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March 2003
Privatizing the Water Commons?
 By Doug Miller

What role should private water companies play in the massive effort needed to provide water to the world’s poor? This will be one of the most hotly debated topics at this week’s Third Water Forum in Japan: "a showdown between the marketplace and the global commons," as one campaigner put it.

Clearly, providing water and wastewater services is one of the key roles business could play in helping achieve the UN’s Millennium Development Goals; and many governments see this as desirable. But what do average people across the world think?

A just-completed 20-nation public opinion survey conducted by Environics International brings the views of 20,000 citizens of the "Group of 20" countries into the debate.

First, we asked citizens whether they thought the privatization of essential services, such as telephone, water, and energy, was positive or negative for them and their families. We used the identical question in our 1999 Millennium Poll in many of the same countries, enabling comparisons over the past three years in 16 countries.

Results show that public support for the privatization of essential services has declined significantly in ten of these 16 countries over the past three years, and grown in none. Countries with significant declines include the United States, Canada, Indonesia, Italy, Germany, Turkey, Spain, Australia, Argentina, and India. Support has remained stable in China, Great Britain, Japan, Mexico, Nigeria, and Russia.

In 1999, majorities in ten of the 16 tracking countries thought that the trend toward privatization was positive. However, by late 2002, majorities in only seven of these countries support privatization. Opposition outweighs support in over half the countries in our surveys.




The results are sobering but not surprising. The period from 1999 to 2002 witnessed a number of widely reported problems with privatization initiatives, including electricity in California and Canada, mobile telephones in Brazil, and water in Bolivia. Also during the period, people’s trust in the private sector sagged as waves of corporate scandals rocked global companies and world stock markets.

In our latest survey, we also asked about privatization of specific sectors. Citizens across the world give among the lowest levels of support to privatization in the water sector of the six sectors we tested. Of the 20 countries we surveyed, most people in 11 countries want less water privatization, while people in four countries want more. In the remaining five countries, most people tend to be satisfied with current levels of privatization. Latin Americans are particularly negative on water services privatization, while citizens of India and Indonesia are among the most positive.

These and other findings from our most recent research, suggest that the public’s water privatization glass is half-empty rather than half full. Mismanaged privatization processes in a number of countries plus the breach of public trust resulting from recent corporate scandals means that the privatization "bubble" may be running out of support at the very time when the private sector is gearing up for major expansion. Certainly, there is no public mandate for privatization to be touted as the "silver bullet" for achieving the UN’s Millennium Development Goal of halving the number of people without water services in the world.

Given these findings, industry and government proponents of privatization of water services would be well advised to engage with their critics and develop innovative public/private partnerships that most can support. Local citizen involvement, government oversight, and marginal cost pricing (that keeps the first few litres of water affordable to all while discouraging over-use), are just some of the design elements that will help ensure that vital private capital can be successfully applied to meet the global water challenge.


The writer is president of Environics International, a global public opinion and stakeholder research firm based in Toronto and London.

Environics International Ltd., www.GlobeScan.com, based in Toronto Canada is a global public public opinion and stakeholder research firm providing quantitative metrics and strategic counsel on key trends and emerging issues. More detailed coverage of the research presented here will be included in Environics' 2003 Global Issues Monitor report. For more information, please contact:

Rob Kerr
Vice President
GlobeScan
Voice: +1 416 969 3086
Fax: +1 416 920 3510
Email: rob.kerr@GlobeScan.com