Congress Should Learn from Past Failures When Offering Water Funding to World’s Poor

June 29, 2005

Congress Should Learn from Past Failures When Offering Water Funding to World’s Poor

Statement of Wenonah Hauter, Director of Public Citizen’s Water for All Campaign

Public Citizen applauds the efforts of U.S. Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-Ore.) to help more than one billion people living without adequate access to safe and affordable water around the world. His bill, “The Water for the Poor Act of 2005” (H.R. 1973), which would increase funding for water services in developing countries, is not just a good policy, it’s a moral obligation in a world where millions of people die every year from preventable water-related diseases. Today, the U.S. House of Representatives’ International Relations Committee will conduct a hearing on this bill.

However, Congress should proceed with caution when outlining how this money will be used. Three critical issues are central to building a successful platform for water access in developing countries: affordability, citizen participation and key lessons from a decade of failed water policy focused on corporate privatization.

In looking at the failures of delivering water to the poor in the past decade, promotion of private sector solutions has taken the front seat of the debate, and not enough time has been spent considering the issues of access and affordability. Development agencies and multinational financial institutions have promoted privatization of water utilities as an objective unto itself, not as a means for improved water access. As a result, many poor communities never got the water access they were promised because of high fees for connections and services, contractual maneuvers and differing service standards based on consumer class. When citizens live on $1 a day, a $445 connection fee is out of the question, as it was for residents of El Alto, Bolivia. As a result, 70,000 residents were unable to pay the fee and receive water. 

Privatization has proved to be an expensive and unnecessary experiment that has delayed delivery of water to the poor by a decade. It is important to ensure that the legislation Congress is considering today will help the poor without replicating past failures. Lawmakers should place a priority on citizen participation from beginning to end in developing countries to ensure that affordability and access are considered first and foremost. Further, Congress should not lock funds into specific or limiting programs. We encourage Congress to develop a truly humanitarian plan that will alleviate the water crisis facing too many people today in developing countries.

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To read Public Citizen’s letter to the House International Relations Committee on hearing on Water for the Poor, click here.