Should water be public or private? Australian, of course!

There are a lot of talks and public discussions in Italy these days about the “privatization of water” that should be soon approved by the national Parliament. Some people denounce a theft of all water that should be forbidden, period! There is also a “Save the Water” national campaign.

Other people declare that such concerns are just scaremongering, if not plain scams, because water as such will remain public and that the only change will be the possibility to assign the management of water distribution networks to private companies, not just government-owned ones.

There is also who points out that huge wastes of water already happen, or happened in the recent past, even where, like in Sicily, water was managed by public, non-for-profit companies and that Paris, where water had been privatized, is now going back. Meanwhile, in Australia...

What's happening in Australia?

While Italy is taken by these discussions, something interesting about the water happens in Australia. Down under, at least in these days, they aren't discussing at all whether water should be managed by public administrations or by private, for-profit companies. They have decided that lots of data related to water management must become automatically accessible online, with licenses that allow everybody to reuse those data for free in any way. Even, if necessary, to write and sell a book which denounces any inefficiency or abuses of whatever organization is managing water distribution.

How much sense does it make to discuss private versus public management?

This is not an article for or against the "privatization of water". It is only an invitation to think about something that, it looks to me, got null or almost null attention in Italy so far.

What is the difference between a private, for-profit water management company and a non-profit, government or city-owned one, if citizens have no way in both cases to check how things are going before it's too late? Why don't we talk about how to know for free, every moment, **in real time*, through the Internet, up to date values of data like:

  • how much water comes out of each spring and how much arrives in every neighborhood, that is how much water is lost and where
  • when and where something breaks and how long it takes, on average, to fix it
  • how much citizens pay for every single service or other activity performed by the management company and why
  • how many temporary and long term employees or consultant it has, how much overtime they are "allowed" or "encouraged" to do, or how many vacation days they "willingly" give up
  • costs and details of every activity managed by subcontractors
  • which manager or public officer authorized the main expenses

Without complete information it is not possible to really have citizens control of water management. As long as the relevant data remain, for all practical purposes, extremely private even when, thanks to the Internet, it would cost very little to make them public, it makes little difference whether they are public or privatized.

Of course, knowing data isn't enough to make things work as they should. But if everybody could download every day, **without wasting time, some numbers, it would become much, much easier to discover which representatives should not be voted anymore because they delegated water management to organizations that (regardless of their nature) are obviously doing a bad job. Having those data would also be extremely useful in order to *correlate them with other data: wouldn't it be great, for example, before buying or renting a house, to know how many times water distribution was interrupted in that street, or if it receives less water than other areas?

As I already said, this isn't an article for or against the "privatization of water". It is just a note that, if we took advantage of digital technologies in the right way, rather than ignoring them or considering them mere toys, problems like "should water management be public or privatized" could become much less critical and generate much less worries.