Is the privatization of water the right thing to do?

Back in 1999, when Bolivia decided to privatize water services in Cochabamba, the country’s third-largest city, it didn’t bargain for the backlash that would unleash. Mobs of angry Bolivians, some armed with Molotov cocktails, took to the streets in protest. Martial law was declared, and in the ensuing violence one person was killed and several others were injured. Eventually the government withdrew the private water contract, and Bechtel, the U.S. engineering giant overseeing the water system, was run out of the country. Since then, documentaries such as The Corporation, Blue Gold and Flow have used footage of the riots to highlight the perils of water privatization. But it’s too bad the filmmakers didn’t stick around to see how things turned out.

The problem is that in some parts of the world, such as Canada, fresh water is cheap and plentiful, so it gets wasted, while in areas where it’s scarce, governments often have little incentive to get it to the people who need it the most. “Scarcity is not a quantity issue: it’s a distribution issue,” says law professor Gabriel Eckstein of the Texas Tech School of Law. “We have enough fresh water globally to provide every person on earth a hundred times over.” Private water markets, he says, could get it to the people who need it. For instance, Singapore has been buying water from Malaysia, and Israel has considered a similar agreement with Turkey. Greenland, newly flush with glacial runoff thanks to global warming, is looking to export surplus supplies, according to its deputy minister of foreign affairs. It has 10 per cent of the world’s fresh water reserves and a population that barely tips 57,000.

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