Water meets money meets street protest

Published April 21st, 2011

Cg head

Insight from Christopher Gasson, GWI publisher

GWI’s Global Water Summit in Berlin earlier this week hit the big time. We attracted a street protest. It may have been quite small (only about 20 people) and well behaved (there were three policemen but no tear gas), but it puts our event right up there with the G8, the World Economic Forum and Bilderberg.

It seems that the thing which they were most excited about was the fact that the URL for the conference was www.watermeetsmoney.com. They said that water should be about democracy rather than money, and organised a bike ride from our conference venue to another meeting in the city where Paris deputy mayor Anne Le Strat was speaking. She was apparently in the city to urge Berlin to follow in Paris’ footsteps and remunicipalise the city’s water service.

The protest group returned to the hotel at lunch time, banging pots and pans and chanting. I went out to speak to them, offer them some dessert, and invite them to join the “Great Water Debate” at the end of the conference. This was the session which pitched Food and Water Watch’s boss, Wenonah Hauter, and Anil Naidoo of the Blue Planet Project to speak against David Zetland of Aguanomics and William Muhairwe of Uganda’s National Water and Sewerage Corporation on the subject of cost recovery tariffs. It would have been fun, but they didn’t want to come in.

It is a pity that they didn’t show, because Hauter and Naidoo needed some support in the debate. Zetland laid down the economic arguments, but Muhairwe spoke like a Baptist minister possessed with holy fire, telling the audience that subsidised water was the Old Testament, but we should all now accept the New Testament of cost recovery. It is only by making a profit from water sales that he was able to extend water services to the poor and run a 24/7 service in Uganda, he explained. Begging for money from the government and donors was no way to grow a utility, he argued.

With Taqsem Khan, head of the Dhaka Water and Sewerage Authority in Bangladesh (which serves 13 million people) also weighing in favour of unsubsidised water, it was very difficult for Hauter and Naidoo to position themselves as champions of the poor. The motion “Is cost recovery pricing the best way to ensure the poor have access to good water services?” was passed with 76% of the audience voting in favour.

My feeling is that the moment for water-related protests has passed. You could see it in the age of most of the protesters. They had probably got involved in the issue in the 1990s when it appeared as if private companies from Europe were going to take control of water across the developing world, but since then there have been better issues – like wars, tax evasion, and government spending cuts – to get involved in if your hobby is waving placards and chanting on the pavement.

While it is true that the remunicipalisation of Eau de Paris’ operations has created some new momentum behind the anti-private water movement, it is to some extent a false situation. The main reason why the remunicipalisation has been considered a success is because Le Strat has been able to announce an 8% tariff reduction. She did this without asking the private sector what it could offer. Given that in a competitive auction the Parisian suburbs were able to secure a tariff reduction of more than twice that amount, it is quite possible that the city could have got a very much better deal if it had put the contract out to bid.

One gets the feeling that the water justice movement prefers to stifle competition and debate about these issues.

When we first took the URL www.watermeetsmoney.com I was warned by one of our sponsors it was too brash. I stuck with it despite the risk of ruffling feathers because I think it is important that water and money meet. One of the reasons why water services have failed so widely in the world is because people have been afraid to talk openly about the financial sustainability of water supply. By bringing together water and money each year at the Global Water Summit, we have started a conversation which everyone wanted to have. It is going to get louder and louder in the coming years.