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Millions dead because of water statism

That is the conclusion of research published today by Mischa Balen. Over a billion people worldwide do not have access to safe drinking water, and 2.6 billion people have no sanitation facilities. More than two million people die each year from diarrhoea, and over six million people are blind as a result of trachoma, a disease strongly related to lack of face washing. In Sub Saharan Africa, 42% of the population lacks access to decent water. This state of affairs, he finds, is caused by state failure in water systems.

What can be done? Where the private sector has been called in, it has prevented wars and conflict by creating a system of property rights and acting as an incentive to conserve; increased access to clean water; increased the treatment of sewage, thereby lowering infant mortality; cut politicisation from the supply of water; promoted sustainable development by reducing wastage.

That is great. Unfortunately, ideological opponents of markets are campaigning heavily against the private sector. They choose, he says, “not to compare private provision in reality with state provision in reality, but private provision in reality with a mythical, utopian state provision which does not exist in the real world.” No change there, then.


16 comments to Millions dead because of water statism

  • MoFo

    What makes you think that privatization will solve the water problems of sub-Saharan Africa? As it is people can walk to a hole in the ground and get water for free. Are you saying that water should be “owned” by some corporation and that these people would then be “stealing” someones “private property”?

    These people have not got two cents to rub together let alone buy water from some multinational conglomerate. The day someone tells me I can’t take a bucket down to a lake or river and draw water is the day I pick up a gun and start the revolution.

  • I know this is an evil, unsympathetic comment, but the reason im sitting here with water and people in sub Saharan Africa are lacking is because my ancestors had the good sense not to live in a desert.

  • Verity

    Actually, Matt, I am opposed to all these ‘helpful’ schemes that give lifetime employment, offices, air tickets and cars to people who “care”, so read this piece with a muffled yawn, but to be fair, these people’s ancestors weren’t living in a desert, either.

    Those areas were quite lush at one time. They over-grazed them over centuries, and natural erosion from strong winds did the rest.

    This privatised water scheme has been mentioned here before, and if it delivers the goods – clean water – then good. I just don’t know why tranzis have to get involved. Why can’t the governments just deal with the water companies direct?

  • Mamadou M'bala M'bala

    What makes you think that privatization will solve the water problems of sub-Saharan Africa? As it is people can walk to a hole in the ground and get water for free

    Just curious: are you saying that the current sub-Saharan system of “everybody walks to a hole in the ground and get water for free” actually… works?

    Funny, I was under the impression that there was a severe shortage, despite the very “free for all” access to the hole…

  • MoFo,

    That doesn’t strike me as being the sharpest comment I have ever seen on Samizdata.

    ” As it is people can walk to a hole in the ground and get water for free.”

    That’s very true. The problem is not so much that they can walk to a hole in ground and get water, it is that currently, they also get diahorrea, bilharzia, amoebic dysentry and lots of other nice things thrown in for free at said hole in the ground.

    Next, someone has to pay for water to be cleaned and distributed. Those that avail themselves of that service will suddenly find that they have more time to do other things where before they were:
    – walking to a hole to collect water
    – being incapacitated by resulting amoebic dysentry
    – or even having to look after friends and relations who walked to the water hole and got amoebic dysentry

    Perhaps there is some form of trade off to be had here?

    ” Are you saying that water should be “owned” by some corporation”

    No. Not the water that is in the watering hole anyway.

    The water that comes out the end of the extensive purification process, Yes. Definitely.

    “some multinational conglomerate.”

    Who mentioned multinational comglomerates? The beef here is the difference between state provision and private provision. “Private” does not need to be multinational. Just out of interest, if a multinational could do the job cheaper (because it has economies of scale, plus expertise etc etc) and hence provide the service at a lower price to consumers than a small/local private enterprise, why would that be an issue?

    “The day someone tells me I can’t take a bucket down to a lake or river and draw water is the day I pick up a gun and start the revolution.”

    No-one is telling you that you can’t go and take a bucket to a river. We’re just telling you that that is why there is a problem with water borne disease.

    As regards the gun bit, allow me a snigger. It is usually the proponents of state provision that have a peculiar aversion to private gun ownership….


  • Josh

    MoFo sounds like some kind of automatic leftist script/bot. All the cute mindless buzzwords are there, like “corporation” “multinational conglomerate” and “start the revolution.” I would hate to think that a real person would be that stupid.


  • Sandy P

    Bono knows what to do.
    Fly around the world and suck more money out of me and other taxpayers.

    How does all this fly w/the sustainability crowd?

    Surely fewer people helps the world, right?

  • Ric Biek

    Water supply may be the single most vital element in economic sustainability. Obviously there are countless other factors to consider. Yet among all these influences, there may be one that overrides everything else, not only in economics, but in all of life.

    Many may not believe this, but it does seem as if every individual has virtually infinite potential, if not all realized in this lifetime, perhaps in some form of continued existence.

    Use of power intended to control us can make realizing our potential more difficult, but probably nothing can make it impossible — other than our own free choice not to do so.

    Dictatorship by the state, monopolistic business, rigidly enforced religion, warlords, organized crime, or any person, group, or influence that stifles individual initiative, ownership, and self defense may be primarily to blame for poverty and suffering.

    Individuals who tolerate such control are of lesser blame but many of them are necessary to allow such powers to persist.

    Free trade, free speech, open competition and communication, limited government, loving families, literacy, science, abundant natural resources, basic morality, virtue, trust, gratitude, and all other high values and priciples are good — only in so far as they result in greater realization of individual potential.

    If you or your in group desire to stifle individual initiative, stop it. If you or your in group tolerate stifling of your individual initiative, overcome it. No excuse justifies the status quo. We should all be advancing toward a brighter tomorrow.

    It is unreasonable to expect the world to be any better than we can each make it.

    And we are not alone.

    We can quickly discover this if we sincerely want to find a better way to reach our own unique potential and clear the way for others to do so.

    One way we can receive several useful suggestions is to enter a state of grateful reverie in anticipation of access to our own spontaeous and unique still small voice. Then we can choose to follow the most promising suggestion that pops into our consciousness and discover its natural consequences.

    When it works, we can do more of it. When it doesn’t we can learn important lessons about how to do better next time.

    We seem to learn much more from our humbling honest mistakes than contiued material success that tends to build up our egos. But we have to be careful not to let our disappointments interfere with important lessons real life experience can teach us — especially when they suggest ways that might work better next time.

    Life may not make much sense at any given point in time, but when we look back where we started and see how far we have come in realizing our own unique potential, we can see a big difference. This may be our greatest advantage over those who rather choose to drift along with whatever happens to be fleetingly popular instead of discovering and developing their own unique potential.

    For groups or communities wishing to cooperatively improve living conditions, the LENS process has never failed regardless of water supply or any other conditions, including availability of aid. See http://www.lensinternational.com/lensinternational.html

  • errm, congratulations that comment was longer than most articles. Can anyone translate it out of management-consultant-speak for me?

  • I am in favour of private running of water, but not the monopolistic nature, nor of UN or other funds being handed over to the Halliburtons and Custer-Fortune’s of this world to do a poor, expensive, corrupt job.

    The ‘last mile’ infrastructure is a monopoly and so should not be owned by a company, thereby creating a captive market. Better to have State running the pipes using multiple private companies to provide the water than some form of State intervention or control over the price (which will mean subsidy, taxation and still a charge to the people!) IMHO.

    It is not so much if, but HOW it is done. One task would surely be go around installing anti-disease, cheap to maintain and reliable hand pumps in rural areas…

  • Jim

    Seems to me that if “water statism” was really the problem, then we’d have millions of Americans dying of diarrhoea every year, since 85% of the US population is served by publicly owned water systems. But we don’t, so do you think just maybe poor access to water in poor countries might have something to do with … poverty?

    And if the private sector is the answer to lack of access to water, then why are water firms so totally uninterested in investing in Africa? Could it be that they quite rationally see little prospect for profit there? How does that fit with the picture of the private sector as panacea?

  • Verity

    There are some very, very cheap pills that you drop in a bucket of water and it will clean it of parasites completely and make it potable for humans. All you have to do is make sure that people have – preferably free, given it’s public health – access to them. It’s no good saying, “Oh, they won’t remember to do it! It’s better to come up with some expensive scheme to lay pipes and install pumps, blah blah blah.”

    In the long run, of course, it is. But an immediate solution is those little pills. People are not stupid. They are not going to forget to use them once they can see they work and their family’s health is improved with their use.

    I don’t know what the long run solution is, because it is indeed going to take laying pipes and installing pumps, and who is to pay for this, given the returns will be so low? I hate to say it, but it sounds like one time that the government, being as how it is a public health issue, will have to pay.

    Once their economies improve, they can start charging for the water.

  • Jim,

    “And if the private sector is the answer to lack of access to water, then why are water firms so totally uninterested in investing in Africa? Could it be that they quite rationally see little prospect for profit there? “

    Or could it be that governments in large chunks of Africa have scant regard for property rights, which means that companies have to generate huge profits to try to offset the risk of losing substantial chunks of capital?

    And would you be prepared to make any guesses as to the correlation between corrupt Government and poverty?

    “How does that fit with the picture of the private sector as panacea?”

    It doesn’t particularly, at least not without small government committed to upholding property rights and the rule of law.

    But given the choice, the answer is certainly NOT to increase the size and power of government…

  • gravid

    Solar disinfection using clear plastic bottles. Kills off pathogens within a few hours of strong sunlight. Now it’ll only be the phthalates that are a problem.

  • Midwesterner

    Back in the late seventies/early eighties I worked (in headquarters MIS) for an international development agency (donor funded). What we did would have been considered ‘relief’ work by most, but we had a different attitude towards handouts and considered ourselves in development. One of our company’s experiments involved a village in south America where all of the children in a narrow age range had died from a water born disease a few years earlier. At the time our team was there, there were no children in the village between the ages (IIRC) of approximately 5 and 10 years old. Because of that tragedy, the people of the village were very ready to solve the problem.

    In an effort to avoid the handout mentality, our team’s method was to have the people play several problem solving games. One, for example, is the village was divided into teams that were each given three sheets of paper. The goal was to get all its members across an area maybe fifteen feet wide without stepping on anything but the paper. The teams had to develop their own solutions. Examples they developed included a big team member tying the papers to his feet and carrying the other members one at a time. Another team wadded up the paper and threw it back to be used again.

    After the attitude of ‘how can you help me?’ was replaced with ‘can we solve this ourselves?’ then the source of disease was explained and questions about it were answered. The village had been getting their water from a small spring fed stream that ran through the village. The solution they came up with was probably not the one our team members expected, but it worked just fine. They built a stone and concrete cistern around the spring and ran pvc pipe down to the village. Gravity fed, no moving parts, no power requirements. Our total material contribution was to help them acquire the pvc pipe.

    They had designed, built, maintained and, most importantly, thoroughly understood their system. My recollection is that it worked, stayed working, and was used and maintained.

    I’m not sure if this would be considered government or private. I think of it as a private co-op.

  • Paul Marks

    Sometimes private schemes are bad – for example the “buy them a goat” scheme lauched by various charities is insane when one considers the harm done by goats (tree cover and other antidesert defences – forget it if there are lots of goats in an area).

    But mostly statism (either by a formal government or by various armed groups trying to be the government) is the root cause of problems in these countries.

    A recent example in Zambia.

    The “international community” decided to write off Zambia’s debt (sounds good but wait).

    The condition was that the Zambian government spend “the money saved” on state health care and education (thus expanding unsustainable projects), and the various governments that make up the “internatinnal community” also tossed in more aid money.

    Result – the local currency went up by a third against the Dollar, thus undermining local farmers.

    Whether any country can sustain government health care and education in the long term is a moot point – but to try and enforce them in a country as poor as Zambia is insane (no surprise that the British government was at the bottom of this idea).

    And pumping in more aid money (whist writing off the old debts) has just distorted the currency exchange rate and hit the farmers – as I pointed out above.

    “When will they learn” – if “they” means Western governments the correct reply would seem to be “never”.

    A few years ago. Kenya was flavour of the month among progressive people – the evil President Moi was out of office, and a new government was in power (with vast support from Western states).

    The new government would take back forests back into “public ownership” and introduce free education.

    People have gone a bit quiet about wonder land Kenya now – I wonder why.