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Science
COSTING THE EARTH
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Thursday 21:00-21:30
Costing the Earth tells stories which touch all our lives, looking at man's effect on the environment and at how the environment reacts. It questions accepted truths, challenges the people in charge and reports on progress towards improving the world we live in.
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Listen to 3 October
PRESENTER
ALEX KIRBY
Alex Kirby
PROGRAMME DETAILS
Thursday 3 October 2002
Children collecting water in Manila
Children collecting water in Manila.

Not a Drop to Drink

The premiership of Margaret Thatcher has left this country, and the world, with some unexpected legacies. Few could have guessed that Britain's privatisation policies of the 1980s would one day lead to violent revolts in Bolivia, chaos in Argentina and mass law-breaking in South Africa.

In this week's Costing the Earth Alex Kirby traces the story of privatisation of basic services from its birth in British think-tanks to a worldwide phenomenon. He hears how impressed the leading thinkers at the World Bank and the other international development agencies were by the apparent success of the Thatcher government's programme. Water, gas, electricity and telephone monopolies were sold to private buyers - the Treasury received a handsome fee, customers paid similar or lower prices and a competitive market was established. Everyone seemed to be a winner.

The appeal was much too strong to resist. Soon grants and loans to developing countries were being tied to stringent privatisation conditions. If a government wanted money to extend water or electricity supplies to poor neighbourhoods it was going to have to open up its markets. Private companies would bear the brunt of the initial cost in return for profits ten or twenty years down the line. Governments, and the lending institutions, could save their money for other anti-poverty schemes. Once again, everyone would win.

Things, of course, haven't worked out quite as planned. American, French and British water companies have found it harder to build infrastructure, harder to maintain supplies and harder to collect revenues in Soweto and Buenos Aries than they did in Vichy and Malvern. Schemes across Southern Africa and South America have disintegrated in acrimony leaving governments and corporations out of pocket and their potential customers without basic services.

In Argentina rich neighbourhoods found their electricity prices falling whilst their less affluent neighbours saw no change and the very poorest areas remained unconnected to the mains. In some South African townships water supplies were fitted but local people couldn't afford the prices being asked and the disconnections began.

According to the United Nations, 1.1 billion people in the world have no access to a reliable water supply and many, many more live without electricity. Alex Kirby considers whether privatisation can help to connect these people to the mains. Is privatisation the friend or enemy of the poor?
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