08/20/2009 10:04 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Air and Water: A Right or Privilege for all Citizens?

While it may shorten your life, you can still live and breathe with poor air quality. Such is the case for many citizens of industrial megacities like Bangkok, Jakarta, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, New Delhi, Mumbai and Beijing, among others. When it comes to water, however, cleanliness and freshness is essential to support life. In a growing number of nations, fresh water for drinking and hygiene is either not readily available, or, available only to those who can pay for it. Every human being is entitled to free air to breathe, but what about water to drink?

The shrinking supply of clean drinking water worldwide is on a collision course with its relentlessly growing population. And in a number of developing world countries such as Bolivia, Honduras, Nicaragua, Angola, and others, private for-profit corporations are taking over the water supply and charging high prices for this previously free commodity. In many cases, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and World Bank are behind this strategy.

The world's three leading for-profit water firms -- Vivendi, Suez and Thames -- would counter that they are installing an infrastructure to support a supply of clean fresh water that otherwise would not be built by the governments of these under-financed nations. They also provide jobs and inject significant sums into otherwise struggling local economies.

So who is right? Nobody can charge citizens for the air we breathe. Should water be for sale or is it a basic human right? Is it possible for sustainable social policies and multinational, public companies to coexist? I think the answer is no. If Vivendi, Suez or Thames invest the capital to install the clean drinking water infrastructure and their business model is to sell drinking water, how can they be required to give it away to local citizens? This is the quandary we face especially in the developing world. Company CEOs and Board Members will argue they have a responsibility to their shareholders to maximize profits, while local governments have a responsibility to their citizens. These poor countries, most often targeted for privatized water systems, need infrastructure and money to provide clean drinking water. Private companies feel that by providing these essentials, they have the right to charge for water consumption, regardless of the consumer's socioeconomic status.

This presents a classic zero sum game. There are many who say the green movement will lead us out of the worldwide recession. However, it remains to be seem who will support the upfront costs to do so. As I see it, meeting half way offers the best solution. The water companies that have been making billions off developing world water systems are going to have to sacrifice maximizing profits for basic human kindness. The developing world is going to have to transition into paying for water, but hopefully, at a reduced price that is achievable. For social equity and economy to coexist, we all must sacrifice something. Right now, as the economy is trying to recover, we need to get comfortable with this paradigm shift -- profit maximizing is out for the very rich corporations and constant hand-outs are not sustainable for the very poor nations.

I'd love to read your comments, as of course, there is no right answer to these complex issues. Here's hoping that somehow, collectively, we will find a way to clean up our air and water, and make it free for all citizens of the world.