Should water be a commodity – and if so to what extent?
The Guardian recently featured an opinion piece on the commodification of water, by Nestle bigwig and former CEO Peter Brabeck-Letmathe. The article basically questions the assumption that all water use should be considered a basic human right and argues that water use which goes ‘beyond basic sanitation, cooking and drinking’ should be charged for.
The era of water at throwaway prices is coming to an end. I have long argued that we need to set a price that more accurately values our most precious commodity; the OECD and the World Bank are also moving in this direction, and have recently published reports suggesting the setting of a better price for water.
Brabeck Letmathe puts forward the example of South Africa – a nation with a sizable population where freshwater resources are scarcer than in European countries. He argues in favor of South Africa’s policy of ‘charging the full cost of the infrastructure for additional use’ of all water beyond basic requirements.
It makes perfect sense that our most precious and rapidly dwindling resource should not be treated as limitless in the face of growing need due to increasing populations and other factors such as climate change. One wealthy family’s swimming pool or rose garden is not equal to the need of several poor families’ drinking and bathing needs.
But there is a difference between rationing a resource and making money off it. I for one do not think that the private sphere should be given control of something so essential to life, especially in times of shortages or crisis. The argument that we should ‘unleash the market on water-users and let the price mechanism bring supply and demand into balance’, made in the Economist a few weeks ago, may make economic sense to those with fierce free market ideals, but that does not mean it makes moral sense. Natural resources do not simply become the property of those who harvest and extract them. They belong to the Earth – i.e., everyone, equally. That is why oil companies – for better or worse – are given drilling ‘rights’ and have to pay high prices to national and local governments in order to drill, baby, drill. The specific results of this practice are a different story altogether.
Brabeck-Letmathe’s main argument, however, is more efficient water use in agriculture, which he says makes up around 70% of global water usage.
Though we might be rightfully skeptical taking advice about how to manage global water resources from a Nestle executive, the article is worth reading, as is the comment section below it.
Read Peter Brabeck-Letmathe’s full piece, entitled ‘Pay the true price of water’ in the Guardian.
By Graham Land