After watching the documentary Thirst (Snitow, 2004), it becomes clear that the question as to whether or not water should be privatized is not easily answered. There is some evidence that privatization of infrastructure services is good for the consumer (pricing, effectiveness) and thus pressure would be on all providers to ensure the best possible service. However, the question of privatization opens many other complex questions. While there are many valid arguments for and against the privatization of water, there are no easy answers. What is the difference between water and food, which is privatized? Is a form of “water farming” possible or feasible? What differentiates owning water from owning land, or land with water on it? If water is owned, is it possible to legally prohibit use of that water from commercial sale? Is access to safe water a human right? Are there even any human rights, and if so, says who? Is water a part of national security; should it be controlled by the government? Is water sacred, as Klaus Toepfer has suggested, and if so, is this a valid reason not to privatize water?
Ultimately, in spite of the many philosophical or religious questions, the true question being asked is how best to ensure the logistics of access to safe water. What should be obvious answers to the above (and other) questions strongly suggest that the public water supply should be off-limits to for-profit companies. Though water might be sacred to many, it is not necessary to assign a spiritual or religious significance to water in order to determine whether or not it should be privatized. Accepting that there are such things as human rights, access to life-giving water should be considered a basic human right, and therefore should not be given into the private ownership of profit driven companies. While it is commonly accepted in the western world that free enterprise should not be restricted, national security, of which water surely is a part, must also not be compromised. With the geographically fixed nature of large sources of water, distributed “water farming” is not feasible in a form similar to agriculture.
Considering only the public water supply, and not the sale of bottled water, a possible solution is to find a mixture of public and private, but with the public infrastructure remaining unconditionally in the commons, with its water sources being jealously guarded by the public. It is imaginable for public works to outsource the administration of public water supplies on temporary contracts, but ownership and control must remain firmly in public hands. This includes the plant, source, and ultimate decision making authority. It is conceivable to allow private companies to also offer public water supply services, but this must never be in the form of a takeover of public works; private companies wishing to enter the market should be required to build their own facilities and purchase the water as with any other ‘raw material.’ The public works, however, must ever remain a player in the market, as water is a basic human right necessary for life. In addition, water is essential to national security and providing access to safe water poses challenges to logistics and sanitation to a degree that agriculture does not.
Snitow, A. (Director). (2004). Thirst [Motion picture]. U.S.A.
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