Struggle for water is struggle for democracy

As thousands of water specialists gather in Stockholm for World Water Week, there will be a lot of discussions around technical and efficient delivery of water but too few conversations on the nature of water as a public and democratic good.


If we are to bring clean drinking water to the 783 million who lack it worldwide, we need to acknowledge that the struggle around water is essentially the struggle for democracy. It is no coincidence that the poor and voiceless remain excluded from water. It is also clear that the solutions to the delivery of water and sanitation for all are fundamentally political in nature and not just technical

The fact is that water and sanitation services, especially in dense urban areas, must be supported by government. This is especially true in developing countries. Over 90 percent of water delivery worldwide is delivered by the public sector; and it remains the largest pool of positive experience and expertise. The majority of examples of good practice and sound institutional basis continue to be found in existing public sector water operators.

TNI and its partners through the Reclaiming Public Water Network believe that public-public partnership (PUP) or Water Operators Partnerships (WOPs) offer concrete tools to work with partners to reform public water companies/utilities, improve services and realise the right to water on the ground. A public-public partnership (PUP) is simply a collaboration between two or more public authorities or organisations, based on solidarity, to improve the capacity and effectiveness of one partner in providing public water or sanitation services.

One of the challenges public-public partnerships are currently facing is how to respond to the complex reality around water that includes the impact of climate change and the need to protect food security. The collective experience of various public-public partnerships has shown, for example, that rather than exploiting new surface and groundwater sources, that it makes more economic and ecological sense to conserve water through system repair and watershed protection.

The partnerships between the Metropolitan Waterworks Authority (MWA) in Bangkok and the upstream communities in the Mae Klong river and the Chao Phraya river are living examples of this. MWA worked with communities to conserve water resources by improving waste water management and supporting organic farming of orchards. The partnership restored local ecosystems and enhanced local livelihoods in the communities. As the region serves as a water "lung" to Bangkok, protecting water resources benefited Bangkok residents. Moreover, MWA saved on the high costs associated with building new facilities to clean water. Such an inspiring and innovative low cost solution highlights the importance of water operators building an equal relationship with communities.

In India, the Tamil Nadu state water company (TWAD) committed itself to improve access to water in about 500 rural villages, that had been neglected for decades. TWAD actively engaged the communities in decision-making about water solutions - and supported with funding and expertise - helped the villages recover and protect water sources, introduce easy-to-maintain, low-cost technology, and prioritise access for indigenous people and other marginalised water users. Their efforts also helped the region build resilience at a time of climate change, which threatens food security. Over democratically elected 3695 water users associations (representing1.85 million farmers) played a key role in rehabilitating canal systems, reinventing water harvesting structures and water-saving sprinkler irrigation systems, and helping diversify farming.

In rural Colombia, communities have got together to learn how to better run and improve communal aqueducts (community-based water systems) that bridge the gap in water service delivery in rural areas in Colombia where no state utilities or public authorities serve the population. They have since got together in a National Network of Communal Aqueducts in Colombia, where women in particular play a leading role.

The Uruguayan state water company OSE is perhaps one of the world's leading players in water partnerships, with cooperation projects in Ecuador, Peru, Paraguay and elsewhere. Domestically it has taken on the challenge to achieve universal access to water and sanitation for the entire rural population, using the public community partnership methodology. OSE derives particular strength from its determination to implement the country's constitution, which defines water as a fundamental human right and public good.

At the European level, World waternet in the Netherlands has a long history of public-public partnerships in Indonesia, Egypt, Suriname, South Africa etc. AEOPAS in Spain is a unique water professional association that consists of water operators but also includes civil society organisations (unions, NGOs), research centers, consumer organisations and neighbourhood associations, public administrators as equal partners. Its human rights-based approach is reflected in their cooperation projects in Haiti, Nicaragua, El Salvador and elsewhere.

There are many lessons from all these effective partnerships, but a central lesson is that they show the need for a radical change in the mind-set of public institutions - from a narrow focus on delivery to looking at how to collaborate and engage with communities, building public participation, transparency and accountability, and holding to a strong ethos of the human right to water that encourages solidarity and partnership with other water operators. We also know that while the genuine commitments of actors are essential, sustainable and/or autonomous finance is key to developing long-term partnerships.

Ultimately active citizens' participation in water and sanitation initiatives is of crucial importance to ensure sustainable improvements in water services for the poorest and building partnership between water operators. The knowledge of community groups, trade unions, women, and water users can be useful in conserving limited water resources. Their engagement also can be essential for improving the suitability and accountability of water partnerships and helping water operators develop the necessary holistic perspective around water management: one that no longer limits water to a technical issue, but includes social, cultural and environmental dimensions that surround this resource so crucial for life.

Photo credit: UUSC Environmental Justice Programme