National Geographic News: NATIONALGEOGRAPHIC.COM/NEWS
“Water Mafias” Put Stranglehold on Public Water Supply
Tasha Eichenseher in Stockholm, Sweden
for National Geographic News August 21, 2008
Worldwide corruption driven by mafia-like
organizations throughout water industries is
forcing the poor to pay more for basic drinking
water and sanitation services, according to a new
If bribery, organized crime, embezzlement, and
other illegal activities continue, consumers and
taxpayers will pay the equivalent of U.S. $20
billion dollars over the next decade, says the
report, released this week at the World Water
Week conference in Stockholm, Sweden.
The water sector is one of most corrupt after
health and education, added Håkan Tropp, chair of
the Water Integrity Network (WIN), an advocacy
group and report co-author.
That’s because the poor often don’t have a voice
in strategic water policy decisions, said
Christian Poortman, head of the anticorruption
group Transparency International (TI), which
collaborated with WIN on the study.
In developing countries, corruption bumps up
household water prices by at least 30 percent,
In Honduras, for example, residents who either
cannot afford connections to centralized water
systems or live in places where water is not
easily accessible pay 40 percent more for
informal water supplies, said TI’s Donal O’Leary.
The water is often delivered in trucks or
pushcarts by entrepreneurs, who in some cases
secure supplies illegally from a bigger water
company, O’Leary explained.
In Bangladesh and Ecuador, mafia-like groups
often collude with public water officials to
prevent access to cheap water services.
The United Nations Development Programme (UNDP)
estimates that countries such as El Salvador,
Jamaica, and Nicaragua spend more than 10 percent
of their income on water services, in part due to
corruption. In comparison, those in developed
nations such as the United States pay
approximately 3 percent.
(Related: “Ban Sale of Water for Profit, Health
Activist Says” [November 5, 2004].)
Even so, developed countries are not immune:
Bribery is associated with large-scale wastewater
contracts in Milan, Italy, and sewer bills are
inflated in San Diego, California.
Beyond the Tap
Corruption in water industries also affects
farming and energy production, TI’s Poortman said.
Expensive contracts for hydropower and dam
projects are the most susceptible, and experts
expect the disparities to worsen as climate
change and the fuel crisis takes hold.
For instance, to prepare for climate change,
countries will create more large-scale water
storage projects. Likewise, as gas and oil become
less reliable energy sources, investments in
hydropower are expected to increase.
TI estimates that there will be up to U.S. $60
billion invested annually over the next decade in
hydropower and dam projects.
In agriculture, nearly 25 percent of irrigation
contracts in India involve some kind of corrupt
deal, mostly with the government, Poortman said.
“Lack of access [to clean water] is not just
about scarcity-more than anything it is because
of failing governments,” he said.
While corruption with large-scale projects is
dramatic, “it is the petty corruption, which
generally involves local police and officials,
that affects people everyday,” added Teun
Bastemeijer, program manager for WIN.
Slow to Change
As anticorruption movements gain momentum,
governments should start to pay attention, and
employees and citizens will be more likely to
report cases of corruption, said Jack Moss of
AquaFed, an international association of private
“There is a fundamental change, but a slow one,” he added.
Poortman points to successes in India and China,
where pollution maps and citizen “report cards”
have helped draw attention to water abuses.
A massive U.S. $8 billion hydropower and canal
project in the African nation of Lesotho often
tops the list of examples for how water
corruption can be shut down.
Contractors from multinational companies in
Europe and Canada were accused of offering the
Lesotho government bribes for the project
In 2002 the chief executive of the Lesotho
Highlands Development Agency was charged with
accepting U.S. $6 million and sentenced to jail
for 18 years. Some of the companies were also
prosecuted and barred from World Bank contracts
for a short while, said WIN’s Bastemeijer.
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