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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Water for the World

Air Date: Week of

Congress is considering ways the United States can get more clean water to the developing world. Some lawmakers want the private sector to help. But private water companies are stirring unrest in some developing countries. Jeff Young reports from Washington


CURWOOD: From the Jennifer and Ted Stanley Studios in Somerville, Massachusetts, this is Living on Earth. I’m Steve Curwood.

There are few things more basic to life than water. Our bodies are mostly made up of water and we can’t go very long without it. Even so, some two-and-a-half billion people on this planet do not have ready access to clean water. Many call it a global crisis, both in terms of public health and threats to international security. Now, the U.S. Congress is considering ways the government and private sector can help. International aid agencies say they welcome the attention. But some folks in the developing world worry about letting private water companies control such a valuable natural resource. Communities from South America to Sub-Saharan Africa are rebelling. They say privatization all too often raises the price of water beyond the reach of the poor. Living on Earth’s Jeff Young reports.

YOUNG: You don’t hear Republican Bill Frist and Democrat Harry Reid agree on much of anything these days. As leaders of their respective parties in the Senate the two are usually locked in Washington’s partisan political combat. But look atop at a little noticed piece of legislation on water and you find the names Frist and Read side by side as cosponsors.

HOAGLAND: It is amazing in some ways and yes, I think, it’s just an indication that this is a non-partisan issue.

YOUNG: Frist aide Bill Hoagland says it shows that senators are serious about bringing clean water to the developing world. The numbers are sobering. The UN says more than 9,000 children die each day due to waterborne disease. The Frist-Reid Safe Water Act was unveiled at a Capitol screening of the documentary film, “Running Dry.” Water companies paid for the film, which seeks to draw public attention to the world’s water crisis.

FILM EXCERPT: In Africa, we have quite a lot of water, but it’s not always where we need it….

YOUNG: Frist also sees a looming national security threat as social disorder from disease and competition for water stoke global conflicts. At the World Summit on Sustainable Development three years ago, the U.S. and other wealthy countries committed to cut the number of people without water and sanitation in half by 2015. The Frist and Reid bill calls for the U.S. to make that commitment a priority in international development aid and to come up with a strategic plan. But because the budget is tight in Washington, Hoagland says the bill also looks to the private sector for help.

HOAGLAND: There are ways to provide quick clean water that the private sectors have helped develop those technologies. We should not run away from them; we should embrace them to help us address this problem.

YOUNG: Some water activists say private companies have raised rates in a push for profit, pricing water out of the reach of the poor. Maj Fiil-Flynn coordinates the water program for the consumer watchdog group Public Citizen.

FLYNN: We shouldn’t be paying our tax dollars to large corporations who eventually will turn around and create systems where the poor do not get access because access has to be combined with affordability.

YOUNG: Flynn points to Bolivia where high water prices sparked violent street demonstrations. Residents of the city El Alto say the French company Suez charges exorbitant rates and does not serve the poorest. Community organizer Abel Mamani spoke to us from a hotel in Paris where he traveled to protest a meeting of Suez shareholders.


VOICEOVER: More than 200 thousand people in El Alto at this moment do not have potable water. They are drinking water from wells they have dug and there is much diarrhea among the children because the water is clearly not potable. There are children who have died as a result of drinking this water.

YOUNG: The private water companies say such complaints are overblown and ignore the increased water access they’ve made possible. But the private water controversies keep piling up in the Philippines, Ghana and some U.S. cities, sparking reaction in Congress. Illinois Democratic Representative Janice Schakowsky introduced a resolution she calls “Water for the World.”

SCHAKOWSKY: There are some things that I think belong rightfully in the public sector because we believe that access to water is a human right. Therefore, it should not be owned in private hands.

YOUNG: Two dozen of Schacowsky’s House colleagues have signed on. Others look at the enormous challenges of providing water and opt for a more pragmatic approach. Oregon Democrat Earl Blumenauer’s bill is a companion to the one from Senators Frist and Reid and also includes a role for private companies.

BLUMENAUER: There is a sort of a philosophical notion on the part of some that water comes from God; it should be free. It’s true, but God doesn’t deliver it. And delivering water and treating it is quite expensive.

YOUNG: Blumenauer says his bill pairs incentives for private sector work with safeguards aimed at making sure water remains affordable. And he says the issue of water scarcity is too pressing to be bogged down by the dispute over private water and the public good. For Living on Earth, I’m Jeff Young in Washington.



Public Citizen’s Water for All Campaign

WHO water and sanitation information

World Water Day

"Running Dry" project site

British group Water Aid


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