Water Not for Everyone
By Gustavo González*
Nearly 30 percent of the people in Latin America do not have access to potable water and sanitation, in spite of a wave of reforms and privatizations in that arena.
SANTIAGO - The privatization model that entails an independent state regulatory body, an approach taken by Argentina and Chile for its waterworks and sanitation services is a major advance, say experts in both South American countries.
In Argentina's population of 37 million people, nine million do not have access to potable water and nearly 23 million lack sewage systems, according to a 2000 report by the World Council on Water.
In Costa Rica, where the service remains entirely in the government's hands, many residents have been without potable water for the last several months.
In 1995, 27 percent of the Latin American and Caribbean population did not have potable water and 31 percent did not have sewage and sanitation services, according to the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP).
Some environmentalists warn that the debate on privatization of public services cannot escape the principles of water's economic value, adopted by the 1992 World Conference on the Environment and Development, also known as the Earth Summit, in Rio de Janeiro.
"Water has a huge cost and we must become conscious of the need to care for it," expert Armando Bertranou told Tierramérica. "To do that, the idea is to adopt economic incentives to promote the more efficient use of water, as there is in many countries where there is a culture of taking care of water sources."
"The use-value should be taken into account, as well as the cost of preserving water, extracting it and distributing it," said Seidy Salas, a spokesperson for the Central American division of the international Global Water Partnership (GWP), a network of governmental, private and independent entities engaged in water management.
"Giving water an economic value does not mean turning it into
merchandise. That would imply that only those who could pay for it could have access to it. Water is an indispensable good needed for life and so should be managed as a social good," Salas told Tierramérica.
For Humberto Peña, head of Chile's National Water Directorate, "the privatization process (begun in 1992) is neutral from the perspective of the sustainability of water management."
The plans of the private enterprises must be approved by a regulatory body, the Sanitation Services Superintendent, according to Peña, chief of GWP in South America.
In December 1999, 58 percent of Chile's urban sanitation systems were run by private companies, 37 percent by government-controlled bodies, 4.5 percent by municipalities and 0.5 percent by other types of entities.
Foreign capital has a major presence in the 20 largest sanitation companies active in Chile. The Britain-based Thames Water, the world's third-largest firm in this industry, controls 20 percent of Chile's potable water market.
The country's urban coverage of potable water services is 99.2 percent and 92.3 percent for sanitation services, according to 1999 figures, Peña told Tierramérica.
The aim of the privatizations was to attract investment for sewage treatment. In 1999, the country processed just 22.6 percent of wastewater but, says Peña, the portion will reach 80 percent in 2006 and 100 percent by 2010.
The community's participation in controlling the services is an issue that is far from resolved. Consumers International, a global federation, underscored this weakness in Chile, where the Consumer Defense Law excludes public services.
Customer protests focus on the price of water services. In April, residents of poor neighborhoods in the Chilean capital demonstrated outside the presidential palace to protest the high rates.
In the city of Rancagua, 90 km south of Santiago, 120 families in the Costa del Sol district were left without water when Libertador Sanitation Services, a Thames Water subsidiary, shut off the service, claiming non-payment.
"Do we have to choose between water and food?" wondered María Díaz, president of the neighborhood council.
The privatization process was not transparent, Alexis Abarca, director of ODECU, a consumer's organization in Chile's Sixth Region, told Tierramérica.
"Officially, it is said that in the last three years the rate hikes were 16 to 24 percent in some cases and 24 to 30 percent in others. ODECU reviewed 15,000 water bills and found that in truth the increases were at least 100 percent and even reached 200 percent," she said.
In Argentina, the Tripartite Council of Sanitation Works and Services incorporated consumer representatives in 1999, a pioneering effort in Latin America.
The Aguas Argentinas company received a 30-year concession in 1993 for managing potable water and sewage services in Buenos Aires, the capital's outskirts and 17 municipalities in the surrounding areas, serving a total of 10 million residents.
The company seeks 100 percent coverage of both services as part of the contract, as well as providing wastewater treatment, which in 1993 covered just five percent of the area. Aguas Argentinas reports that in the first seven years, it extended services to 2.6 million more people.
In Costa Rica, meanwhile, potable water is of high quality and residents pay "very little" for it -- 14 dollars a month --, says consumer Flor María Solano. But in recent months there has been water rationing. "Now we only have water from 3:00 to 9:00 in the morning," she complained.
Environmental economist Jaime Echaverría told Tierramérica that he supports privatization, in spite of the strong political resistance it can trigger among the public. "With privatization, water is finally going to see its true value. In Costa Rica, this service has been highly subsidized."
The Costa Rican authorities are engaged in a democratization effort to make potable water and sewage services available to the entire country, but there are two weak points: the rates are not enough to cover operating costs and rigorous controls are not enough to ensure the quality of the aqueducts, said expert Salas.
* Gustavo González and contributors Marcela Valente (Argentina), and Néfer Muñoz (Costa Rica) are IPS correspondents.