"Achieving the water-related Millennium Development Goals to halve the proportion of peoplewithout access to safe water or basic sanitation by 2015 will require substantial investmentand improved technical and managerial performance by water utilities."The Deputy minister of Agriculture, Water and Forestry, Paul Smit, said this when he officiallyopened a four-day seminar on Public Private Partnerships in the Southern African Water Sectorearlier this week.More than 30 engineers from a number of African countries are attending the seminar, whichends on Friday, at the Polytechnic of Namibia."In the 1990s, there was a widespread expectation that the private sector would have acritical role to play in improving access to water services because of its know-how, efficiencyand investment capital. However, in recent years many private operators have beendisengaging rather than increasing their involvement in the water sector in most developingcountries," Smit said.According to him, various factors are responsible for this situation, such as political oppositionfrom civil society, contractual disputes between governments and private operators andunclear legal, policy and institutional frameworks."Private operators perceive their involvement in the water sector as carrying increased riskand have become more cautious in entering any contractual arrangement, particularly if itinvolves any financial commitment. At the same time, new domestic private operators haveemerged in some developing and transition economies, as well as innovative business modelsin rural areas.These developments suggest a new and different dynamic of public-private partnerships in thewater sector may be emerging," he told those present at the seminar."It is my hope that restructuring of the water sector to encompass public private partnershipswill improve the efficiency and effectiveness of urban and rural water services and providesafe and affordable water supply services to unserved, low-income areas."According to Smit, private companies are expected to raise the necessary billions of dollars forinvestment, which the heavily indebted governments, cities and municipalities in developingcountries neither can nor will provide."In addition, commercialisation and private sector management are to boost efficiency andimprove the sustainable use of the ever-scarcer resource of water, which in many cases ispolluted, wasted and lost due to leaky pipelines," he asserted.He further charged that in many cases privatisation alone has led to drastic water price hikes."Basically, privatisation in the water sector is only a partial solution. Usually, privatecompanies get involved only in areas where a profit can be made.So, they focus on the middle-classes, industry and drinking water supply.This is where they can certainly achieve improvements such as more efficient collection ofcharges, reduction of water losses, better water quality and expansion of supplyinfrastructure," he said.Sectors such as the sprawling squatter settlements on city margins, rural areas and costintensivesewage disposal, which are unprofitable and thus unattractive for investors, arehardly reached, although this is where there is the most pressing and greatest need."Due to this, most of the people in Africa will continue to depend on the public sector for theirsupply of drinking water and sanitation facilities. In many cases, the public sector is betterthan its reputation, as is shown by the efficient utilities working along commercial lines insome developing countries.But there is a need for reform here to correct the defects that are still affecting the work ofmany utilities and use the public sector's potential for sustainable development in the watersector," Smit concluded.
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