1 Feb 2010

Water managers can't make a shake

David Foster sent this guest post, and he wants to know if the Lassi Shop (see below) should be (can be?) turned into a skit to teach people about water provision.

Just a few days ago, I watched Christiana Amanpour interviewing Robert F. Kennedy Junior, founder of the Water Keeper Alliance and all around friend of the poor and the environment. Kennedy began by quoting a clever observation by Mark Twain that: “Whiskey’s for drinking and Water’s for fighting”. Unfortunately, he left out another Mark Twain quote that I believe is just as applicable: “It ain’t what we don’t know that gets us in trouble. It’s what we know that ain’t necessarily so!”

Kennedy then began speaking on the many ills that confront the water sector and right at the very top was the Evil Threat of PRIVATIZATION. Now in my opinion Kennedy was absolutely right that sometimes private companies have done terrible things to the environment. Where I would fault him (and Amanpour) is in leaving the impression that private water systems have done more harm than public ones or that the poor and the environment would be just fine, if only we could keep the private sector out.

Now I know that I can’t get Kennedy or Amanpour to really visit the thousands of publicly run water systems throughout the developing world but I have this pipedream of having them come meet me at a “Lassi Shop” that is run on the same basic principles as a public water supply system in India.

There follows a brief description of the policies followed by the Lassi Shop -- all of them close replicas of their respective counterparts in the typical municipal water system over here:

Meet Me At The Lassi Shop*

Imagine, if you will, a lassi shop that was run on the same basic principles as most Indian water supply systems...

Now the Lassis are made with only the very best ingredients and usually under reasonably clean conditions BUT...
  • At least 4 (and often 5 or 6) out of every 10 lassis would be spilt during delivery,
  • While the remaining un-spilt lassis would be delivered to the customers, the containers used would often be the very same ones routinely used to carry night soil**,
  • And the lassis, if delivered to the customers at all, would be placed 6 feet under the table rather than on top, and finally
  • The lassi shop would, of course, only be open for about 2 unpredictable hours per day and in some places only at 2:00 in the morning.
Ah, but the lassis would be provided at a bargain price (far less than even the cost of operation and maintenance) ostensibly so that the poor could afford them.

Bottom Line: Strangely, even though the lassis are “subsidized for the benefit of the poor”, the poor are rarely afforded the “connections” that would allow entrance into the lassi shop. And even the regular customers seem reluctant to pay for their service.

* I refer here to a "Lassi Shop" (a place that sells very good Indian milkshakes) because unlike the now ubiquitous coffee shops and even the tea houses, lassi shops are indigenous rather than foreign imports introduced by Europeans and Americans.

** As you and other readers should know, whenever water pipes are pressurized for less than 24 hours per day those same pipes that are used to deliver drinking water are automatically subject to infiltration by whatever surface water (including raw sewage) lies in the vicinity. As you can imagine, referring to glasses used for serving drinks at "the same often used for carrying "night soil" (local euphemism for shit) doe strike some as indelicate but I am always struck by the fact that many high caste Brahmans still fear that they will be "polluted" by standing too close to an "untouchable" (much less ever eating meals with them) yet they never seem to think about the fact that their very own drinking water pipes are routinely filled with their neighbor's shit.


  1. DZ

    Please give YOUR definition of what you mean by privatization. Do you mean the ownership of ...

    the water & water right, infrastructure,
    water treatment,
    fee collection ...
    all of the above ?

  2. Furthermore, although making a lassi really only requires one worker, there would be five in the shop, who didn't talk, but bumped into each other, and reiterate some steps, while skipping others, causing it to take twice as long to get your lassi than necessary.

    Great post David Foster - it rang perfectly true to what I found while working in Delhi and Hyderabad on the potential for private sector participation in urban water delivery (mainly in the form of Management Contracts).

  3. @Ray -- it can mean any/all of the above. After all, most people use it to refer to the EXISTENCE of a profit motive, somewhere in the water provision process. As a noun, it implies moving from public to private, but that doesn't stop people from using it in other contexts, where incentive are being strengthened, e.g., "the privatization of government"

  4. One can only be given credit/blame for the specific pieces they have by law in/under their care, custody and control.

    The next time you mention privatization of a water matter , it would be appropriate/appreciated if you would specify which elements of the total equation you are referring to:

    the water right,
    water treatment,
    price (your personal favorite)
    fee collection
    all of the above


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