LONDON — The 18th annual World Water Day (March 22) offers the same old problems and rejects the practical solutions. On Monday, 1 billion people will, as usual, spend the day without clean water and a third of humanity without adequate sanitation. As usual, some 3.5 million men, women and children will die from related diseases this year. Yet many nongovernment organizations and politicians still prefer ideology to ideas, spurning what the private sector delivers to the world’s poor.

Activists often claim to be defending the poor from profit-maximizing corporations. But this has more to do with dogma than reality. Given that less than 10 percent of world water management is private, it is hard to see how they can blame corporations for poor supply.

In fact, it is governments that mismanage water and misallocate it to political cronies and powerful lobbies such as farmers. The poor, in rural areas or slums, are left unconnected and unable to do much about it. Anti-privatization groups keep repeating that water should be provided by government but ignore that government has been the worst enemy of the poor.

On another tack, the World Development Movement and similar groups claim that the private sector has done little for the poor, having connected only three million people in developing countries over the past 15 years. But this figure excludes Latin America and Southeast Asia where private water management — and the number of people getting water — has boomed since the 1990s. In Argentina, for example, privately managed areas got lower water prices, more connections and a drop in infectious diseases and child deaths.

Activists have further misrepresented private supply by focusing on multinationals while ignoring the small-scale water vendors who get water to people whom governments have abandoned. In many African cities, they sell plastic water sachets to passersby, while in Paraguay 500 aguateros supply nearly half a million people using tankers and piped water.

A World Bank researcher found in 1998 that “in most cities in developing countries, more than half the population gets basic water service from suppliers other than the incumbent official utility.” Country surveys suggest that the situation has changed little since then.

The World Health Organization, like activists, disregards these “informal” water vendors, bottled water and tankers. It refuses to consider them as “improved water sources” as they are unregulated, unpredictable and allegedly incapable of serving a mass market.

But to the hundreds of millions of people who rely on them, there is nothing incapable about private water providers. For many, they are the difference between life and death.

Informal water vendors come in all types, but they all provide water for profit. Their clients are among the most poorly prepared to pay to protect their families from disease and to put their time to better use than searching for clean water.

The success of these private water services throughout Latin America, Africa and Asia disproves the claim that the poor are too poor to pay for water and that the private sector has no incentive to serve them. In fact, the poor often pay more for water than those in prosperous areas with “formal” supplies. A World Bank survey of South American cities found that, on average, trucked water costs four to 10 times more than the public network’s price. In Kibera, the Nairobi slum of about 1 million people, jerry-can water sells at four times the average price in Kenya.

Activists who accuse the private sector of putting profits before people should realize three things. First, water vendors would stop providing water and sanitation if they did not make a profit. Second, governments are largely to blame for the higher prices because they constrain or outlaw private supply. Finally, people buy from vendors willingly, often with a choice of suppliers.

Water is severely under-priced in China, at around a third of the world average. As a consequence 300 million rural people have no safe drinking water. Where vendors do operate, people are prepared to pay up to 10 times the connected cost.

The theme of this year’s World Water Day is quality, so legalizing the work of water vendors should be a priority. They could then own sources, land and infrastructure, get credit and expand operations, serving more people at cheaper rates with cleaner water. It is these small-scale ventures — not empty government promises — that can quickly improve water supplies for the poor.

Caroline Boin is a project director at International Policy Network, London, which focuses on economic development.

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