If you’re trying to make sense of  the privatization of water (itself a slippery term – privatization of what, exactly? The water? Or its delivery systems?) where are the facts to be found?

From Maude Barlow of the Council of Canadians, who tells us that “untold millions” (her phrase) of poor people have been cut off from any access to water by corporations without heart?

Or from Fredrik Segerfeldt, of the Cato Institute, who points out, correctly if irrelevantly, that many of the poor who inhabit the world’s greatest slums pay much more for water than the rich, a fact that he blames on cynical bureaucrats in venal governments? His preferred solution, naturally, is the benign contest of competing private companies.

Or is there a repository of better information that this?

Very few issues in the water world draw more passionate opposition than the expanding private water behemoths – if indeed they ARE expanding a notion that is now in some doubt, and if indeed they ARE behemoths, which is elusive of definition. The anti-corporatist lobby groups are vociferous in their opposition to turning any water delivery or purification systems over to private enterprise. Bafflingly, however, the main argument seems to be that since water was part of the global commons it should therefore not “belong” to anyone, which rather misses the point that it is the delivery of the commodity, not the commodity itself, that is at issue.

      The other argument revolved around pricing, and dozens of stories are circulating that private water companies had boosted prices beyond the reach of the poor, and had even cut off some of the truly indigent altogether. Most of these stories prove, on examination, to be false.

      But are they all false? Surely not.

      And are private companies necessarily more efficient than public utilities, as the Cato Institute believes?

      Also, surely not.

      A few cases in point:

      * The city of Atlanta, in Georgia, to take an affluent-world example, had contracted a few years ago to turn its water management over to United Water, a subsidiary of the French conglomerate Suez, itself part of Lyonnaise des Eaux. But not long afterwards the state’s Environmental Protection Agency was forced to issue boil-water orders, even to the affluent North Buckhead neighborhood; the tap water wasn’t safe — it was a rusty color and contained bits of unnamed debris. Hmmm … neglected infrastructure.

      * In San Isidro de Lules, Argentina, Vivendi International was forced to abandon its water management contract after furious protests followed a rapid doubling in the prices of water to householders. To the local residents, the raises had been foreseeable — Vivendi had bid so intensively for the contract that it had virtually forced itself into negative cash flow, and would not have survived without raising prices. Hmmm … efficient?

      *Privatization failed, resulting in acrimony and lawsuites, in Mali, Tanzania, various cities in France, including Marseilles and Paris, Budapest, Naples, and in dozens of other places. Hmmm …

      * One of the examples of the poor being cut off from lifegiving water, trotted out by Barlow and others, is the city of Detroit, which indeed cut off the water for more than 40,000 of its residents, albeit only briefly, backing down only when an uproar ensued. On the other hand, this is not an argument against privatization: Detroit’s water is a municipal utility, and the cutoffs were initiated by callous municipal bureaucrats, not plutocrats.

So where have the poor been gouged? Where has privatization worked? Who can analyze water issues without the constraints of an imprisoning ideology?

      Time to open a file…