14. März 2008















www.ipsnews.net, 9.3.2008


Unterstützung der öffentlichen Wasserversorgung
in Afrika - wenigstens ein bißchen

Water Aid To Go Public, A Little

By David Cronin

BRUSSELS, Mar 7 (IPS) - The European Commission has indicated that it will take steps to address claims that private firms have been given preferential treatment in a flagship aid programme for improving water services in Africa.


Some 500 million euros (769 million dollars) has been provided for initiatives in African, Caribbean and Pacific (ACP) countries under the European Union's Water Facility, which was proposed by Romano Prodi, then the Commission's president, in 2003.

The way that this money has been allocated was called into question in a study carried out at the Commission's request and published two years later.

One of the main objectives of the Facility was that poor people's access to water should be improved through increased support for private sector involvement in water delivery. But the 2005 study stated that private firms tend to shy away from water projects in ACP countries because of uncertainties about whether they can expect "a reasonable return" on their investments.

This week, Commission officials confirmed they are willing to rectify this situation by providing greater finance for water projects led by publicly owned companies. Projects involving cooperation between public firms based in Europe and their ACP counterparts could be prioritised as a result. One suggestion being considered is that once the Facility's funds have been replenished, up to 10 percent of them could be reserved for projects with a public sector dimension.

"This is one of the elements we will study," a high-level Commission official, speaking on condition of anonymity, told IPS. "If it is recognised that some of the things we have been promoting are not working as well as they should be, we will have to find out why and try to correct them."

Anti-poverty activists have complained that no partnerships between public water companies appear to have been financed by the Facility until now.

The activists are perturbed by the bias shown towards private companies by the EU, given the considerable body of evidence that such firms have often made clean water unaffordable for the poor. For example, when Suez, a French-owned company, was given responsibility for delivering water to some townships in South Africa during the 1990s, charges levied for water services increased by 600 percent.

Olivier Hoedeman, a spokesman for Corporate Europe Observatory, which monitors the influence wielded by business over EU policy-makers, gave a qualified welcome to the indications given by the Commission.

"It seems like the Commission is open to change," he said, while arguing that it would be preferable if a separate fund is set up to support partnerships between public firms.

"The Commission appears very cautious about making its support for public-public partnerships very visible," he added. "It would like to do this in a low-profile way. But if it wants to be successful, it should show the world it is supporting this. Then public companies will knock on its door and request access to funds."

The EU's water policy was debated at a conference held in the European Parliament Mar. 6 and 7.

Marc Laimé, a journalist specialising in water issues, told the conference that problems of access to water are often serious, even within Europe.

About 140 million people -- or 16 percent of Europe's population -- do not have clean water at their disposal, he said. "People are dying from bad water, not just in Africa but also in Europe and in some of the EU's member states," he said.

The situation could worsen because of climate change, he warned. Over the past 30 years, drought has cost the European economy between 85 and 100 billion euros. The drought which affected vast swathes of the continent in 2003 was among the worst, affecting nearly 100 million people and depriving the economy of nearly 9 billion euros.

Laimé cited estimates that agriculture accounts for 64 percent of all water consumption in Europe. Yet the EU's common agricultural policy (CAP) has not yet been modified so that the surrounding issues can be grappled with. "As long as we have the CAP and water policy completely unlinked, we'll not get anywhere," he added.

Christiane Franck, director-general of the Belgian publicly owned firm Vivaqua, said that her country offers a model for how water services can be delivered.

Households in Brussels, she said, pay 25 percent less for water than those in Paris, with Vivaqua aiming to provide water at affordable prices, "even for the least well-off." The company's workforce has grown by 17 percent in five years, she added, because it has diversified into new activities such as repairing leaky pipes.

Erik Swyngedouw, a professor at the University of Manchester in Britain, said that the private sector is happy to become more involved in providing water. "But it has to be profitable, which unfortunately water is not," he said.

Andrea Tilche, a European Commission official dealing with scientific research, acknowledged that the EU has been promoting a greater role for private companies in delivering water as part of its so-called Lisbon agenda of turning the Union into the world's leading economic power. "Companies do not want to be owners of water," he said. "They want to be able to do business on the basis of providing services."

Juraj Kohutiar from the Slovakian organisation People and Water said that even though the past 12 years have been some of the warmest on record, addressing the impact of climate change on water seems to be viewed as "politically incorrect".

He contended that the 'harvesting' of rainwater so that it can be saved for use during periods of low precipitation "should be practised on a massive scale."

An Italian left-wing member of the European Parliament, Roberto Musacchio, said there is a reluctance by many governments to recognise that there should be a universal right of access to clean water.

"We need to relaunch the idea that water must be declared a human right," said Musacchio. "In Europe, water is still public in nature. This is something we must hang on to. So not declaring it a human right is a contradiction." (END/2008)


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