzania, and among many other places around the world the change and pressure is the same. By deregulating, liberalising and privatising water services, governments throughout the world are acquiescing to the dominant neo-liberal ideology that frames the global economy. This is the grander context in which we should situate that commercialisation of Scotland’s water services.

It is increasingly apparent that the status of Scottish Water as a public utility is once more under intense scrutiny. The privatisation of Scottish Water will result in the private control of water delivery in Scotland and subsequently the destruction of any semblance of democratic governance of water in Scotland. Moreover, if privatised, decisions regarding Scotland’s water will be made in a manner that is consistent with the contours of the global economy and its capital markets and not in the interests of the Scotland’s citizenry. Given the uncertainty over water supply in the future coupled with the uneven distribution of wealth on a global level, commodifying and privatising water and thus handing the ownership and control of this vital asset to transnational water corporations, is not only dangerous but wrong.

This would be in no small part, because the transferring of control of water is, and would be, characterised by a displacement of decision-making capability and public involvement in its governance. Decisions regarding use, allocation and distribution are transferred from local officials who represent community interests to corporate executives who represent the interests of private corporations. Eric Swyngedouw – a well-known academic studying water issues – notes, “Traditional channels of democratic accountability are hereby cut, curtailed, or redefined” (Swyngedouw, 2005, p.92). Yet still the debate in Scotland takes place within a narrow field that recommends such a direction.

We recommend rejection of all market-led reforms including both mutualisation and privatisation. Change would require a move away from the current preponderance towards economic efficiency and towards a new way of thinking about how we manage and govern socially necessary goods and services. Indeed, we suggest that the status quo should be changed along much more democratised lines whereby local communities become involved in the decision-making processes of all things that affect their lives both as individuals and communities: such as water services. Clearly, the mechanics of such a change would entail some detailed consideration. If we are to truly consider ourselves a democratic country wishing to bring governance to the people, as was said at the opening of the Scottish Parliament, then such change should be welcomed as a step in that direction.

Furthermore, it is no longer sufficient to simply say we are against privatisation without suggesting alternatives; nor is it adequate to propound the logic and democratic tendencies of widespread political participation without implementing the appropriate political tools that would facilitate and encourage such participation. The provision of water and its governance are multifarious, capital intensive and technologically complex; alternative models to privatisation must reflect these factors. This entails further research and a level of public engagement that would consider the potential and possibilities for alternative models – models that are ultimately geared towards fundamental change in the direction of increased community involvement at every level of water governance and provision.

By way of conclusion we propose the creation, promotion and implementation of a formalised Scottish National Water Policy. Such a policy would address the almost continual uncertainty surrounding the level of publicness of Scottish Water. This would include the enshrining of laws not only protecting Scotland’s water as a public good and service but also extending the rights of communities with respect to decisions over water resources. The formation of such a law would include the following principles: fresh water and its related services are a form of the commons and should be governed as such; water is a human right; all decisions with respect to Scottish Water are to be made in proactive consultation with the Scottish public and therefore reflect the broader public interest; the institutionalisation and legalisation of sufficient, non-discriminatory access to fresh water and sanitation services; and the extension and increased capacity of Scottish Water as the sole public provider. In so doing Scotlands fresh water commons will be protected to serve the common good and interests of the people of Scotland.

Download document here