Water democracy, not privatisation

Hisila Yami has become the eye of the Melamchi project storm. We need to understand that the real politics centres not on the contest between SPA and Hisila Yami, but rather on ADB and other aid agencies creating water markets for global water MNCs like Severn Trent (ST) while harming the interests of the Nepalis. Yami seems to have had the last word in last week’s cabinet meet. As she emerged from Baluwatar, she smilingly told newspersons: review of the Melamchi project vis-à-vis ADB was agreed upon. But it remains to be seen if ST will figure in the proposed review as it has publicly withdrawn its Melamchi bid.

Kathmandu has successfully coped with its water problems on the strength of its dhunge dhaaraas (stone spouts) and inaars (wells) for centuries. The recently-completed Kumbheswor overhead water supply tank appears to be doing just fine — in the sense that water from traditional stone spouts will be pumped up and stored there to meet the water needs of the local community. The Kumbheswor model of exploiting dhunge dhaaraas can, let’s hope, be replicated in other areas. We could also look into other alternatives such as stopping the acknowledged 70% leakage of the capital’s drinking water and water harvesting. If privatisation of water management is the only option, other global water companies like Suez, Bechtel and Saur could be considered.

Increasing water tariffs, as implied in ADB’s ST proposal, suggests a shift in social perception of water supply towards a profit-making commercial orientation. This conflict of perception lies at the root of the tussle between water privatisation and water democracy.

The only viable long-term policy is to recognise nature’s limits, live within the water cycle, and guarantee every citizen his/her fundamental right to water. Privatisation is perhaps not the only solution. Conservation and community ownership can help overcome water shortages in both rural and urban areas.

Our economically crippled country seems still poorer in human values. Perhaps the time has come for someone to stand up and say ‘No’ whenever our national honour is threatened, a la Hisila Yami.

Can it really be believed that ADB was unaware of the flak ST had drawn not only in its home country but also in developing countries like Guyana, Trinidad & Tobago and Tanzania? ST was compelled to refund 40 million pounds in the UK in 2006 for furnishing wrong data to 3.5 million British water-users. The government of Guyana has been reluctant to renew ST’s contract. Likewise, the contract with Trinidad & Tobago was prematurely terminated.

ST was also involved in water-supply management of Dar-es-Salaam, the Tanzanian capital. There have been reports of disputes between Tanzanian authorities and the company. How wise is it for ADB and Nepal to entrust the same company with the management of Nepal’s water distribution? Besides, what is wrong in Yami demanding a fresh and thorough review of the ADB proposal? Hasn’t ADB had similar problems in India, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, the Philippines and Bolivia?

Water supply, as our tradition decrees, is the most basic public service. Water privatisation has never been tried in our social milieu, and, where it has, it has only aggravated water crisis. Sustainable and equitable use demands water democracy, not water privatisation.