Photo/IllutrationNanbuyama purification plant at Shiroishi, Miyagi Prefecture (Asahi Shimbun file photo)

The Upper House has passed a revision to the water supply law to enhance the foundation for the operations of municipal water services, paving the way for enactment during the current Diet session.

A supply of water is vital for living. But consumption of running water in Japan is declining due mainly to the nation’s shrinking population, putting financial burdens on the cities and towns operating local water systems.

Meanwhile, it is becoming increasingly more urgent to renew the aging waterworks built during the era of Japan’s rapid economic growth decades ago and to bolster the earthquake resistance of the facilities.

To maintain systems for a safe and stable water supply by overcoming the challenges, the revision to the law should catalyze a major reform of the way the water supply is managed and operated.

The component of the bill that has become the main bone of contention is a provision to introduce a new “concession” approach to operating the supply of water. The concession formula will allow local governments to sell the rights to operate water services to private-sector companies without losing their ownership of the facilities.

This approach can be adopted even under the current law. Since local governments lose their authority to grant permits to operate the water supply, however, no municipality has adopted it for water services so far.

The revised law will allow local governments to adopt the concession approach without losing the authority so that they can maintain a certain degree of control over the operation of the water supply.

But private sector participation in the provision of water services has caused various problems in other countries, such as soaring water rates and a declining quality of running water due to excessive cost-cutting. Some countries have even retreated from water privatization and brought water services back under public control.

The government claims it has learned lessons from such failed cases of water privatization overseas. Measures will be taken to prevent possible problems, it says, such as passing ordinances to set ceilings on water rates and strengthening local government oversight on the operation of water services.

But it is unclear how effective such measures will actually be.

Water supply systems are the most important infrastructure, essential for our survival. Local governments that consider water privatization will be required to carefully weigh risk factors and offer meticulous and convincing explanations to address concerns and anxiety among local residents.

Private sector businesses will probably show interest only in providing water services in urban areas where they can generate profits. This new approach is unlikely to help solve the raft of problems facing water services in rural depopulated areas.

What is really important for the future of the water supply in this nation is broad regional cooperation among cities, towns and villages, which is another key element of the bill.

The need for such broad cooperation among municipalities in supplying water has long been pointed out.

But most municipal governments have been reluctant to join hands with others because of conflicts of interests due to such factors as different water rates.

Under the envisioned system, prefectural governments will provide leadership for such cooperation by developing plans for enhancing the foundation for a regional water supply and setting up councils for discussions among municipalities for this purpose.

Municipal governments should start taking possible steps toward broad regional cooperation in line with local circumstances, such as sharing facilities and working together in inspections.

Private sector providers of water services will be required to maintain ledgers necessary for the management of water facilities. The documents will be used for planning facility renewal and making long-term forecasts of earnings and expenses.

The nation’s demographic decline poses the challenge of rebuilding water supply systems and sharing the costs involved.

The revision to the law should be used as a starting point for local governments and residents to develop shared understandings of related issues and ponder the future of local water services together.

--The Asahi Shimbun, Dec. 6