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Partnerships, not protests, will secure water needs
- Patrick R. Cairo
Thursday, March 30, 2006

As I left the 4th World Water Forum (WWF) in Mexico City last week along with some 20,000 other participants, it was clear that everyone agreed upon one thing -- clean water -- or the lack thereof -- determines which countries will live and prosper. Convened every three years, the World Water Forum brings together thousands of stakeholders to raise awareness on global water issues, enables multiple voices to be heard and, most important, searches for solutions through dialogue and partnership. Today, more than 1 billion people worldwide do not have access to safe drinking water, and 2.6 billion people do not have adequate sanitation services. Some 2 million tons of human waste is released into rivers and streams around the world annually. About 1.8 million people, mostly children, die from diarrhea and related water-borne diseases each year. Worse, many of these deaths could be prevented with clean water and sanitation. Even the forum's venue -- Mexico City -- does not have adequate clean water for all its citizens.

These alarming statistics concerned all forum attendees, but they also drove a vocal minority of ideological opponents to take to the streets in violent protests against private solutions and investments in global water systems. I believe the protests were misguided.

The protesters' hearts may have been in the right place. Unfortunately, the facts do not support their cause. While the rhetoric was quotable, their arguments failed to recognize the variety and many successes of private participation in the water sector. For decades, public-private partnerships have benefited thousands of governments and local communities and provided life's necessity to millions of people. Since the early 1990s, many communities throughout the world working with the private sector through partnerships are on their way to meeting or exceeding the U.N.'s Millennium Development Goals. These goals call for reducing in half, by 2015, the proportion of people without sustainable safe-drinking water and sanitation.

Not only appropriate for the developing world, public-private partnerships serve many communities in the United States as well. Today, these partnerships thrive at local, state and federal levels. They combine local knowledge and oversight with access to new technologies and global expertise, while ensuring that the water resources, infrastructure and rate-setting responsibilities remain under local control. Take San Juan Capistrano, for example. Like many Southern California communities, the city known for the return of the swallows had been relying on imported water and was unable to store the recommended emergency minimum water supply for its citizens. The city's solution was to partner with ECO Resources, Inc., a part of Southwest Water Company Services Group, and construct a new facility. Built on time and under budget, the plant can produce 4,800 acre-feet of water per year, or nearly 100 percent of San Juan Capistrano's water needs in the winter and half in the summer. ECO Resources continues to operate the San Juan Capistrano water facility under a 20-year contract.

Success stories like this are not unique. The Water Partnership Council, a consortium of water and wastewater-treatment providers, recently surveyed officials with 31 public entities that depend on the private-sector partnerships for the daily management, operation and maintenance of their water or wastewater facilities. The survey's conclusion? Partnerships work.

In fact, 93 percent of respondents rated the technical competence of their private partner as "good" or "outstanding"; 93 percent of respondents said that their private partners proactively participate in community activities and undertake local community initiatives beyond what is required; 74 percent of the public officials rated their regulatory compliance as better under the partnership than prior to the partnership; 53 percent reported that employee salaries at the water plants increased under the partnership; and 90 percent of municipalities that projected cost savings before entering into the public-private partnership achieved their projected savings.

Our survey data show that partnerships, when the responsibilities of both partners are met, have a positive impact on the environment, on municipalities, their employees and their water customers.

An independent British think tank that embraces the concept of free markets, the Globalization Institute, released "Water for Life," a report challenging the view that water privatization has failed and demonstrating the benefits of public-private partnerships. The empirical evidence, the report says, is clear: "In the majority of cases, privatization has led to significant investment, increased access to water and sanitation, reduced costs for ordinary people and improved public health."

As the World Water Forum concluded, the final statement issued in the declaration of local officials on March 21 concurred that: All human beings have a right to water; local authorities play a fundamental role in the management of this resource; water systems should be managed to facilitate universal access; and local authorities should be able to freely choose between various management models, including the use of the private sector.

Thousands of participants during the forum publicly embraced these principles. They correctly recognized that solutions for the world's water needs require dialogue and innovative local partnerships.

Patrick R. Cairo is a member of the board of the Water Partnership Council, a consortium of water and wastewater services providers based in Washington and an executive vice president of Harrington Park, N.J.-based United Water.