Water ownership

The access and use of water is determined by the ownership of water. Since water is a scarce commodity, the competition for water can be very rigorous and it can be both economically and socially motivated. Water is essential to human survival, it is therefore necessary for everyone to have a minimum level of access which is agreed upon. If the water is privately owned, then it is important for water owners to make it available to everyone the best way they can. 

Water privatization generally occurs in one of three forms. First, there is the complete sell-off by governments of public water delivery and treatment systems to corporations, which run the operation as a business on a permanent basis. This is not particularly common, but England, Wales, Chile and to some extent New Zealand operates in this way. Second, there is the model developed in France, whereby water corporations are granted concessions or leases by government to take over the delivery of service and carry the costs of operating and maintaining the system. The company does not take the risks; the public sector retains responsibility for investment and expansion.  The water companies collect all the revenue for the water service and keep the surplus as a profit. Third, there is a more restricted model, in which a corporation is contracted by the government to manage water services for an administrative fee, but it is not able to take over the collection of revenues, let alone reap profits from surpluses. While all three forms contain the seeds of privatization, the most common one is the second model, often referred to as “public-private partnerships”.

Formally operated by the public sector, 5 percent of the world’s water utilities are now run by a small number of private companies. The rest are still run by the state and the municipalities. From 1991 to 2005 the number of people being supplied with water by private companies went from 51 million people to 330 million people. Over two-thirds of that private water market is controlled by Veolia and Suez, which are the two biggest corporate players. In 2002 they had control over 70 percent of the existing world water market. Suez operates in 130 countries and Veolia in well over 90. This means that Veolia Environnement supplies 110 million people in over a hundred countries with water. Ondeo, Suez’s water subsidiary supplies 125 million people with water.

Barlow, Maude and Tony Clarke (2002): Blue Gold: The Battle Against Corporate Theft of the World’s Water. London: Earthscan Publications Ltd.

Gleick, Peter H. (1993): Water in Crisis: A Guide to the World’s Fresh Water Resources. Oxford: Oxford University Press, Inc.

Holland, Ann-Christin Sjölander (2005): The Water Business: Corporation Versus People. London & New York: Zed Books


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