Making the case for public water management

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This article is part of our special report Water Policy.

Mildred E. Warner believes public water boards with local leadership and input offer the best model for helping developing countries improve water quality and delivery. She says European public utilities have proven to be important partners in helping counterparts in developing countries.

Mildred E. Warner is a professor of city and regional planning at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York. She is an international expert on privatisation of local government services, especially water.  Her work spans the OECD nations and developing countries.

The following is an excerpt of a telephone interview with Warner by EURACTIV’s Timothy Spence. Click here to read a related article.

The European Union says it wants to strengthen the effectiveness of its development aid, in part by enlisting private investment in sustainable growth and improving livelihoods, including water access. Your research has raised doubts about the private sector’s role. Why?

The experience worldwide with privatisation, even in developed countries, has not been very positive. There is no support for the notion of cost-saving and I’m saying that based on a review of every public study ever done on water, and most of those studies were done in the US and the UK. These are markets that are more competitive, that have less corruption, better accountability – and you don’t find any cost savings with water. …

The notion was that private-sector operators with experience from developed countries could bring a lot to bear – they could bring financing, technical expertise and new technologies – and this would a really great thing. The experience has not born out well and in part this is due to the fact water is sort of underpriced everywhere, but prices that these companies need to make it work, are prices that are politically unsustainable …

Then what model …

It’s not really public or private that is the issue, it is community ownership, control and management. If you want public water systems to work well, they need to be locally controlled, locally understood and locally managed.

If that happens, then the beneficiaries are paying very close attention to how well it works, they understand how the technology works – they can manage it – and then you get a more sustainable system.

Usually that means government control … but in smaller rural hamlets that may not have a local government, what you do in those cases is create community water boards which are democratically elected. It’s a form of democratic governance that is not actually officially a unit of government but a community-based organisation, and they tend to work very well.

There have been a lot of efforts to promote improved technology by shipping packaged water plants [to developed countries] and they don’t even come with instructions on how to use them.

What you need to work on are technologies appropriate to the scale of the community in question. That’s the solution – the easy solution is that we’ll privatise and it all be beautiful, but it hasn’t worked out that way. … The research shows that community-based management is the way to go.

The World Bank and other international lenders see providing water to deprived countries and communities as a major business opportunity and have tried to stimulate private-sector involvement to improve service. Are you saying this is not a smart policy?

The World Bank policy with regard to water privatisation is not smart and I don’t understand why they continue to insist on [this] policy in the face of overwhelming evidence of its failure, and in the face of reality that there are alternatives.

I have to say I’ve seen this on the ground in developing countries, where companies come in and instal metering systems that improve efficiency and improve collections. Are you saying things like this don’t make sense?

No, I’m saying there is a role for technology and technological innovation but it has to be appropriate to the context.

If you are in a context where metering is the most important issue, then fine, do metering and you probably means you need to have a private partner to help you think about the technology. That does mean the private partner needs to run the metering. You can also look to a public partner for ideas.

In Europe you have public-public partnerships where well-run public operating systems in European cities partner with not-so-well-run systems in developing countries and help them with technology transfer – this could be a metering system, a billing system …

The European water companies are pretty clear that you ought to take advantage of public-public partnerships as a way to get the technology transfer without this need to extract a profit in a sector that doesn’t really have that much profit potential.

There are least 1 billion people in the world who have no potable water. That is an astonishing number. What do you do to reduce that number?

When you see these data that one billion are without access to water, that means they are without piped water. But many of the billions of people who do have piped water have dirty piped water, not potable, just piped. …

So what we also need to do is treat it. The problem is that we have focused on high-energy intensive, sophisticated treatment plant models because we thought that was the better way to go. Well, it turns out that these are hard to manage and not environmentally sustainable, especially in the low-income context.

There has been new work by engineers on gravity-fed systems that use sedimentation tanks and filters that clean water with zero electricity in a system that is intelligible to an operator with a sixth-grade education, and these systems are much cheaper to put in.

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