A World Communion of Reformed Churches press release ( http://wcrc.ch/node/624 ) was recently entitled “ The right to clean and free water is focus of Latin American church meeting” . The churches at the XI General Assembly of the WCRC Latin American region declared that “Water is a gift from God and a human right” and that “water is not a commercial commodity but a common resource to be protected.”
While I'm all for clean water, advocating for free water is the surest way to get neither. There's always going to be a cost to get potable water to people. It’s much better, in my opinion, to pursue strategies that promote ACCESS to good drinking water in the most affordable manner possible than to categorically argue that water should be free.
Making free water as a right implies that governments (or someone) must provide it and cover all related expenses. If you've ever lived in a developing country you know that most governments can't currently afford to adequately invest in many basic services and the result is widespread poor to non-existent provision of electricity, running water, health care, education, police protection, etc, etc. As a result, these services never reach the people who need them the most--since the disempowered seldom benefit in limited resource environments.
Though the WCRC press release it appears that the Latin American churches’ basic concern is that there are more and more private, for-profit companies now managing municipal water systems in the “Majority World” and this is seen as inherently unjust. While I know little about such details in Latin America, here in Niger, the largest cities’ water systems have been privatized for 10 years (or so) now. I think most people would agree that the result has been improved access to water where those companies operate in comparison to the days of state management. By law, the private providers are required to offer the cheapest rates for household consumption --up to a certain amount that calculates out to be pennies/day for most homes. They then charge higher rates for heavier users (a 2nd rate) with commercial consumers paying the greatest tariffs (a 3rd rate) based on volume. It is in the companies’ interest to grow and expand its distribution and sale of water AND to promote conservation through good maintenance. Many municipal water systems and private users lose incredible percentages of water through leaky and unrepaired pipes and taps and it’s better to assign a cost to minimize loss of this valuable resource.
Privatization (and also private-public partnerships) can bring new capital to invest in municipal water supplies that local and national governments simply can’t mobilize. Often, public taxation structures are poor, there’s no functioning bond market to finance investment infrastructure and government funds from the common “pot” pay for everything from the leaders’ pet projects to the military to road construction to hospitals, schools, universities, ad infinitum. Then there’s good ol’ corruption, where a World Bank (or some other institution) loan to improve poor peoples’ access to water get “diluted” to line someone’s pockets. Making free water a right means it would just have to compete with every other government budget item, which would likely “freeze” access to clean water to existing users and then reduce it over time as the funds to maintain and grow the system simply aren’t adequate. Study after study also shows that the powerful usually quickly monopolize (and soon waste) any such subsidized benefits to the neglect of the poorest citizens.
I know people in Niger who live on less than $100/month that have purchased a water tap and a meter for their home and then sell metered water to their neighbors—who couldn’t afford or handle a monthly bill-- at a very small profit. Everyone is quite happy with this system as it provides them with constant clean water close to their home. The alternative is drawing up water by hand from a well 150 ft deep that was far away--but free--or to pay someone (we have a water-bearing caste in Niger) to haul it from who knows where? Which would you rather do: lose 4 hours per day hauling water or pay a modest amount to have it piped to your neighborhood? Research shows that even the poorest people are willing to pay to have affordable, clean water brought to their door. I’ve seen it work well.
I myself am indirectly in charge of 150 peoples’ water supply at our rural Bible School. Through donations from American churches and individuals, we were given solar-power panels and pumps, a wind generator, 3 large plastic reservoirs and all the needed pipe and outdoor taps to plumb our school. Since getting electricity, we’ve also added an electrical pump. Despite these gifts, we’ve had to replace 2 pumps ($1500 each) in the past 4 years due to failure and I’ve calculated we need to purchase at least 6 taps annually ($15 each) to keep the system working, as they regularly wear out with constant use. Without these continuing investments, our community will return to drawing water from a deep well. $1/year from everyone would cover routine maintenance costs, though larger repairs would require outside funds. $2/year from each person would pay for the electrical bills involved in pumping water daily.
I find no biblical injustice in a reasonable cost-based approach to providing potable water and prefer proven results to pie-in-the-sky dreams that are impractical because there’s neither the will nor the means to make them happen. A commitment to the poor isn’t necessarily a government monopoly, and in a fallen world, other means may work better. You can’t drink declarations or promises.
Well, I don't know if God has a sense of humor or he's just confirming what I wrote in my August 18 post on free water as a human right. Two weeks ago our electric pump failed at our Bible School's well (due to lightening, apparently). Our well is large enough for a bucket and rope and I spent $30 from my pocket to buy a bucket and a nylon rope for the community so that we could haul up water until we could get the pump fixed.
We discovered that to have someone pull up the pump (it's connected to 60 m of galvanized 2 1/2" pipe) cost $170. A new pump is about $1200 and to put it in the well another $150. We don't know where we'll get the money for the new pump, although the ECWA church in Nigeria sent $300 to cover the related costs.
Meanwhile, 2 weeks of daily use by 50 people is already wearing out our nylon rope even though it's on a pulley. Some student let the rubber bucket fall into the well, so now they have to work harder with a smaller bucket to haul water.
Additionally, where families could turn on a tap and get their water for the day in 5 minutes, everyone is having to find 30-60 minutes daily to get their water. Our elderly guard decided to pay someone to bring his water to him rather than to pull it up himself.
So, I decided I'm very much interested in this free water concept after all. Please let me know who's going to pay for all of us to have free water?