Cost of water around the world

By DAVID BRISCOE

PARACALE, Philippines (August 5, 1999) - Every morning, Rosalio Salen pays a few centavos to fill plastic jugs with water that he then peddles to outlying villages.

Smalltime vendors like Salen make a modest living selling the world's most basic commodity. But a report to be issued by a global water commission next week finds that the world's poorest people can wind up paying up to 100 times more for water than wealthier users who draw their baths from subsidized water systems.

The problem is that municipal pipelines invariably reach the wealthiest clients first, even though they are often built with aid from governments and international institutions with the goal of making water more accessible to the poor, according to the water commission, which is affiliated with the United Nations.

Poor families, including millions in squatter villages, are then required to pay gourmet prices for often-polluted drinking water.

Salen, interviewed recently as he sold water from a motorized tricycle along a sand path on the Paracale beach, says his product is fresh and helps rural folk who otherwise would have to waste time and energy fetching their own drinking water.

He pays just 35 centavos (about 1 U.S. cent) to fill a jug from a freshwater pump and sells it for 12 times that - which just happens to be the global average difference between the cost of a liter of drinking water for the poorest families and for people who get tap water in their homes.

"I've been delivering water and raising pigs for 17 years," said Salen, 47. "I've been able to send my six children to school."

Salen, unaware of the U.N. report, said his customers are paying for a vital service. Paracale for decades has had an unreliable but generally unpolluted water system. Many residents of the small town in the Bicol region south of Manila still collect water for drinking and use buckets for bathing.

In Washington, Ismael Serageldin, a World Bank vice president and head of the World Commission on Water for the 21st Century, says he has seen and talked with water vendors in his work around the world. But Serageldin said he wouldn't drink water sold on Third World streets, particularly in urban areas where the water gap between rich and poor is most striking.

"The vendors go to the filthiest sorts of places to pick up water, sometimes from highly polluted streams or dirty trucks," said Serageldin, who will present the report at the commission's second international conference in Stockholm, Sweden, next week.

The commission estimates that 1.2 billion people have no access to clean water.

A review of water vending in 16 Third World countries calculated the cost gap between vendor and tap water. In Port-au-Prince, Haiti, vendors charge 100 times as much as public water systems; in Karachi, Pakistan, 83 times more; and in Jakarta, Indonesia, 60 times more.

The cheapest water in the industrialized world is in Canada, where consumers pay an average of 31 cents per cubic meter, while the most expensive is in Germany at $2.16 per cubic meter. In the United States, it's between 40 cents and 80 cents. Prices are generally lower in the developing world, partly because of subsidies, ranging anywhere from a few cents to just over $1 per cubic meter.

Serageldin acknowledged that some past World Bank and other international funding helped subsidize systems, but he blames local officials who cater to the elite. The bank, he said, has been opposing such subsidies for years because they don't help the poor for which they are intended.

"I have never known of a city where the poor people received access to water ahead of the rich," said Serageldin. The poor also consume far less water, he said, although it often costs a much larger percentage of their income.

The solution, he said, is more-reliable and extensive water systems that pay for themselves with reasonable rates, including graduated tariffs.

"I want to be able to tell this guy filling his swimming pool that by the time he gets to those last drops, it's going to be more expensive than bottled water," Serageldin said.

Water vendors like those in Paracale work hard to get water to people that municipal system miss, he acknowledged. "It's tough to lug water around."

But the lack of control and the danger of disease make it an indefensible system, he said. The problem may not be so serious in a remote town like Paracale, he said, but cities should extend pipes to the poor.

"The water entrepreneurs should be able to find other avenues of creativity - some that don't contribute as much to disease and impact on the poor," he said.