cc With the inhabitants of the island of Rodrigues forced to purchase their water from the Rodrigues Water Company (RWC), Alain Leveque laments the commoditisation of the country's natural resource. The privately-run yet government-owned RWC has installed water meters under a user-pay system without being obliged to consult the Rodriguan population. Leveque argues that not only does the RWC's monopoly inhibit innovation and threaten price hikes, it also indicates a trend towards privatisation in direct opposition to locals' rights and representation.
It’s official. Greed is no longer cool. As turbocharged capitalism implodes and jobless queues swell, sensible governments have had to slip the bonds of laissez faire dogma to prop up their economies. The ‘free-market’ model is on the nose. Unfettered global creditors have plunged much of the developed world into debt-bondage; these days, their enforcers, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and World Bank wield the structural readjustment stick with renewed vigour. And it slashes to the bone. Reeling from this brigandage some countries are starting to cut their own cloth to fit their circumstances. Troubled times demand it! But I did say some, not all. Here in the islands of Mauritius and its colonially attached dependency Rodrigues, the enforcers still have the run of the mill and, sometimes, they even get to run the mill.
Inspired by neoliberal overkill, an awestruck local administration has taken to Rodrigues's public sector with a wrecking ball, putting up companies in its stead. Public–private sector partnership and privately-run but government-owned companies now rule the roost. This time, one lucky company has hit the jackpot: our water. That is, Rodrigues's local administration has set it up to sell the people their own water. Mind you, by local administration I really mean the ruling Labour party in Mauritius, from whom the nodding puppets get their orders, and for whom they now spin this anti-human policy.
First some background: Citing a lack of local expertise, and the need for a separate specialist agency to improve efficiency, Rodrigues's chief commissioner disbands the water unit and, amid bitter party in-fighting, shunts the incumbent water commissioner aside and snaps up the commission for himself. The government establishes the privately-run but government-owned Rodrigues Water Company (RWC), effectively outsourcing to itself. Water meters are promptly installed for the user-pay system. And in classic like-it-or-lump-it style, public consultation follows the fait accompli. Rodriguans are reassured that new regulations will safeguard against future water privatisation.
Somehow, I detect a less noble instinct behind this political pantomime. Here’s why: if the government were really serious about keeping water in public hands, why didn’t they simply improve the existing public utility to make it more efficient, to iron out the kinks and, if needed, to bring expert consultants to the commissioner’s table? Incidentally, costly imported experts have been doing their sophisticated rain-dance with negligible results since British rule and what’s more, with all the money thrown at this problem since, we could have built a brand new aircraft carrier. Okay, I exaggerate. The point is, the money is gone but the problem is still here. Why? Evidently, no one could make it rain but they will now! In the crudest monstering of the truth, we are told that this cockamamie scheme will modernise and develop our country. No it won’t. In reality, it will bring grief and misery to the poor, while making those who eventually get to own the company filthy rich.
No matter the slant, when we get to the nitty-gritty, it distils down to a cash grab. Taxpayers paid for water infrastructure, and will continue to pay for major repairs, works and reservoirs. And since the RWC won’t churn out any desalinated water, or treat grey water, or produce a single drop of water that does not fall from the sky, water restrictions will remain. Indeed, in future we may have to pay more for less. The RWC will simply commandeer taxpayer-funded infrastructure, submit an annual uncooked report to the administration, check meters on taps, tip a bit of chlorine in our water and sell it back to us. Oh, and make money in its sleep.
Given that the RWC is in the business of profit and not cost recovery or conservation, won’t it be tempted to sell more instead of less of this scarce resource? More importantly, as Rodrigues's population increases, family-based food production using today’s methods should be supported to boost food-security. Water is what fires up our small agrarian economy, and charging subsistence farmers and no-income families for its use will discourage many from working their land, hence, making the country more dependent on food imports. And expenses passed on from growers to consumers will add to the ever-increasing cost of living.
Also, as water in Rodrigues is a natural monopoly, what incentive will the RWC have to drive up quality and drive down prices? Or what’s to stop it hiking up prices? Here, water companies have form: In South Africa, Ghana and Uruguay, among others, charges have risen from 25 per cent up to 600 per cent since meters were introduced. In Bolivia, families had to pay a third of their income in water rates, until the company was chased out of town. On 1 July this year, Australia’s water rates will go up by 60 per cent over four years.
Yet we are led to believe that our yes-minister administration will keep the lid on greed, and ward off the werewolf lobby too. Buy that? It’s odds-on that Rodriguans will have to pay for water usage and sewerage disposal fees, followed later by water and sewerage service fees. 'Service fee' is shorthand for an ongoing maintenance charge, though most pipes wouldn’t have seen daylight for decades. The tough truth is Rodriguans will be stuck with a regular water bill whether they actually use water or not. And these charges always go up. In desperation, people who can’t pay source polluted water from creeks and faraway boreholes. Without water there’s disease. Sanitation and hygiene of the poor, disabled, elderly, ill and unemployed suffer, and the resultant healthcare cost is borne by taxpayers, not water companies. These companies generally bring in their own people, who have no stake in the community and its environment. And as they can hire and fire with less scrutiny than the public sector, they soon degenerate into closed-shops. Public complaints fall on deaf ears and transparency suffers. Conscious of these facts, the Netherlands recently passed laws banning the privatisation of water.
If indeed the vista for Rodrigues is not to turn the entire island over to private companies, then it’s a no-brainer that in the long term, the true cost of water distribution is always cheaper if funded publicly – and kept public.
At the best of times Rodriguans live wretched lives; the heart-souring suicide rate speaks volumes. According to the World Bank, 37.5 per cent of Rodrigues's population lives below the poverty line. Here there are no lush golf courses, pampered lawns and manicured nature strips, and no irrigation to speak of. Cyclical drought triggers severe and widespread water restriction. Water is scarce, and subsistence farmers depend on it to grow food crops to feed their families and keep livestock. But here, need plays second fiddle to greed. Here’s the go: If at the height of the worst recession in 75 years a supposed workers' party can give the nod to commodify our water and make customers of its citizens, what’s to stop it handballing the health sector and the police over to other companies down the track? Nowhere is the abject failure of representative democracy more apparent than on this small island, among this people born out of fire. Yet again, the unrepresented poor are paying for the sins of others.
Once the dust settles and the RWC becomes commercially attractive, I suspect that it will go to the right bidder quicker than you can say 'paving the road for privatisation'. And here’s the immaculate misconception: Despite the fact that some of the world’s great constitutions are being circumvented with consummate ease, Rodrigues's local regulations will miraculously act as a rigid bulwark against the future privatisation of our water. Cop the ironclad guarantee: Those with the numbers in the regional assembly will have to listen to the concerns of the minority before privatising. Okay they’ll listen, then they’ll privatise.
At any rate it matters not, for when Port Louis decides to privatise, all – and I mean all – members of the regional assembly will put their hands up and baa in unison. And yet our brothers and sisters still tear each other apart along party lines, so that the few can build McMansions and drive cars worth more than houses. How silly are we! We vote; they betray. We forget; they rebuild trust. We vote again; they betray again. And in an orgy of opportunism comes the latest betrayal: The most fundamental of rights, the right to water, thus the right to life, is to be made a commodity. That is, let those who can pay live, and those who cannot die. If we break away from that logic, then the constitutional right-to-life guarantee is not worth the paper it’s written on.