The direction of the debate
This is the Spring 2008 Global Debates Topic.
To learn more about the TPS Global Debates, click here.
This resolution can be interpreted to make a distinction between, in the affirmative, water as national property (including both government control of water and privatization) and, on the con side of the debate, the notion of water as part of the global commons with no ownership at the nation-state or corporate level.
In essence, this debate is between ownership of any kind (national or private), on the one hand, and non-ownership on the other (global commons).
Another direction that this debate could possibly take is in comparing national ownership of water resources (government control) vs. privatization. This debate is presented separately from this page at Debate: Water privatization.While participants in The People Speak Global Debates can certainly take this direction, the intended direction of the above resolution is mainly toward a comparison between water-ownership nationally and no water-ownership within a global commons.
Why this debate is important: The global water problem
Water is the most common substance on earth and constantly renews itself through evaporation and rainfall. 97% of the world's water is in the oceans and most of what is left is locked up in ice caps and glaciers, etc., leaving just 1% of the world's water available for human consumption. This water must not only satisfy domestic use, but also industry and agriculture. The world's water needs, however, are not being satisfied. Over a billion people still have no decent water supply and 2.4 billion do not have proper sanitation; over 60% of global ill health can be linked to water. Without tackling these problems, little progress can be made on other development issues (e.g. children required by the family to fetch water several miles cannot attend school, sick people cannot work, infant mortality will remain very high). Because this all has significant geopolitical implications for countries and their relative power or success in the world, "water wars" between countries competing for scarce water resources has become a serious international concern. This has led to various international efforts to help solve the problem. The UN's International Year of Fresh Water in 2003 focused attention on these issues, and produced commitments to halve the number of people without access to clean water over the next decade. But, despite these commitments, how do we get there? Is a global system based on national ownership of water resources and privatization superior to a system that placed water resources in a global commons? Which system would better help the world get out of this crisis?
The how, and the questions that define the debate:
In asking which system would be better, we need to ask more questions, and define the debate. Questions like:
Do nation-states have a sovereign right to own and control water resources that fall within their territory? Or does water's evaporative qualities and global fluidity make it less appropriate for countries to claim ownership?
Should country's be able to claim water in a river when it might harm a country that is downstream on the same river?
Are the institutions of nation-states better able to manage water resources than a more futuristic and underdeveloped global commons? Or would a global commons adopt a more responsible global perspective, above competitions between nation-states, in managing the world's water resources?
Would nation states be more capable of democratically representing the interests of citizens in regard to water resources, versus a global commons where voting and democratic processes are not yet fully developed?
Should countries be forced to settle with their water endowments, however unlucky and debilitating these endowments might be?
Do water-endowed developed countries have a responsibility to share with less well endowed third-world, water-starved countries.?
Does a nation-state have a compelling national security interest that warrants ownership over water resources, or does an common global security interest override these national interests?
Is it OK for nations that control their water to go and privatize the resource?
Does privatization offer market efficiency benefits?
Do the profit interests of private water utility companies run contrary to the broader interests of global citizens?
These are the questions that define this debate and frame the pro and con argument you will find below.
Water resources should be considered part of national sovereignty. There is little difference between water and other resources that are considered national property. What differentiates water from minerals and forests, generally considered subject to national sovereignty and ownership? They are all finite resources of the earth that are exploited by humans. Does it matter much, as the opposition contends, that water is more globally fluid than other resources? Water's presence in the territory of a nation-state is often very specific to the geographic features and climate within a nation-state. The people of a nation often identify very strongly with these water resources and geographic features, considering them part of their national heritage, identity, and sovereign control. This all strengthens the notion that water is a resource that can be owned by a nation state.
A global commons of water would jeopardize many elements of national sovereignty. If water resources within the boundaries of a nation state are considered part of the global commons, this would have harmful implications for sovereignty over natural resources in general. A "slippery slope" would be created in which the sovereign right of states to control their natural resources would be violated in many more ways than with water resources alone. Forests, mines and minerals might all become subject to international control at a cost to national sovereignty.
Sovereign control over water and international legal controls can co-exist. The United Nations Conference on the Human Environment held at Stockholm in 1972 created Stockholm Principle 21, which gives states full sovereignty over their natural resources, while demanding that they act responsibly toward the global effects of resource exploitation. These, as well as legally binding international measures, are a way to enable sovereign ownership while achieving desired global controls, which is the most important objective after all. A global commons, therefore, is excessive and unnecessary to achieving the desired results of global controls.
There is little difference in ownership between water as national property and water as part of the global commons. While it is common to think of a national resource as the "property" of a nation, it is important to realize that a national resource is actually not owned by anyone in particular, but rather by the collective body of citizens included in the social contract of a state. In a global commons, the only difference would be that the world's citizenry would be in the position of collective ownership over water resources. Instead of considering water a public resource at the national level, it would be considered a public resource at the global level. Therefore, this debate is not between considering water national "property" versus global "non-property", but rather it is between considering water part of a national commons or a global commons. The difference is not that great, therefore, the value-added of moving to a global commons system is not that great.
Only a global commons can equally protect the right to water - All humans have a right to water. This right crosses national borders and sovereign lines of control. In fact, in order to maintain the human right to water on a global scale, it is necessary to eliminate sovereign ownership over water resources. The problem has much to do with the fact that nation-states cannot be entrusted with the burden of protecting the right to water of non-citizens. In fact, a nation state frequently will protect only its own citizens' right to water, and possibly at a cost to non-citizens. The perfect example is a nation state that sucks a river dry where it crosses its own territory only to leave the down-stream nation-state bereft of their right to water. In short, a system that includes national ownership of water lacks a balanced global vision that equally protects the right to water of all the world's citizens.
Only a global commons can properly manage water in a global ecosystem. The World's ecosystems are globally interdependent. Water, being the most fundamental resource to life, is essential to this global interdependence. National ownership of water resources, however, often leads to management of water resources only in a national opposed to global ecological context. Therefore, national ownership of water is contrary to the global ecological context of water resources. A global commons would be better in this regard.
Limited water resources are distributed unequally among nations, making national ownership of water unfair Water is essential to life and most agree that all humans have a right to equal access. But, the natural variations in the distribution of water resources around the world means that any national-ownership system would fail to adequately supply water to citizens of nations with limited water resources. This is unfair, as the conditions that lead to this unequal ownership have nothing to do with a nation-state "earning it". It also has no bearings on the common, equal right to water among humans. Therefore, a system of global redistribution of water resources to achieve equal access is in order. A global commons is the most sensible approach to this.
Competing nation-states have an interest in water privatization, problematically. If we conclude that privatization is bad in the context of water resources (this argument is made below), then a major concern surrounding national ownership is the potential that a nation will privatize the water resources that it "owns". There are substantial incentives for nations to do this. In particular, competition between states for economic power creates a perverse incentive for states to privatize their water industries. If a nation has complete sovereignty over water resources, then there is nothing stopping that nation from privatizing these resources. Under an international commons, however, privatization would be foreclosed as an option, and the problems associated with it could be avoided.
Nation states are necessary entities for governing water resources: It is not clear how the governance of a global commons of water resources might proceed. Who would decide how water resources can be used? What democratic processes would be employed? Nation-states today, typically, have adequate democratic processes and administrative structures to manage and govern the distribution of water. As democracies, the voice of the people can be clearly expressed in votes and other well defined avenues. It is not clear how such citizen-participation in the governance of water resources would occur in a global commons. The nation-state also generally has a strong decision-making structure with a head-of-state that is valuable in responding to crises, such as a drought. the global commons lacks such a structure.
A global commons is not feasible at this time in history when national sovereignty and ownership persist: It is not reasonable to expect that a global commons could be established at this stage in human history. Even if it were a good idea in principle, it is not feasible. Could we really expect that Russia or Brazil or the United States would relinquish sovereign control of lakes found in their territories to an international global commons? No.
Water nationalization invites damaging water diversions: When water is nationalized, countries often stake claim to water resources that naturally flow across borders. A country may divert a river's flow so that its waters can be exploited more by its own countrymen. This does serious ecological and economical harm, both locally and downstream.
A global water commons would be a natural part of the shift toward global governance. The existence of the United Nations and the growth of international trade agreements and "globalization" are all signs of a general trend toward global governance. The European Union, ASEAN, and NAFTA all demonstrate a clear, historical movement toward a reduced role for nation states and a greater role for larger, international, global governing bodies. This is also part of a general shift toward a greater global world-view. "Global citizens" are emerging in this new world-view, and a global perspective on the interconnectedness of the world's ecosystems and the common problem of global warming is emerging as well. In the context of these shifts toward greater global governance and a more global worldview, a global water commons seems feasible.
If there is a will there is a way in establishing an enforceable global commons: In order for a global commons to be established, countries must realize that such a commons is in their and the world's broader interests, and voluntarily sign on to such an international agreement. As mentioned above, there is a trend toward increasing support for a global commons on water resources, and more countries are coming around to the concept. The only obstructions are those countries whom currently object to a global water commons. But, as these opinions change, the obstacles will fall, and a global water commons will become increasingly attainable.
Water is a national security resource that states must be able to own and protect. Securing drinking water for nationals and water reserves for fire emergencies and for crops in severe droughts is all very important. But, this cannot be done if water is considered part of an international commons. Who decides, in a crisis for example, how emergency water supplies should be used? Should these decisions be left to a slow-moving international body? No, states must own certain water resources so that they can make quick emergency decisions to protect their national security interests.
International governing bodies will not adequately enforce a global commons: While water is a resource that is capable of causing international conflicts, how is it that the international community might respond? The problem is that the United Nations and the international community often are unable or unwilling to take serious, intervening action during conflicts. This makes it unlikely that a global commons would actually help stabilize international security.
- There is a growing fear of "water wars" emerging between states that make competing claims to water resources. A global commons would circumvent the potential of such destabilizing events occurring by taking the control of water resources out of the hands of competing states.
Without a global commons powerful nations will hog water resources - With scarce resources among nations of different power, more powerful nations will use their strength to ensure that they gain access at the expense of less powerful nations. Israel, for example, is commonly cited as hogging water resources at the expense of Palestinian territories.
Cross-border tribal management of water resources undermines sovereign ownership schemes. - Particularly in Africa, any sovereign ownership of water might not make sense in the context of tribal affiliations and water-sharing that transcend national boundaries and sovereignty. It might be destabilizing.
A global commons would fly in the face of international trade agreements:
International trade agreements are between nations and private companies within those nations. The right of private companies to own and manage water is often secured by international trade agreements. A global commons would, however, attempt to deprive companies of owning and managing water resources. This would fly in the face of international trade agreements. Would these trade agreements have to be re-written? Would existing water companies, which are supporting thousands of employees, have to be dissolved? This all seems highly costly and untenable.
Nations are signing away control of water resources to transnational corporations in trade agreements - Governments, with pressure and competitive incentives to privatize, are signing away their control over domestic water supplies to trade agreements such as NAFTA. These agreements give far too much control to transnational corporations, and demonstrate that nations, with their "ownership" over water resources and freedom to choose course, are not acting responsibly. Part of the problem is that nation-states have an interest in making their national industries more competitive globally, in part through trade agreements. A global commons is a good solution to this problem.
Water is not a public right What qualifies water as a right? Do people have a right to food, shelter, clothing or other necessities to sustaining life? No. We would hope that people would be able to afford water so that they can survive, but this need does not qualify water as a right. Water ownership, therefore, is legitimate.
Water can be treated as an economic good - Water can be treated just like any other economic good. Natural resources have always been exploited by humans and sold as products. Water is no different. And, water follows the basic principles of economic value in the sense that people are willing to pay for it. Therefore, water should be treated as an economic good, owned, and sold at the most competitive price in the market.
Even if water is considered a right, privatization is the best way to protect that right What is the best way to provide quality water, reliably and efficiently to all that need it? The answer includes private companies, which are generally capable of harnessing market forces more efficiently so that they can reliable provide quality water to those that need it. Free market forces have consistently demonstrated themselves through history of being better able to supply demand at fewer costs, more efficiently, more reliably, and more productively. These forces should be harnessed in the supply of water globally.
Problems of water supply need to be addressed with private investments, and this can be viewed as a means to securing any rights to water. Even in the developed world, much water (up to 50% in Canada) is wasted through leaks in pipes and ageing infrastructure. The public sector has failed to finance repairs, making it important to utilize private sector funds and investments in water resources and infrastructures. For these investments to be attractive to the private sector, water companies must be allowed to make a profit through realistic water charges that reflect the costs of supply. Issues of quality, equity and environmental standards can be handled through effective regulation of the private sector.
Water is a human right, not a commodity - Water is fundamental to human life. Humans are aqueous creatures that depend on water for the flow of suspended chemicals through our bodies. In this way, water assumes a special role in enabling life, standing above all other factors that allow us to survive; water is the most fundamental to life. Our right to life depends on water, and, by extension, so do all of our rights that depend on life; rights to free speech, freedom of expression, and freedom of religion... This all makes water an exceptional, fundamental part of protecting our rights as individuals. Therefore, access to water should be considered a right in itself that cannot be owned by a government and/or private company. Rather, water should be part of the global commons.
This has not proven to be the case. Why? Companies inherently have an interest in profits over the interests of individuals. This does not mean that companies are evil, but simply that they are profit-maximizing entities that do not have a fundamental interest in ensuring a citizen's right to access water. It is common that private companies increase rates dramatically, forcing individuals that can't afford these higher rates to move to another location.
Environmental and health standards are often violated by private ownership of water: Private companies are profit-maximizing entities that often view environmental, health, and safety standards as obstructive to their profit interests. This is a problem, particularly in the context of water, which is so fundamentally important to the environment, health, and life.
If they manage their company well, they profit. It is this direct profit-interest at the managerial level that ensures for-profit companies, in general, perform efficiently. Conversely, there is not profit interest at the managerial level in government-owned companies. If the government-owned company performs highly efficiently or somewhat efficiently, it matters less to managers of these companies because it does not typically affect them monetarily. Therefore, for-profit companies have a greater incentive structure for the efficient operations of its company, and the empirical evidence generally demonstrates this to hold true.
Politics often prevent elected officials from adjusting prices and investing appropriately in water utilities. It is often unpolitical for elected officials to make tough, bold, sacrificial, or risky moves in regard to water. While the water infrastructure for a city, for example, may desperately need repair, an elected official may be afraid, for numerous reasons, to raise taxes to supply the funds that can repair the city's water infrastructure. As a result, the elected official does not raise the funds through taxes and avoids solving the problem. This is simply an illustration of instances in which public officials take into account considerations that are not in the public interest and prevent proper funding of the water infrastructure. Private investments in the water infrastructure are a very appropriate means to raise funds to solve problems like this, particularly when public officials will not act in the public interest.
When water is not treated as an economic good it is wasted On a domestic level, unmetered access to water means that consumers do not pay according to the quantity they use and so they will use it wastefully. At a national level, subsidized water for farmers and industry encourages wasteful methods and inappropriate crops (e.g. growing water-hungry cotton in California or Central Asia, both naturally areas of semi-desert), often with a damaging impact upon the environment. Pricing water according to its true cost would promote more efficient and environmentally-friendly practices, e.g. the use of drip-irrigation or dry farming in agriculture.
For-profit water companies seek to maximize profits at higher cost to consumers Water privatization often leads to price-hikes two or three times higher than the price under public water-utility ownership. This might be the case despite the fact that a for-profit water company is operating more efficiently than a government-owned company. The problem is, however, that the for-profit company is pocketing PROFITS off the top of what it is charging the public, whereas a government-owned company would not be pocketing these profits. Therefore, we have to ask, what does "economic efficiency" mean? The reality is that for-profit companies do produce greater "economic efficiency" than government-owned companies, yes, but typically at greater cost to consumers due to the pocketing of profits by these companies. In this way, privatization is more "efficient" for the owners of water utilities, but not necessarily for the general public that pays more than before. This is particularly wrong-headed in the context of water being a right that should be available equally at affordable costs to all socio-economic groups in need of it.
Water privatization is at odds with the need to conserve water resources - For-profit water companies sell water at a price per gallon. There is a direct incentive for them to sell as many gallons of water as is possible. Therefore, there is no inherent incentive for them to conserve water resources. This has implications in regards to the environment, but also the economy. If water becomes highly scarce, for example, because water companies are pumping as fast and as much of it as possible, then this may force a major spike in water prices, creating economic shocks. We cannot trust profit-interests to manage scarce water resources appropriately to avoid such problems; government management is necessary that has the public interest more directly at heart.
Rapid growth of water infrastructure can only be achieved through private investments - Water infrastructure is very complicated and expensive to build and maintain. While the government could be involved in supplying all the resources to create this infrastructure, it is beneficial to allow the infusion of capital investments in such projects. This can allow for greater funding of these projects, and thus a more reliable and quality supply of water. Equally important, private investments can much more rapidly grow a water infrastructure to meet rapidly growing demand often found in emerging economies.
Problems of water supply need to be addressed with huge investments, particularly in the developing world where many people have no access to decent fresh water: Even in the developed world, much water (up to 50% in Canada) is wasted through leaks in pipes and aging infrastructure. The public sector has failed to provide the money for this investment so private involvement is essential. For this investment to be attractive to the private sector, water companies must be allowed to make a profit through realistic water charges that reflect the costs of supply. Issues of quality, equity and environmental standards can be handled through effective regulation.
The problem with private investments in water supply is that large returns are demanded:
Large sums are needed to meet global water targets, but the private sector will only provide these in return for a large commercial return, meaning that the true cost of the investment will eventually be much higher than if it were publicly funded. Investment from governments and donors is preferable to privatisation as they can target investment at the most needy, rather than focusing upon the most profitable opportunities. Water supply is also a natural monopoly, so private companies have no competitive pressures to drive up quality and drive down prices. Even in the developed world, the experience of water privatisation is not encouraging: in England shareholders cashed in and much of the industry ended up in foreign hands while prices went up, yet droughts in the 1990s still led to widespread rationing. Recent electricity supply crises in California have also shown how badly regulation of private utilities can fail. Meanwhile Australia has successfully reformed its water supply system while retaining it in public hands.
Failing to price water economically is bad for the environment:
Proper pricing of water would reflect all the costs of providing it, including the environmental ones. Water exchanges (such as Australia's one for the Murray-Darling basin) can start by taking account of the needs of the environment and then trading the remaining water efficiently through the actions of the market. Pricing water according to consumption, e.g. through domestic metering, also discourages wasteful use and so reduces the demands on natural water systems such as rivers and underground aquifers.
Private companies are unlikely to care for the environment: Their duties are to their shareholders, not to society at large and nature in general. They will seek to reduce costs and maximise profits, most likely at the expense of high environmental standards. Attempting to use market mechanisms such as water exchanges to protect the environment is also a bad idea. The value of healthy ecosystems and biodiversity is impossible to calculate. Trying to do so makes the environment just another resource to be exploited, rather than protected for its own sake.