Africa: Access to water and privatisation

Published on Pambazuka News, by Jacques Cambon, June 7, 2011.

Despite UN recognition of access ‘to safe and clean drinking water and sanitation as a human right that is essential for the full enjoyment of life and all human rights,’ it is a right that is far from being realised in most parts of the world, writes Jacques Cambon.

On 29 July 2010, the General Assembly of the United Nations recognised, in a proposed resolution by Bolivia and adopted by 122 votes with 41 abstentions, ‘the right to safe and clean drinking water and sanitation as a human right that is essential for the full enjoyment of life and all human rights.’ The resolution also calls upon ‘states and international organizations to provide financial resources, capacity-building and technology transfer, in particular to developing countries’. 

It was a historical decision. But what explains the need to proclaim this right is that it is barely respected around the world. According to the UNESCO/WHO 2010 report, 884 million people around the world (13 per cent of the world population), among whom 343 million are in Africa, do not have access to an ‘improved drinking water supply’ (running water network, public drinking fountains, protected wells or springs, rainwater tanks), and 2.6 billion people (39 per cent of the world population) do not have access to ‘improved sanitation systems’ (mains drainage, septic tanks, latrines). The consequences are tragic: To this day, water-borne diseases (diarrhoea, cholera, typhoid, polio, meningitis, hepatitis, etc) are the main cause of death in the world, killing 8 million people a year according to the NGO Solidarites International (and about 3 million as stated by the World Health Organization). The culprits behind the ‘water crisis’ are numerous: Climate, demography, lifestyles, economy, politics, institutions, and the like. It is imperative that all are eliminated, so this ‘right to clean drinking water’ can at last become a reality.


The African climate is often considered the catalyst. While it is true that the world’s water is not distributed fairly, the effect of global warming will only accentuate the gaps by bringing more rain in polar, temperate and equatorial zones, and less in tropical ones. Moreover, human needs are spread out over twelve months, usually increasing during the dry season; however, supplies vary greatly during the year. Natural storage (glaciers, lakes, rivers, perennial water flows) is also more scarce in the tropical regions. Those disparities are nothing new, yet they haven’t precluded the development of adapted human societies on the world’s continents.

It is a different story with demography and globalisation of lifestyles. The world’s population rose from 2.5 billion in 1950 to almost 7 billion in 2010 while – it goes without saying – proportionally increasing its water needs. Because those needs add up to less than 10 per cent of water consumption, the list should include more than just domestic use (5 litres per day for survival, 50 litres per day for a decent life, more than 500 liters per day to satisfy North American standards). To accurately measure the impact of population growth on water needs, we should consider the total amount of water used for food, goods, energy production, and the like, which is called the water footprint. On average, this footprint reaches 3,400 litres per day worldwide, varying from 6,800 litres per day in the United States to 1,850 litres per day in Ethopia, while France uses about 5,140 litres per day. The water footprint depends on global consumption, lifestyle and climate. For example, knowing that the output of one kg of beef calls for 15,500 litres of water, one kg of chicken for 3,900 litres and one kg of wheat for 1,300 litres, it is possible to measure the impact that westernisation has had on consumption patterns.

Urbanisation is another key element of the water crisis. Though a fairly simple problem for small rural communities who make do with limited amounts of water, supplying this natural ressource becomes a much bigger problem as the community grows and diversifies its activities: In such cases, we need to look for further water repositories. The water they contain will need to be transported, stored, distributed among a zone too large to be supplied by only one water point, etc. All this is not free.

Nowadays, more than half the world’s population live in urban areas, which increases water conveyance and distribution needs, as well as the costs associated with storage, pumping, and potabilisation. This conurbation not only exacerbates purification and storm water drainage problems and their treatment, but also the ones associated with service management. Unlike small villages in which most of the time the community manages its water resources, water service management and purification (when the latter exists) is usually under the leadership of political powers, either the central government or municipal authorities.

In countries recently decolonised, where technical competence was scarce, those services have long been the responsibility of national utilities in the case of cities, and most often of the Department of Agriculture through a programme for water supply in rural areas. The achievements of these utilities is variable, but on the whole they have been, alas, quite poor. Numerous reasons, which too often mirror the country’s political and economic landscape, explain these failures: Unfit and corrupt leaders, lack of supervision, shortage of maintenance equipment, insufficient funding, penniless consumers. From these deficiencies, multinational water companies made a lot of profit, being able to say that better (private, of course) management of the water service would help put the situation back on its feet.



The UN’s declaration making water a fundamental human right has not reduced the water multinationals’ expansionism. On the contrary, they applauded, considering that this new right would open new markets for them, paid by the states, but in reality funded by the people! Even though it won’t be possible anymore to claim, as did the European Union’s spokesperson Joe Hennan, that ‘water is a good like any other’, multinational companies will aim at using water to do ‘business as usual.’ To fight this, we can use the existing notion of ‘common heritage of humankind’ which thus far has been applied to the management of seas and oceans, planets, celestial bodies, etc. It includes the following four components:

  • Enforcement of a principle of non-appropriation by anyone
  • International management by the UN
  • Benefit sharing by all nations
  • Exclusively peaceful use of natural resources.

‘The battle goes on’ and the enemy is known: The World Water Council, the private sector-led international organisation which pretends to be the leading political forum for water issues at global level, although it was created and is still managed mostly by water mutinationals. (full text).

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