Privatized water is hurting the poor and thirsty

January 14, 2020, 8:18 PM UTC

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Before starting at Fortune, I studied and reported on, broadly speaking, international affairs.

While reporting from the UN, which I covered for a few years, one thing I’d hear often was the reiteration that water is a basic human right. It was only later I learned how hard advocates had to work to make sure that guaranteed access to clean water (and sanitation) became a global priority. In 2010, the UN General Assembly passed a resolution enshrining clean water and sanitation as fundamental rights. The Human Rights Council soon followed suit. Clean water is, in fact, sustainable development goal (SDG) number six, part of the very set of goals that corporations are increasingly using to benchmark their own sustainability work.

Considering water is necessary for survival, ensuring access to water should be a given, right?

Well, as with many other essential rights, there’s still a lot of work to do. In 2017, 785 million people could not access water within a 30-minute trip, according to the World Health Organization (WHO). Around two billion people had no option but to draw from contaminated water sources.

And incredibly, in lots of emerging economies, the urban poor have unreliable service from public water sources—but live next to communities with fully functioning water and sanitation infrastructures. Just a few meters away, they’re still off the grid. And private water purveyors are almost always more expensive than public solutions. (It’s worth noting that SDG six also specifies the importance of affordable water.)

All indications suggest water insecurity is going to get worse. Thanks to climate change, population growth, and a number of other factors, clean water is on track to become even more scarce: By 2025, says the UN, half of the global population will live in water-stressed areas.

As the situation grows more dire, the New York Times has a story, in the starkest terms, on how “business” interventions are making things worse, and at scale.

Countries—largely in South Asia, the Middle East, South America, and sub-Saharan Africa—have turned to privately-owned water tankers in an effort to fill the gap, instead of investing in long-term and systemic solutions.

The Times describes it as “another phase” in the long-developing move towards water privatization. It’s a must-read.

In parts of Nepal, the reliance on such tankers has opened the door for some ugly dealings, a potential harbinger of things to come elsewhere. “Greedy, uncompromising and fearful of being knocked from their perch, some tanker operators even conspire among themselves to fortify the conditions that contributed to their emergence in the first place. Locals tell tales of frequent underhand deal making, pipeline sabotage, and egregious environmental destruction,” writes the Times’s Peter Schwartzstein.

In some cases, the water supply is of “poor quality,” and at prices around 10 times that of “government-supplied pipeline water.” It’s a telling tale of how “tanker shenanigans” are actually worsening the water shortage conditions, usually taking advantage of the most desperate and underserved.

Meanwhile, investments in water aren’t translating into a guaranteed right to water for many populations. Like other SDGs, goal six will require a doubling of efforts to be accomplished in time: In May 2019, a report of the UN Secretary-General noted that most countries were “unlikely to reach full implementation of integrated water resources management by 2030.”

And the failure to address the issue is costing businesses money, too. But, ahead of 2030, here, here, and here are resources for companies looking to be smarter about tackling the looming water crisis.

Tamara El-Waylly

Ellen McGirt curated and wrote the blurbs in this edition of raceAhead.

On Point

Some good Oscar news While there is still a lot to process from the Oscar announcements yesterday, we wanted to flag three important nominations to celebrate. One is St. Louis Superman, a documentary short from MTV Documentary Films that follows the life of Ferguson activist and battle rapper Bruce Franks Jr. Franks won a seat in Missouri’s House of Representatives and served two terms. The second is Hair Love, the utterly wonderful short animated film from former NFL’er-turned-filmmaker Matthew Cherry, which was kickstarted into a pick-up from Sony Pictures Animation. The five-minute film tells the story of an African-American father trying to do his daughter’s hair for the first time. Both are worth rooting for. Finally, Barack and Michelle Obama’s film production company scored an Oscar nod their first time out of the gate. What? More on that below.

If you want to stop predatory sexual behavior, start in middle school Elizabeth Miller, the director of the Division of Adolescent and Young Adult Medicine at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh, has spent two decades studying the kinds of attitudes that allows gendered violence to be the norm. Her latest clinical trial, published in JAMA Pediatrics on Monday, offers a promising solution: Talk to boys, in very specific terms, about boundaries, respect, and consent, while explaining how damaging degrading actions and words can be. The program she evaluated is called Coaching Boys Into Men; middle grade students who went through the program were more likely to intervene when they observed problematic behavior as bystanders, and of those who were dating, 76% had lower odds of abusing their partner than their peers.
HuffPo and JAMA

W.N.B.A. Commissioner Cathy Engelbert takes a giant step for women The W.N.B.A. and its players’ union have announced a tentative new agreement, which would double player salaries and provide rich maternity benefits. While it’s a big win for the athletes, the ripple effects will be felt far outside women’s basketball. “What we have here is a multidimensional pay structure as well as benefit structure,” Engelbert told the New York Times. “We’ve really gone all out here. We’re making a big bet on this league, a big bet on women, and that in professional sports, that the W.N.B.A. can lead the way.”
New York Times

BlackRock centers climate crisis in their latest manifesto to executives Larry Fink, the CEO of the world’s largest fund manager, has made waves with this annual letter in the past. This year, he says, “In the near future—and sooner than most anticipate—there will be a significant reallocation of capital,” as the firm puts climate-driven sustainability issues at the center of their investment decisions. It’s a line in the sand that inspires as much skepticism as hope. “BlackRock remains waist-deep in fossil fuel investments and the world’s top backer of companies that destroy the Amazon rainforest and ignore the rights of indigenous people,” says environmental group Extinction Rebellion. BlackRock manages nearly $7 billion in assets, including big oil producers.
The Guardian

On Background

The Korean feminist you never knew you loved Alex Sujong Laughlin debuts in Zora with this bio of the artist Na Hye-sok, who challenged deeply sexist Korean society at a time of massive change—the 1919 Korean independence movement and first-wave feminism. Laughlin describes the brutal colonization of Korea by Japan during the period 1910 to 1945. “The Japanese sought to wipe out thousands of years of Korean culture by forbidding the use of the Korean language even in private homes and by forcing Koreans to assume Japanese names,” she explains. Assembly, free speech, art, and culture, were also extinguished. Na marched, organized, and was imprisoned. And then, like all great feminists do, she launched a radical magazine with a little help from some of her feminist friends. “They believed the work of liberating the Korean nation was inextricably linked with liberating women from the Confucian gender roles,” she writes.

Call to action: Help me build a guidebook for mental health in the workplace This is the plea from “sanity correspondent” Tanmoy Goswami, writing in The Correspondent. “I was a business journalist for over a decade before joining The Correspondent, so I tend to automatically snigger when I hear about companies that claim to put the welfare of their employees ahead of growth, profit, and valuation.” Okay, ouch. But go on. “[W]hat we really need is a deep, structural change in corporate culture that reimagines how and why business is done,” he says, a humane workplace that doesn’t drive people to illness and stress. What are your best ideas on how to build this?
The Correspondent


"I wonder how people starve to death
When God bless the land that lacks the harvest
The stone's equality, but they homes are poverty
And the whole world ignores the robbery"

—Nas, “Shine on”

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