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Blood, Sweat and Tears in Exchange for Water


MAY 1 – 15 1998


Blood, Sweat and Tears in Exchange for Water

By Ashali Varma

Experts predict that in the 21st Century freshwater will become a commodity much like oil and countries will wage war over water rights, rivers and lakes.  There is a growing debate over privatization of water distribution in nations around the world.  At the meeting of the Commission for Sustainable Development held at the United Nations in New York April 20– May 1, representatives of the private sector and even delegates from some member countries rationalized that for water to be distributed equitably it must be treated like a commodity–sold and distributed to users.  This, they say, is the only way to satisfy the growing demand for water from different sectors agriculture, industry and consumers. 

But the one-size-fits-all solution cannot be applied to water.  The disparities between the rich and poor are never more stark than when it comes to access to water.  Ask a person in New York what he thinks about the water problem and he or she will probably say, ‘What problem?’ Ask a person in a big city like New Delhi and you will be lucky if  you escape with a 15 minute lecture on how the city water supplies cannot be relied upon.  Ask a village women in Nepal, Rwanda or Bangladesh and you will get a description of a day in her life, which can start as early as 4AM and mean a trek of many miles to fill up a bucket of water, which has to be used sparingly for cooking, cleaning and washing up.

So, while market forces can prevail in countries that already have the infrastructure and distribution systems for water, few private companies would venture in to the mountains of Nepal, or the villages in Africa, where the people are so poor that even the smallest price would be too high.

And yet, in Asia, Africa and Latin America, people are working to bring water to their communities.  In a remote village in Nepal, men and women of the community, with a small loan from UNDP, dug a reservoir and laid pipes to their village. They matched the loan with an equal amount of their own “sweat equity,” and now they not only have water but can even afford to pay an engineer to keep the pumps in order.  The water has brought prosperity; they can now raise cattle and grow vegetables.  They have paid for their water supply, they say, and they have a stake in it.  They have also proved that the private sector route is not the only way to go.