Water Part 1

The Business of Water

“Nowadays people know the price of everything and the value of nothing” Oscar Wilde

I have never had to carry water home on my head, but I have sucked feverishly on a piece of hose to start it flowing down a hill into my house. This was quite some time ago, on an acre of property in the mountains of southern Spain. This was not the plains where most of the rain fell, but the parched south where normally not a drop was to be seen from spring through fall. The weather held strategic place in the scheme of life here, and winter rains were key to survival. Without them wells and springs ran dry, and life in El Colmenar was affected on a grand scale.

Living outside the town’s water supply meant a daily ritual that started with a lengthy walk up the mountain, through the eucalyptus and oleander and cork oak, to a tiny spring that trickled into a small concrete deposit. This watering hole was situated on land belonging to the province of Malaga, and provided access to free ranging livestock that grazed the mountains. For our domestic supply we were only permitted to take the overflow from this deposit, and so through a complex system of priming hose, valves, filters, taps, storage deposits, and lengths of half-inch pipe, we coaxed this water into our house down the hill.

Now when I say a trickle I really mean it. After eight months without rain, and scorching summers where you could sense the Sahara approaching from the south, the land cried out for water. I would take a one-litre bottle up to the spring and measure how long it took to fill. Four minutes per litre! In an hour, 15 litres. In a day, 360 litres, and it was just enough if we re-used water that went down the sink or shower to irrigate the trees and garden. And if the trickle slowed too much, I would clean filters, and adjust valves, and suck on a hose to try and get it flowing again.

I would have gladly paid a local utility to provide me with water, but there was none. Instead, I paid at the hardware store for the equipment I needed to collect, store and dispose of the spring water, and that wasn’t cheap. I also paid in terms of countless hours spent to keep the whole system running efficiently. This activity, by the way, is one of the least valued forms of labour on earth, and a duty almost exclusively assigned to women and children.

I harboured no ill will towards the companies that profited from selling me the hardware I needed to convey this trickle of water. It saved me carrying it home in a bucket, and I was fortunate enough to be able to afford it. My dear old Spanish neighbours spent much less than I did on the fancy infrastructure, but laboured much harder to collect their water. I’m not sure if this was an equitable and fair arrangement, although I heard no complaints from them or any of the other locals, and sensed little if any animosity relating to these economic disparities.

In this region of Spain, one can find remarkable Roman aqueducts dating back almost 2000 years, massive engineering efforts that remind us of the efforts that have always gone into securing water. But the relationship between people and water is changing, for better and worse old ways are fading, and corporations with global scope increasingly seek to capitalize on humanity’s thirst for water. Buyers beware.

With so many of the world’s citizens still carrying water on their heads, or living with untreated sewage running past their dwellings, it is little wonder that estimates of the cost of upgrading water infrastructure around the world exceed $1 trillion in the next five years alone. What I find somewhat surprising is the general willingness of populations everywhere to pay their share of these costs.
The recently updated UN World Water Development Report (at www.unwater.org) tells of a study conducted in Cairo, Egypt, one of the largest and fastest growing urban centers in the world, and a city in which water supply and wastewater treatment are woefully inadequate. When citizens were presented with a range of options to improve their waterworks, respondents were on average willing to pay quite a bit more for service than what it would cost to provide. There remains the fact that the poorest citizens may be unable to afford these services even if they are willing to pay for them, leading to plans to charge for water based on a percentage of household income.
However, the UN points out that the primary challenge facing the world with regards to water is not who pays what to who. It is a challenge of governance, because this determines “who gets what water, when and how…” They stress that the private sector, in conjunction with government and local authorities, has a critical role to play in helping achieve UN Millennium Development goals relating to water. You have likely heard of some of the companies involved – Coca Cola, Suez, Nestle, ITT and United Utilities, amongst many others.

Many of these companies have risen to the top of the hit list of global activists. Could it be that while some companies belong on that list, others do not? There are some novel new ways for the Canadian public to invest in the water sector. You will see many more in the years to come. The whole concept causes grave concern for socially responsible investors. Many will not go near this sector no matter what the financial returns. But are some babies being thrown out with the bathwater? Perhaps. So in a four part series appearing over the coming months, I will focus on private sector involvement in the provision of water services, in the process hoping to provide some guidance to those who might consider an investment in this industry.