This op-ed is not about a policy. I want to speak to a set of policies needed in more places around the world to end corruption in the water sector. While water itself may be crystal clear, the fact that certain water providers have failed to meet their responsibilities is not. Although we expect our tap and bottled water to be dirtless, water supplies can be contaminated with disease-causing pathogens. Considering these pathogens in water are odorless, tasteless and invisible, providing information about water quality is that much more important so that consumers can choose water options that are beneficial for the health, rather than harmful, and create pressure in places where water leads to illness. Wherever corruption potentially exists in the water sector, there is a necessity for water providers to create public channels of information, in addition to being responsible for and held accountable to their actions.
In 2000, the global community established a set of goals that, along with eradicating extreme poverty, begin to take steps in addressing issues particularly important to the water sector. And while each of the eight goals is important, I’d like to bring your attention particularly to 7.c: cutting the proportion of people without sustainable access to safe drinking water and basic sanitation in half.
What is keeping the global community from meeting this Millennium Development Goal? Corruption. The United Nations Development Program in a 2011 report identified corruption as a major barrier to achieving the MDGs. For the water sector, this barrier has been more specifically identified as a lack of adequate policies that require provision of information, responsiveness to the public and multiparty participation in decision-making. Corruption is one of the leading reasons 1.2 billion people still have no guaranteed access to water. Corruption is one of the leading reasons more than 3.4 million people die every year from water-related diseases. It is corruption that millennials need to address in order to both provide access to safe drinking water and create a world without disproportionate vulnerability, injustice and inequality.
Many of these MDGs have not been met within developed nations, including the one we live in. This should matter to millennials. If we fail to address the need for greater transparency, access to government data and opportunity for public participation, and if we have difficulty holding water providers accountable for their actions, corruption may be a greater reality in our own lives than in the lives of poor and developing communities that we so often assume have much larger problems with such issues.
Governmental and nongovernmental organizations, as well as private entities, must create open channels of information so consumers have the power to hold these institutions responsible for actions that have significant impact on individuals’ finances, health and overall quality of life. A whole set of organizations, networks and movements within and outside of the water sector, such as the Water Integrity Network and Transparency International, contribute to this dialogue and advocate such channels and requirements. A joint report from 2010 between WIN and TI reveals that corruption in the water sector is not a whole lot different from that in other sectors — “What makes it more noteworthy is that water is a key element of human existence and therefore the impact of corruption in this sector directly affects lives” (WIN & TI, 2010,1).
A water provider that acts with responsibility and accountability is needed in Berkeley or wherever we call home. Water is an issue in the United States just as much as it is in the developing countries primarily targeted by the MDGs and international institutions. And therefore, we can’t limit our conversation about transparency and accountability to the developing world. Rather, we must broaden this conversation and bring it home, because meeting goal 7.c is also about having access to clean, safe and affordable drinking water in California, a state that passed the California Human Right to Water Law, or AB 685, more than a year ago.
Despite AB 685, water rights in many communities of California continue to be abused. For example, a growing number of communities in the San Joaquin Valley and other agricultural areas of California are affected by the nitrate-contaminated drinking-water sources in schools and homes. Both in California and around the world, we need to understand the importance of having access to information. We must request — no, demand — that information on water systems and quality is made readily available to the public, and we must create pressure where it is not. Future policymakers and decision-makers, be they within the water sector or not, must realize the importance of providing a service to the public that entails responsibility, responsiveness, publication of information and proper oversight.
Although such demands from the local community are vital, anti-corruption efforts can become especially impactful when they overcome boundaries. We must find a way to think both locally and globally to adequately address corruption and alleviate poverty and inequality. As global citizens, as UC Berkeley students and especially as millennials, let us continue to care for local issues while also promoting awareness and acting on international concerns.
Estrella Sainburg is president of Water Group at Berkeley.