The World Council of Churches has long been concerned about the impact of water privatization, and this week for the first time the council brought multi-stakeholders together to the Ecumenical Centre in Geneva to talk about it including private-public partnerships.
The Sept. 12 gathering assembled those from India resisting water privatization, Aquafed, the federation of private water operators along with representatives of the WCC-Ecumenical Water Network (EWN).
The WCC-EWN opposes water privatization saying it is a public good and it has joined campaigns to reverse the process in countries including in Germany, Greece, Philippines, etc. and in some 200 cities where water was privatized.
"This is the first time we have had multi-stakeholders coming together to talk about water privatization from different perspectives," said WCC-EWN coordinator Dinesh Suna.
Present were people from the churches, private water operators, people trying to bridge the gap between the private sections, communities and others.
"We have not had this type of cooperation in the past," Suna told the gathering.
He said it was an initial discussion on the magnitude of water privatization, scrutinizing it as a human right, looking to accessibility, affordability, quality, accountability and non-discrimination and the likes.
The United Nations says that three in 10 people lack access to safely managed drinking water services and six in 10 people do not have access to safely managed sanitation facilities.
Water is not only the concern of the WCC, which represents some 560 million Christians from mainly Anglican, Protestant and Orthodox traditions as well as Evangelicals.
Pope Francis has said the availability and care of the world's water sources must be a global priority.
In his encyclical Laudato Si' (On Care for Our Common Home), the word "water" appears 47 times, 22 occurrences within articles 27-30 which treat the subject of water specifically.
'SOLE MOTIVE PROFIT'
R. Ajayan, convenor of the Anti-Coca-Cola Resistance movement in Plachimada, Kerala, India said, "when the sole motive is to make profit, how can we expect the private water companies to cater to the needs of the poor?"
He described how his group took to the Coca-Cola copmapny to the courts "due to their plundering of the water in Plachimada."
Ajayan, noted, "Only three percent of the planet's water is fresh water," and he said the main reason for the short supply of drinking water is pollution.
"Some observers warn that if important steps are not taken water will become a major source of conflict," he cautioned.
Thomas Van Waeyenberge, the senior adviser for Aquafed, noted that five out of eight people in the world are served by public-controlled water, two out of eight by the private sector and two by none.
"To facilitate effective water services around the world, it would take 2.5 trillion U.S. dollars. Therefore, collective action is needed. Public-Private Partnerships is the way forward."
Van Waeyenberge noted that when there was rapid privatization of water resources in the world it had been seen as a "silver bullet"
"We do not look at in a holistic approach...we will need all kinds of partnerships," he said.
Food & Water Watch conducted a comprehensive survey of the water rates of the 500 largest U.S. community water systems.
It is a Washington, D.C.-based non-governmental organization group which focuses on corporate and government accountability relating to food, water, and corporate overreach.
It found that large for-profit, privately owned systems charged 59 percent more than large publicly owned systems in the largest water rate survey of its kind in the country.
The WCC reported that water activists were doubtful of private operators' intent saying their track record is far from satisfactory.
Dr. Rajendra Singh, World Water Prize Laureate of 2015 World Water Week, who has driven decentralized water solutions said, "private companies are not the solutions...Focusing on community participation is the answer."
Singh noted, "When somebody can bath every day -- when water comes there is happiness, peace, and prosperity and it gives creativity and innovation in life."
Privately owned water utilities were common in Europe, the United States and Latin America in the mid and late 19th century, Wikipedia says.
Later their importance gradually faded until the early 20th century due to an inability to expand access and as publicly owned utilities became stronger.
Private water utilities resurfaced in the early 1990s after privatizations in England and Wales promoted by the then British prime minister Margaret Thatcher, the fall of communism and the ensuing global emphasis on free-market policies.