It was back in the 1980s, the era of Reagan and Thatcher, that the notion of privatization as the solution to the world’s problems began to take hold. The private sector, we were told, could do most things more efficiently than government. And when it came to promoting tourism or running the lottery, that may have been true. But what happens when private companies take over more basic public services, such as providing health care, education, or — as is increasingly happening around the world — clean drinking water?

For decades we’ve known the stark truth: the world is running out of fresh water. The dream of large-scale desalinization plants that would convert oceans into reservoirs turned out to be impractical. As global population continues to burgeon, water demand keeps rising. By 2025, demand is expected to exceed supply by more than 50 percent; already, more than a billion people lack access to clean water.

For many governments in the developing world, the answer to this crisis, increasingly, is privatization. The big global lenders, the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, are now requiring many Third World nations seeking debt relief to turn their water systems over to multinational corporations, which, the theory goes, have the financial clout and expertise needed to manage limited supplies and distribute water widely. But in the South African province of KwaZulu-Natal — as Jon Jeter reports in this issue (“South Africa’s Driest Season“) — the push to privatize has led to water price increases and service cutoffs for the poor, forcing many to return to polluted rivers for water and resulting in the worst cholera epidemic in the nation’s history. From the Philippines to Bolivia, as global water companies — most often the France-based Vivendi Universal or Suez — have taken over local systems, service, rather than improving, has deteriorated, and prices have skyrocketed. For Americans, who take plentiful, cheap water for granted, that might not seem like a critical issue; but it is for the average family in Bangui, Central African Republic, who already must pay more than a quarter of their income for water.

In the United States, 85 percent of the population still depends on public utilities for water, but the push to privatize is on. The water companies have formed a lobbying group, called the “H2O Coalition,” which is promoting legislation in Congress that would require muncipalities to “consider” privatization before they can tap federal funds for improving utilities. But rather than rushing ahead, cities should first consider the case of Atlanta, where, since a Suez subsidiary was hired to manage the aging water system in 1999, residents have received repeated alerts warning that their tap water is contaminated (see “Water for Profit“).

Water management is clearly a global growth business, and the World Bank, which calls water a “human need,” predicts that, over the next two decades, it could be a $1 trillion industry in this country alone. But clean, safe drinking water is more than a human need — it is a human right. And protecting the world’s scarce water resources and making them available to everyone is a task that governments — whether in South Africa or in Atlanta — can not simply abandon to the highest bidder.

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