Privatizing Water: “Taxing Through the Tap”


Start thinking about how well water and the finance industry mix.

The privatization of water is underway. Some cash-strapped state  and local governments are transferring control of public water services to private equity firms in exchange for upfront payments. “In essence, these upfront payments are high-interest loans that residents and businesses must repay through their water bills. It is ‘taxing through the tap’ and a costly and inefficient way to raise capital,” as Food & Water Watch writes in its new report, “Private Equity, Public Inequity: The Public Cost of Private Equity Takeovers of U.S. Water Infrastructure.”

Some private investments in water make possible essential new water technology and projects. But a world in which water is privatized would be far different than a world in which water is part of the public commons.

Citigroup’s top economist, Willem Buiter, predicts “a globally integrated market for fresh water within 25 to 30 years.” Buiter also predicts that the water market will eventually dwarf the market for oil and all other commodities

“Once the spot markets for water are integrated, futures markets and other derivative water-based financial instruments—puts, calls, swaps—both exchange-traded and OTC will follow. There will be different grades and types of fresh water, just the way we have light sweet and heavy sour crude oil today. Water as an asset class will, in my view, become eventually the single most important physical-commodity based asset class, dwarfing oil, copper, agricultural commodities and precious metals.” [Emphasis added.]

Governments with budget problems have alternatives to selling our water infrastructure and water rights to bankers. Key water projects can be structured as public-private partnerships or public sector partnerships.

We face a defining moment: Is water part of the public commons or a commodity to be sold to  the highest bidder? Are present generations stewards of water for the public good or just people who chase water as the newest asset class?