Tackle graft but also give us water

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BY SOLOMON GICHIRA

There are many positives that the hard-hitting exchange of accusations between the Minister for Water and Irrigation, Charity Ngilu and her former Assistant Minister, Mwangi Kiunjuri may bring into the fore. The obvious and one that we are all pre-occupied with, has to do with corrupt practices in the ministry.

The less obvious and indeed of higher significance is water privatisation. I honestly believe that this is where our efforts should be directed to for long term solutions to the genesis of the on-going saga in the ministry and for consumer satisfaction.

The Structural Adjustment Programmes era in the 1990s was a period in which many essential services among them water begun to be privatised. Indeed during the World Water Forum at The Hague in 2000, World Bank officials were presenting water privatisation as inevitable by saying that there was no other alternative. The common denominator in water privatisation has been the transfer of control and management operations to private companies.

This undoubtedly makes water control and management sources of profit for private capital. Today, water privatisation has failed and indeed the so-called water services boards that the ministry is becoming obsessed with are just but kicks of the dying horse that privatisation is.

The so-called public-private partnerships or private sector participation are just nothing but veiled privatisation ventures. Why is privatisation so unpopular such that it has to be veiled? This has largely been caused by the results of privatisation which have been opposite to what was promised.

Companies have failed to invest as it had been hoped for and instead prices of water have raised to reflect the returns on capital required by companies. Where targets in contracts or leases have not been met, they have been revised rather than been enforced. Regulators have failed to control companies’ behaviour.  

The Ministry of Water is in a crisis at a time when water will be critical within the rights of the citizenry in our new constitutional dispensation. Whereas we have been making claims that water is a public good, it has not been a right for all. Indeed the affairs surrounding water have not respected the concept of it been a public good. How we debate water and act on it tells a different story.

Commercialisation and privatisation of water and other public utilities through the increased neo-liberal capitalism tendencies has meant that the users, citizens, tax payers, political movements, unions and elected representatives have been left out in the decision making process.

Indeed, we need to think in the long term if we are to keep our taps running. Whereas the private sector sees the user as a consumer who needs to be encouraged to keep consuming for increased profits, the public utility sees the user as a partner and educates them on best practises. Where the private sector thinks profit, the public sector thinks utility. The private sector thinks about bulk consumers and timely payments, the public sector thinks across the board. When shortages are experienced, the private sector thinks about maximising on profits whereas the public sector thinks about solving the problem.

Indeed, as long as the so called private-public partnership continues, the blue lorries will continue criss-crossing the city and other urban towns to quench the thirst of millions of Kenyans who faithfully continue to remit their taxes to the state for the same services. Why should people be having all those water dispensers in their homes?

And to be very honest, will the private sector care about leaks, spillage, contamination and the age of our water infrastructure if that is what is going to lead to increased profits?

The Mutava Musyimi-led Parliamentary Committee on Lands and Natural Resources must not just follow up on the alleged corrupt practices but must also stream line the water sector. There are many case studies out there for us to lean from. We must look at what is good for ourselves and put it into practice and stop doing what we think is fashionable or prescribed to us by structures that are themselves increasingly becoming questionable like the World Bank.

Let’s wake up and smell not only corruption that is brewing in the sector but also realise that we are quickly compromising our health and running the risk of enslavement by a very small group of individuals.

(Solomon Gichira is the Outreach Officer – Sub-Sahara Africa at Open Forum for CSO Development Effectiveness – All Africa Conference of Churches)

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