OSAKA — Debate on private vs. public water management lived up to its billing as one of most divisive issues at the World Water Forum as a two- day plenary session opened here Tuesday.

Lined up against private-sector involvement are developing countries, which believe water would become less accessible and more expensive for low-income communities.

Proponents, however, say privatizing water services would lead to more efficiency and is the best way to solve water-related problems.

The “Public Private Partnerships” plenary session was organized by the World Water Council, which promotes such joint management, and the Council of Canadians, a nongovernmental organization which opposes the idea.

While both camps are concerned that 1.2 billion people have no access to potable water, they advocate widely different solutions, and it appears unlikely a consensus will be reached by the session’s close.

The WWC maintains that public entities’ inefficiency and lack of money and expertise are the main reasons why they fail to ensure that everyone has access to water. Creating partnerships with the private sector would help improve the situation, it says.

The Council of Canadians, however, argues that placing water management and services in the hands of the private sector would make the situation worse for the poor.

Paul Reiter, executive director of the International Water Association, said during the session that public-private partnerships can take many forms and that each country should introduce programs best suited for local needs.

“The issue here is what the best blend is,” he said.

Richard Franceys, a professor at Britain’s Cranfield University, cited studies by the Asian Development Bank that show small-scale public-private partnerships benefited people in Manila.

Maude Barlow, chairwoman of the Council of Canadians, argued that under these partnerships the public would shoulder most of the risk and companies would reap most of the profit, a trend that can already be seen in some developing countries where such partnerships exist.

“Even if the company is not corrupt, it is still inconsistent to find profit for shareholders and still deliver water to the public,” she said. “One hundred percent of every bit of money that goes from the government to the provider of water services should go to water services and should not go to private investors.”

After both groups made their presentations, opponents to water privatization from such countries as Ghana, Mexico and South Africa spoke to the panelists and audience about how private-sector participation has put more pressure on the poor.

As opponents of private water management were not invited to the previous World Water Forum in the Hague in 2000, Tuesday’s session was innovative, observers said. Barlow said the change of heart was prompted by the fact that water companies’ operations in developing nations are not profitable.

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