Let’s “privatize” water

A friend of mine on Facebook pointed me to an online article claiming that the former CEO and Chairman of Nestle advocates for the privatization of water. It includes a YouTube video where Mr. Brabeck-Letmathe speaks of water as a “foodstuff” and one that should be bought and sold like any other foodstuff. His position, it seems, is that water is too freely used right now and that we would conserve it (or not waste it) if it cost us something. On its face, this is enough to make the hairs on the back of the neck stand up in people left of center. It really takes a moment to digest what he is saying because it sounds so ludicrous.

Human beings are made of water. We need water to live. We use water to grow our food and we need it to cook our food as well. We need water to wash our hands and be safe from transmissible diseases. What’s this business about “privatizing” it? It took me watching the video and listening to what he was saying with my limited knowledge of German to catch the gist of what he was getting at. Here’s the video, with his comments on water coming at about 2m05s:
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I think he puts people off when he says that it’s an “extreme” view that people should have access to water. But I think that he’s referring to water as a utility more than water as a need, kind of how we use water to wash our cars, fill our pools, or water our lawns. And it was that thinking of water as a utility, like electricity, that got me thinking. What if we privatized water, taking the distribution of potable (drinkable) water away from the government and into the hands of private corporations.

I can feel the hairs on the back of my friend’s neck standing up.

It’s just that the way we in the United States (and other industrialized nations) distribute water is totally irresponsible and unsustainable. Just look around in your community and look at the number of people washing their cars with water from the tap, water that has been treated to be drinkable. Does the pain job on your car need that kind of water to be washed? Do you need to wash it at all? And what about all the people watering their lawns? My next-door neighbor waters his lawn all the time, and we always wonder how he can afford it. Well, he can, and that’s why his lawn is pristine. In that sense, leaving water in the hands of the public utilities, with an artificial low cost (because it’s not cost-efficient to make all that water drinkable so we can just dump it into a lawn or into a pool), doing it the way we do right now has nothing but capitalism written all over it. People who can afford it, waste it. The rest can only watch.

Brabeck-Letmathe (BL) mentions treating water like food and using it as such. Imagine that! Imagine not using water like we do now and instead making sure we conserve as much of it as we can and use it to drink and cook our food. Nuts, right?

I think this is a situation in which the messenger is part of the problem with the idea. BL has been known to make controversial statements, and he’s a very wealthy man. Many “regular” people don’t really like people like him, and anything that comes out of his mouth is deemed to be for his own advantage. That’s just how it goes. Had Gandhi stood on YouTube and told us to quit letting water flow so freely and charge more for it when it is not being used as a food, he would probably be praised, not demonized.

On the other hand, allowing companies to control such a valuable thing as drinking water is unsettling, especially when we see how companies treat their customers. If I couldn’t get my cable company to properly fix my internet connection in a timely manner, how likely is it that a “water company” (a true “company”) would come make sure that I don’t go a day without water? No, we feel safer when the government is in charge of water distribution. But I still can’t figure out why.

Public utilities always do a great job…
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I'm a doctoral candidate in the Doctor of Public Health program at the Johns Hopkins University Bloomberg School of Public Health. All opinions posted here are my own, of course, and they do not necessarily reflect the opinions of my school, employers, friends, family, etc. Feel free to follow me on Twitter: @EpiRen

4 thoughts on “Let’s “privatize” water

  1. I’ve heard of some water works applying a surcharge for high water consumption, such as you mentioned with the incessant car washing and watering lawns.
    But, to raise the price across the board would be to limit the poor to much lower amounts of water than may be healthy.

    I’m far more comfortable having my local government handle my water quality and would be gravely concerned should a private company begin to supply water to the populace.
    Far too often we hear of cost cutting programs in private enterprises that are poorly planned and implemented. Far too often we hear of contaminated foods and medicines being consumed by the public.
    Indeed, this week’s MMWR had an article about the current impact of a compounded injectable drug (methylprednisolone acetate) that was contaminated with Aspergillus fumigatus and Exserohilum rostratum.
    Fortunately, the injections were in areas that infection would not result in grave harm, paraspinal and spinal injections.
    OK, those are areas where grave harm did occur, with fungal meningitis and assorted other fungal infections resulting in 741 reported cases and 55 deaths in 20 states.

    Can you picture a company getting sloppy and the resultant public health nightmare when the company has a manager who decides that too much chlorine is being used or the contact time is too long for maximum profit?
    The return of typhoid? Millions of cases of e. coli O157:H7?
    Sorry, but I’ll stick with what I have now, I have no fear that my water quality will become a lean six sigma project of an incompetent manager.

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    • I hope you don’t think that management incompetence is the sole domain of private industry, or that cost-cutting is only seen there as well. But I see what you’re getting at. Told you it was a touchy subject. People get all twitchy when water is concerned.

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  2. Our public water utility has a multi-tiered billing system. You are charged x amount for a certain amount of water, then x*y for the second, and then x*y*z for the third. It is kind of an exponential scale.

    It gets kind of dry here during the summer, and after implementing that policy there were more people who let their grass go dormant.

    Also those bills can be frightening. For our last bill the meter reader transposed the last two digits, and we were charged with what would be six months instead of two months of typical winter water use (the multi-tier rates only occur in summer). Fortunately that obvious clerical error was quickly fixed. Though I had to go into a neighborhood center to pay the actual portion we owed in person.

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    • I guess it’s like with almost all other commodities, like gasoline and milk. The more it costs, the less we’ll waste it. But, again, water is special in that it is absolutely essential, and the thought of not having enough to pay for it, then dying of thirst, scares the crap out of people.

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