Who owns the rain?
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 and World Bank
wield the structural re-adjustment stick with renewed vigor. 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
Inspired by neo-liberal
overkill, an awestruck local administration has taken to Rodrigues
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 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
First some background: citing a lack of local expertise, and the need for a separate specialist agency to improve efficiency, Rodrigues 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, 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 privatization.
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 making it more efficient, iron out the kinks and, if needed, brought expert consultants to the commissioner’s table? Incidentally, costly imported experts have been doing their sophisticated rain-dance with negligible results since British rule; 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 modernize 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 distills down to a cash grab. Taxpayers paid for water infrastructure, and will continue to pay for major repairs and works, and reservoirs. And since 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. 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 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
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 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
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% of Rodrigues population lives below the poverty line. Here, there are no lush golf courses, pampered lawns, 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 Health and 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 RWC becomes commercially attractive, I suspect that it will go to the right bidder quicker than you can say – paving the road for privatization. And here’s the immaculate misconception: despite the fact that some of the world’s great constitutions are being circumvented with consummate ease, Rodrigues local regulations will miraculously act as a rigid bulwark against future privatization 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 privatizing. Okay they’ll listen, then they’ll privatize.
At any rate it matters
not, for when