Privatized Water Is Hurting the Poor and Thirsty

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Before starting at Fortune, I studied and reported on, broadly speaking, international affairs.

While reporting from the UN, which I covered for a few years, one thing I’d hear often was the reiteration that water is a basic human right. It was only later I learned how hard advocates had to work to make sure that guaranteed access to clean water (and sanitation) became a global priority. In 2010, the UN General Assembly passed a resolution enshrining clean water and sanitation as fundamental rights. The Human Rights Council soon followed suit. Clean water is, in fact, sustainable development goal (SDG) number six, part of the very set of goals that corporations are increasingly using to benchmark their own sustainability work.

Considering water is necessary for survival, ensuring access to water should be a given, right?

Well, as with many other essential rights, there’s still a lot of work to do. In 2017, 785 million people could not access water within a 30-minute trip, according to the World Health Organization (WHO). Around two billion people had no option but to draw from contaminated water sources.

And incredibly, in lots of emerging economies, the urban poor have unreliable service from public water sources—but live next to communities with fully functioning water and sanitation infrastructures. Just a few meters away, they’re still off the grid. And private water purveyors are almost always more expensive than public solutions. (It’s worth noting that SDG six also specifies the importance of affordable water.)

All indications suggest water insecurity is going to get worse. Thanks to climate change, population growth, and a number of other factors, clean water is on track to become even more scarce: By 2025, says the UN, half of the global population will live in water-stressed areas.

As the situation grows more dire, the New York Times has a story, in the starkest terms, on how “business” interventions are making things worse, and at scale.

Countries—largely in South Asia, the Middle East, South America, and sub-Saharan Africa—have turned to privately-owned water tankers in an effort to fill the gap, instead of investing in long-term and systemic solutions.

The Times describes it as “another phase” in the long-developing move towards water privatization. It’s a must-read.

In parts of Nepal, the reliance on such tankers has opened the door for some ugly dealings, a potential harbinger of things to come elsewhere. “Greedy, uncompromising and fearful of being knocked from their perch, some tanker operators even conspire among themselves to fortify the conditions that contributed to their emergence in the first place. Locals tell tales of frequent underhand deal making, pipeline sabotage, and egregious environmental destruction,” writes the Times’s Peter Schwartzstein.

In some cases, the water supply is of “poor quality,” and at prices around 10 times that of “government-supplied pipeline water.” It’s a telling tale of how “tanker shenanigans” are actually worsening the water shortage conditions, usually taking advantage of the most desperate and underserved.

Meanwhile, investments in water aren’t translating into a guaranteed right to water for many populations. Like other SDGs, goal six will require a doubling of efforts to be accomplished in time: In May 2019, a report of the UN Secretary-General noted that most countries were “unlikely to reach full implementation of integrated water resources management by 2030.”

And the failure to address the issue is costing businesses money, too. But, ahead of 2030, here, here, and here are resources for companies looking to be smarter about tackling the looming water crisis.

Tamara El-Waylly

Ellen McGirt curated and wrote the blurbs in this edition of raceAhead.