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Transparency in water utilities

Monday, March 23, 2009

I argued in my newspaper op-ed that the natural monopoly character of water services justifies its transparency. The purpose of water services regulation is to reduce natural monopoly and decreases information asymmetry. Transparency mechanisms work in that direction by allowing information to be interpreted by competing interest groups, thereby enhancing the regulator's capacity in deciphering information and producing more qualified decisions. Read more.

Economists have agreed that in every regulatory case, governments can never attain the same level of information as the company. Companies always know more about their own situation compared with the governments that regulates them.

The danger with this information asymmetry is that companies may inflate their actual costs and pass it on to consumers to pay. They may choose to deal with particular suppliers related to them (possibly a subsidiary of their parent company) rather than other suppliers offering lower prices.They may refuse to expand their network to slums or scarcely populated areas citing the reason of lack of capacity, although they actually can. Or, companies may conflate the number of leakages to add to the cost component.

As a result, governments must then be very well-equipped to be able to regulate water companies effectively; they must have all the technical, financial and legal auditing capability to discern and decipher information about water utility. The problem in most developing countries is that governments lack these regulatory capacities both in terms of human resources, technology and budget.

One way to mitigate this problem is by introducing transparency to the sector. Stakeholders can complain if they know that the company prefers to strike a water supply deal with real estate developers rather than invest in poor areas.

Potential suppliers can complain that they have been discriminated against, despite their ability to supply with cheaper costs. With transparency, governments can have help in interpreting information from other water companies, creditors, suppliers, consumers, NGOs, academia, the press or other interested parties.

However, it is difficult to make water utility companies agree to transparency. This response is natural as it is always better for them to conceal information than to be transparent.
Companies protect their information through confidentiality clauses in contracts and through trade secret laws. Freedom of Information laws typically do not work as they provide a blanket exception to disclosure when it comes to commercial confidentiality.