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Senegal is quickly becoming a locus in the debate over the privatization of water utilities. Eight years after the government of Senegal undertook comprehensive reforms that privatized large portions of the water sector, the World Bank is seeking to showcase the country as an example of the benefits of privatization. However, a consortium of concerned organizations, which believe that Earth’s most precious resource should not be commodified for corporate profit, is dedicated to fighting this perception and showing that, in the case of Senegal, privatization does not mean Water For All.

In 1995, in response to the deteriorating fiscal state of the public water company, Société Nationale d’Exploitation des Eaux du Senegal (SONEES), the government decided to pursue privatization as the solution to revenue shortfalls. The Senegalese government, with the guidance of the World Bank, dissolved SONEES and created two symbiotic companies to work in conjunction with the Ministère de l’Hydraulique to manage and expand the country’s water utility: Société Nationale des Eaux du Sénégal (SONES), the state asset holding company, and Sénégalaise des Eaux (SDE), the private operating company. SONES was to be responsible for owning assets (thus ensuring the water source remained in public hands), maintaining infrastructure, investments in infrastructure, and regulation of SDE. SDE, with the French corporation SAUR as the main shareholder, was to take responsibility for operation, regular maintenance, some investment for expansion into more homes, and tariff collection. In addition, the NGO’s like ENDA-Tiers Monde have gotten involved by mediating between neighborhood organizations and SONES and SDE for the placement of public metered standpipes in poor areas and often is an alternative source of financing these projects. The NGO organizes the community and arranges for neighborhood groups to manage the pipes.

In an attempt to provide cheap water for poor households while still recovering cost, SDE set up a tariff system that graded its rates on the amount of water used. Thus, a "social" rate applies to consumption below 20 cubic meters of water in 60 days, a full or regular rate applies to consumption between 20 and 100 cubic meters, and a "dissuasive" rate applies to any consumption over 100 cubic meters.

However, access to safe water has become more of a problem for what the World Bank dismissingly refers to as "the poorest of the poor." Despite better service for more people, many of Senegal’s destitute find themselves without reasonable access to safe water. While the "social" tariff is meant to help the poor gain access to water, in the realities of Senegalese economics, the "poor" aided by this system really are not that poor. The criteria – holding a deed to the land and building a house on it – which allow households the social tariff guarantees that, in essence, the people within are really not among the most destitute. This graded cost-recovery tariff system punishes users of public standpipes, who are among the most destitute, by forcing them to pay the highest tariff of anyone in the country. Because of the large volume of water being pumped, these users pay for their water at the "dissuasive" rate with an added premium to pay the overhead and profit for the licensed vendor (or reseller) of the standpipe, which amounts to 350 percent of the social tariff. In addition, families in low-income areas may share one connection and consequently consume at the "dissuasive" rate. Ironically, this leads to a situation in which the poorest families subsidize the water of rich families who use normal amounts of water and qualify for the "social" tariff.

If privatization improves water service for many but leaves the poor thirsty and facing prohibitive tariffs, then it has failed. Water must reach all people, no matter how rich or poor they be, and we must not let the World Bank laud privatization in a place where we see very plainly that it has not done that.

    » cmep | Water | cmep Water | reports | senegal

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