When I was invited by The Star to write a piece on water in June, I hesitated. Knowing how steeped The Star was in promoting corporate interests, I wondered whether the article I would write would emerge unscathed (without cuts).
My concerns were not unfounded. When I submitted my completed article, the first thing The Star editor asked me was whether he could drop the bit about YTL Corp. No reason given. I was dumbfounded. What I had said about YTL was public knowledge and had even been reported in the business press.
I was disappointed but reluctantly agreed, as I thought three lines wouldn’t make much difference to the overall thrust and tone of my article. In fact, it wasn’t the most critical of articles; it was rather tame, I thought. Still, I wanted to get the message across that corporations were attempting to profit from water and that water – the resources, related infrastructure and management – should remain firmly in public hands.
When the tame article was finally published, to my horror, I found that more bits and pieces had been left out to water it down further. Anything remotely critical of corporations had been left out. I expressed my displeasure to The Star’s editor in an email:
“I was a disappointed that more bits were left out than just the few lines on YTL that you had indicated. In particular, the reference to the comparison between Thames Water and the Sri Lankan water authority was important, I felt, to show that state-managed water authorities could do just as well, if not better, that private firms.
“So too the mention that civil society resistance had helped to slow down the water privatisation agenda, especially in the Malaysian case, the Coalition Against Water Privatisation.”
The editor apologised and tried to explain:
“I only took out the YTL part but the subs removed these paras because of space constraint. they had to fit into that hole. i hope u understand as a journalist that it is just not possible to use in full as much as we want to. possibly the subs could have taken out the less relevant parts and in this case a matter of judgement.”
I don’t buy that argument about space constraints.
From the way The Star edited (or rather chopped) my piece, I can deduce the following:
- Anything remotely critical of corporations will not see the light of day in The Star.
- You can talk about general stuff, but it is a big no-no to give specific examples that cast particular corporations or the private sector in a negative light.
- You cannot talk about how civil society protests – such as the campaign organised by the Coalition Against Water Privatisation – forced the government to back off on its direct water privatisation efforts.
- You cannot talk about how corporations are now adopting the indirect approach to water privatisation – away from the gaze of the public eye.
- You cannot give examples of how the public sector can actually perform more efficiently than private corporations if they are given the right resources.
- It is not polite to remind readers that the over-riding goal of corporations is profit maximisation at all costs.
There is a common thread in all this. Basically, The Star relies heavily on advertising revenue. And thus it would not want to do anything to upset potential advertisers. More than that, The Star is a channel of corporate propaganda and very much part of the system that is increasingly entrenching corporate power and influence in our land.
I reproduce my article in full below with the omitted sections in bold. You be the judge.
Wednesday June 13, 2007
by Anil Netto
Water is essential for our survival. It is also a gift from God. Water resources therefore belong to all of humanity and no group or organisation can claim that it belongs to them, much less use it to seek profits at the expense of the people.
There was a time when no firm was interested in water. Those were the days when water was plentiful, relatively unpolluted, and not seen as a “commodity”.
But as “development” degrades catchment areas, as rivers become polluted and as industry consumes ever greater quantities of water, clean water has become increasingly scarce. With greater scarcity likely to lead to higher water tariffs, private corporations have been eyeing water as a potentially lucrative industry”.
Notice how the corporate sector has changed the terminology: water has now become a commodity vulnerable to the profit-motive.
But water is still a public resource belonging by right to all humanity. It is still essential to our survival.
What has changed though is that private firms have gone into the “water industry” – and many of them have got their hands burnt. Major multinational water companies suffered spectacular losses and failures in places such as Manila, Jakarta and Buenos Aires.
They now realise that the only money to be made is from water treatment and contracts for the supply of infrastructure. There is little money to be made from the distribution network. Many firms now realise it is not easy to make quick profits while keeping tariffs low and improving the management of water resources.
Certainly the water privatisation agenda has slowed and Malaysia has proved to be no exception. This is also due to civil society’s anti-privatisation movement – the Coalition Against Water Privatisation, in the Malaysian case – which has resisted the takeover of water management by private interests.
It is in this light that we should view the recent announcement by Minister of Energy, Water and Communications, Datuk Seri Dr Lim Keng Yaik, that no more water concessions would be given out.
The government says it is now open to the idea of state governments entering into joint ventures with those who have the expertise to improve water services to provide better services.
We should be wary this does not merely cater to corporate interests who are still eyeing the water “industry” and trying to enter through the back door – a sort of quiet “back-door privatisation”.
To be sure, multinationals and private corporations are now focusing on more stable markets with less risky contract arrangements. They are going into joint ventures with local partners and keeping a low profile to avoid public resistance to the takeover of water resource. New players are entering the field through private equity funds and water infrastructure contracts.
The big money is now in the infrastructure development and even the preservation of the eco-system. Notice how YTL won a RM1 billion contract to clean up Malaysia’s polluted rivers – with the first phase focussing on a 7 km stretch of the Klang River – without an open tender.
In the first place, before cleaning up the rivers, won’t it make more sense to go after those who are polluting them? Do we really need YTL to tell us who the main culprits are and can the firm really solve the problem of river pollution in the country?
There is little evidence to show that private firms are any more efficient in providing clean affordable water to the public. If anything, the record shows that publicly managed water resources can be just as efficient – if not more effective – than private corporations, if they are given the necessary financial and human resources and powers backed by political will.
A couple of years ago, the British-based Public Services International Research Unit (PSIRU) revealed in a study that the greater city of Colombo in Sri Lanka, where water was publicly managed, had a water leakage level of only 23 per cent compared to a leakage level of 35 per cent for the area of London covered by Thames Water plc, a huge multinational involved in water privatisation projects in developing nations.
The government now says it is planning to combine water supply and treatment to lower the cost and tariffs. This is nothing new. Weren’t the state water authorities doing this all along – combining water treatment and distribution – before the private firms came along and hived off the profitable water treatment part of the network?
We should also question the move to “corporatise” state water authorities. Running a water authority like a corporation has its plus points. The managers become more cost conscious and they will try to plug leaks as the bottom line will reflect on their performance.
But there are serious drawbacks. The over-riding goal of a corporation is profit maximisation. Apart from cost reduction, the other way to increase profits is boosting revenue. And the way to boost revenue is to try and get more people to consume more water.
But how to boost profits and conserve water at the same time? In a corporatised water entity, there is no incentive to promote water conservation among the public for that would eat into the bottom line and reduce profits. In the end, we end up with only lip service to water conservation.
This is a major reason why water authorities should not be run as corporations. Shouldn’t we be actively encouraging water conservation even if it results in reduced profits for the state water authorities?
A UN planning document is now trying to implement a Water Operators Partnership, which stresses transparency and accountability.
Instead of focusing on public-private partnerships, we should strengthen the public sector by exploring public-public partnerships. There is plenty of expertise in the public sector, even in Malaysia, where many state authorities can learn from the experience of successful authorities such as the Penang water authority, for instance. Communication among these state authorities should be improved and these partnerships should operate on a not-for-profit basis.
Unions and experienced water utility workers and managers must be involved and consulted in the quest to improve water resource management. People’s participation in water authorities must be encouraged through a participatory decision-making model before any major investments are made.
Public sector water authorities could also partner or enter into twinning arrangement with their foreign public sector counterparts to exchange ideas on best practices.
To reiterate, water is a gift from God, and the supply of this increasing scarce resource should be seen a as public service with all that entails, with no room for profiteering.
Anil Netto is a freelance writer and social activist based in Penang