Defending the Commons: Lessons for public water allies

Public water has its share of opponents. Front groups bankrolled by private water companies frequently run attack ads or host misleading websites alleging widespread inefficiency, inadequate financing, and lax quality control in public water, all while presenting privatisation as a silver-bullet cure. The widespread ‘appeal’ of the public-private partnership in the United States is a result of these campaigns and concerted lobbying by the private water industry, but a deeper look into the terms of most public-private partnerships reveals a very different story1, highlighting exactly why public water is so important to preserve and defend.

This isn’t to say that public water is without its problems: chronic underfunding from federal and central governments, aging infrastructure and shrinking workforces have proved to be challenging for public water utilities worldwide. But the last two decades have seen a major and exciting surge2 of solutions-oriented partnerships and action, with local water operators, unions, community groups and governments working together to transform and revitalise public water for all.

In The Story of Bottled Water, we talked about how taking back the tap will be critical for moving towards a world where clean, safe water is available for all. The work being done by communities in the Global South should inspire us towards achieving this goal, and show the potential for public water to be both equitable and financially sustainable.

The rise of public-public partnerships

The most exciting development in public water innovation is the rise of democratic models of organisation: cooperatives, community councils, and public-public partnerships. Karachi, Cebu, Ho Chi Minh City and Lilongwe all have something in common: they’ve all benefited from public-public partnerships, in which utilities from Japan to Finland have shared their training programs, information management systems and technical knowledge with local water operators and townships.3 Relationships of this kind – essentially solidarity partnerships between cities – are not driven by the profit motive, so organisations like the Yokohama Waterworks Bureau can freely share expertise and best practices with utilities in Indonesia and Vietnam.

Take Hue city in Vietnam, for instance: the public Hue Water Company (HueWACO) entered a technical assistance partnership with Yokohama Waterworks in 2007, where its staff received training in controlling pipe leakage, providing high-quality consumer services, and managing water treatment plants. By 2008, HueWACO was able to provide safe drinking water to 95,000 users in Hue, which was both a first in Vietnam and a year ahead of schedule. Similar solidarity initiatives have blossomed between municipalities in the Global South as well, like between the worker-owned Aguas Bonaerenses SA (ABSA) in Buenos Aires, Argentina, and local water provider SEDAM in Huancayo, Peru.4

These arrangements aren’t uncommon – in fact, over 137 public-public partnerships for water exist in 70 countries, significantly outnumbering public-private partnerships. And that’s just for water – public-public partnerships for health and development have seen success everywhere from Namibia to South Africa.5 Beyond quantity, the quality of these partnerships also exceeds private sector involvement: a report by the EU’s Directorate-General for External Policies comparing public-public partnerships to public-private partnerships found that partnerships like the one between Yokohama and Hue City’s water company outperformed public-private schemes when comparing efficiency, cost savings and equity.

Building a path forward

So what’s the upshot here? The proven track record of public-public partnerships means we have the evidence and resources to change the conversation on water infrastructure. Public-private partnerships at their very best are no better than public-public partnerships, and the benefits that accrue to communities when they retain control, hold utilities accountable and can trust that water is handled in the public interest should tip the balance in favour of public control each time.

When it comes to water, we now know that the profit incentive  is not the right approach. Private companies don’t have an incentive to uphold the human right to water or to operate in the public interest, because maximising profit – something they have an obligation to do – boils down to increasing rates and ensuring that people who can pay higher rates get access to water. That’s fundamentally at odds with increasing access to all and ensuring that even the poor can afford water.

For too long, we’ve operated under the assumption that the profit motive brings with it efficiency, innovation, and the capacity to invest – and that this would apply to private water companies. Their track record proves just the opposite. Private water has been less efficient than public water, public utilities innovate more and learn faster, and private companies don’t invest their own capital in projects, instead hiking up rates so the end user pays.

If the end user is paying anyway, public utilities can do much better: they can borrow at lower interest rates, work more sustainably, and build partnerships with other public utilities that aren’t narrowly based on profit.

In the United States and across the Global South, pro-privatisation advocates are rushing to push communities to let them ‘fix’ what’s broken about local water services. And while there is much that needs repair and rebuilding, private money isn’t the way to do it – we need to double down on public solutions, building equal partnerships and strengthening local economies. That’s how we revitalise water infrastructure and ensure that the human right to water is respected for all. Hundreds of municipalities have been putting people and the planet above profits for decades – it’s time we learnt from them.


About the author: Feroz Khan served as Campaigns Intern at The Story of Stuff Project during the summer of 2017. He is a proud Singaporean and a senior majoring in Environmental Studies at Yale-NUS College. Before joining the Story of Stuff Project, Feroz co-founded Yale-NUS Divest, Singapore’s first fossil fuel divestment campaign.

Additional Sources:

1. Hall, David. “Why Public-Private Partnerships Don’t Work.” Public Services International Research Unit, February 1, 2015. http://www.world-psi.org/sites/default/files/rapport_eng_56pages_a4_lr.pdf.

2. Kishimoto, Satoko, Emanuele Lobina, and Olivier Petitjean. “Here to Stay: Water Remunicipalisation as a Global Trend,” November 13, 2014. https://www.tni.org/en/publication/here-to-stay-water-remunicipalisation-as-a-global-trend

3. Hall, David, Emanuele Lobina, Violeta Corral, Olivier Hoedeman, Philipp Terhorst, Martin Pigeon, Satoko Kishimoto, and others. “Public-Public Partnerships (PUPs) in Water,” 2009. http://gala.gre.ac.uk/1708/1/2009-03-W-PUPS.pdf.

4. Ibid.

5. Hall, David, Jane Lethbridge, and Emanuele Lobina. “Public–public Partnerships in Health and Essential Services,” 2005. http://www.psiru.org/sites/default/files/DIS23pub.pdf.

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