Dichotomy of water supply and privatization
By Op Rana (China Daily)
Updated: 2009-08-07 07:44

Dichotomy of water supply and privatization

Every human being enters this world with the inherent right to life. The corollary to this is the right not to be killed - perhaps God's first law, which he made after Cain killed Abel, according to the Bible. To live a human being needs air, water and food the most, all of which is found in nature.

Food was the first of the essentials to become private property. Air and water were free till industrial wastes polluted the atmosphere and the earth's water bodies. Ironically, the more science progressed, the more polluted land, water and air became. Humans, though, have kept using science to find new ways to treat water clean. Since water is the birthright of the people, governments across the world were responsible for its supply, till private companies entered the scene. And that's when all the trouble started.

Once nature's bounties began to be privatized and vested interests took over their control, people were left with no choice but to pay for things that for millenniums had been there for the taking.

China, too, has allowed private companies to treat and supply drinking water. It's not surprising to see private firms not having the same social responsibility that usually a State-owned enterprise (SOE) has. But surprisingly, it is, to see some officials trying to defend the obvious wrongs such private firms have committed.

Many cities and towns have SOEs and private firms both supplying drinking water. Xincheng district in Chifeng in the Inner Mongolia autonomous region is one such place. It is also the place where more than 4,000 people have fallen ill after drinking contaminated water supplied by the private firm late last month. Unashamedly, some local officials blame the contamination on an unusually heavy downpour that flooded the area, when a first-hand investigation showed that the quality of water was suspected even before the heavy shower.

This has sparked a debate among experts on whether water supply should be privatized. Surprisingly, most of the views (those available in English - originally and in translations) favor privatization, hoping the companies that supply water would fulfill their social responsibility. Now, that is some contradiction of sorts.

Social responsibility for such companies is actually corporate responsibility. And the top corporate responsibility of any company is making profit. Capital's allegiance is to profit, not social good because "capital, by its very definition, flees in pursuit of more and more wealth". So wouldn't it be childish to expect private firms, which by nature have to pursue profit, to ensure public safety.

The experts have cited the example of developed countries where private companies have been supplying drinking water, saying very few, if any, contamination cases have been reported from such countries. But then, as they have said, such countries have foolproof laws to guarantee people's safety and guard against unscrupulous business practices. China still doesn't have such laws, something that some private companies have been using to their advantage. Such blind pursuit of profit becomes all the more dangerous if the companies are engaged in public services.

Nature does not contaminate water, humans do. Funnily, one set of people pollutes water by dumping the wastes they create to make money, and another set charges us for collecting and treating the same water, which it supplies us for domestic use.

This dual game will continue until the government agrees to shoulder the burden of guaranteeing to supply at least the essentials to the people. And that's what, according to Karl Marx, is a government that is part of the people.

E-mail: oprana@hotmail.com

(China Daily 08/07/2009 page8)