It is a marker of developed countries that nearly everyone has access to clean water. But roughly 1.1 billion people around the world have no such reliable access, according to the United Nations. The result is both grim and predictable: the lack of clean water leads directly to a higher incidence of preventable waterborne diseases such as cholera and dysentery, which kill 2.2 million a year.
Because water is so critical, cultures worldwide share a belief that it belongs to everyone and that access is a basic human right. This idea has been enshrined legally at least as far back as an ancient Roman precedent called the public trust doctrine. But in recent years, following a worldwide trend toward privatization across sectors, private companies (often European multinationals) have started assuming management of municipal water systems in countries around the world. Western models of capitalism argue that private firms are more efficient and effective than government-run entities, and this rationale can be compelling to local governments in developed countries. However, in developing countries it is often less a matter of choice; rather, pressure to privatize comes from conditions put on loans by the Western-run World Bank, International Monetary Fund, and Inter-American Development Bank. This broad trend toward privatization has begun to raise concerns in many quarters, although so far only 14 percent of water works in the United States have been privatized, and 10 percent worldwide. Some people resist on principle, believing that water should be in the public domain. Others turn against privatization when prices rise or water quality decreases.