Ten Global Struggles For Public Water

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On this World Water Day, March 22, we bring you 10 inspiring stories of communities and cities working to reclaim public control over water and wastewater services from major private water multinationals.

LAGOS, NIGERIA

In February 2017, the Lagos state government passed a law that could criminalize the collection of water from lakes and other natural sources. This prompted massive opposition to the law, particularly as the state is caught in a water crisis. Environmental Rights Action’s (Friends of the Earth Nigeria) Akinbode Oluwafemi says that “Our Water, Our Right” campaigners “remain resolute in rejecting all forms of water privatization, semi-water privatization or so called Public Private Partnerships”. Leo Heller, the UN special rapporteur on the human right to water has sharply criticized the government. US-based Corporate Accountability International is running an international petition to show solidarity.

RIO DE JANEIRO, BRAZIL

On February 20, Rio de Janeiro’s state government passed a law to privatize state water company Companhia Estadual de Águas e Esgotos (CEDAE). Brazil’s federal government insisted on the sale of the public company as a condition for an emergency loan to the state of Rio de Janeiro to help finance infrastructure for the 2016 Olympic Games. The law allows the state to access a $1.1 billion federal loan and was a condition for suspending the payment of the state’s debt to the federal government. Hundreds of people protested in front of the state Legislative Assembly on February 7 to denounce the proposed privatisation.

BARCELONA, SPAIN

Thanks to the efforts of a new citizen-based participatory political platform, Barcelona en Comú, there is growing public consciousness of the economic, social and environmental costs of water privatization. As a result Barcelona decided in 2016 to institute a municipal water service to replace the corporate business Aguas de Barcelona, which has run the city’s water for a century. Many other towns in Spain have, or plan to, re-municipalize their water services, despite stubborn resistance from private companies.

JAKARTA, INDONESIA

Privatization of water services in Jakarta has failed. Just 59 per cent of Jakartans have access to piped water. The infrastructure is in bad shape with the leakage level as high as 44 per cent. Consequently, on 24 March 2015, the Central Jakarta District Court annulled the privatisation contract following a citizen lawsuit. Water privatization was deemed “negligent in fulfilling the human right to water” for Jakarta’s residents. However, the court ruling was overturned in March 2016, following appeals by private companies. Local campaigners have vowed to continue fighting.

MAFRA, PORTUGAL

The municipality of Mafra was the first municipality to privatize water and sanitation services in Portugal. On December 9, 2016, the municipality unanimously decided to terminate its concession agreement with the company Be Water. The decision was taken following the private operator’s request for a tariff increase of 30 per cent. In a statement, the municipality described the request as “unacceptable”. The municipality carried out an economic-financial and legal study, concluding that full municipal management of services will reduce tariffs by up to five percent.

VALLADOLID, SPAIN

In 1997, after nearly 40 years of public management, the Valladolid City Council granted a concession to run water services to Agualid-Aguas de Valladolid, whose parent company is the multinational Suez. In 2016, the newly elected Valladolid City Council decided to re-municipalize the water supply in the metropolitan area following the expiration of the private contract in July 2017. A key player behind the decision was the 100% Public Water Management Platform (PWMP), which fed the debate with a petition campaign and website.

TERRASSA, SPAIN

In December 2016, Terrassa city council voted to municipalize water supply services after 175 years of private management. Terrassa has a population of over 215,000 and is the fourth biggest city in Catalonia. If water services are municipalized, chances are high that it will serve as an example for other cities with similar aspirations. The existing concession contract was prolonged for 6 months, until June 30, giving the municipality more time to arrange a possible transition. The re-municipalization of the water in Terrassa could lead to savings of 3,650,000 euros per year. The city council can choose to use this money to lower water tariffs or improve the infrastructure or the quality and taste of the water.

MISSOULA, MONTANA

Missoula, Montana scored a major victory for community ownership of public resources in August 2016. The state’s supreme court ruled that the city’s use of its water system was “more necessary” than its use by a private company. The city has been embroiled in a costly, years-long legal battle over control of its water supply. “The city desired to own the water system that serves its residents because city officials believe a community’s water system is a public asset best owned and operated by the public,” the judges wrote in their decision.

APPLE VALLEY, CALIFORNIA

Since 2014, Apple Valley town council, located in central California, has been determined to take back the town’s water system – Apple Valley Ranchos (AVR) – because of excessive rate increases. The Council created a website explaining the need to reclaim the utility so as to provide a reliable and local source of water for Apple Valley’s citizens. Surveys show that 73 per cent of the population supports the town’s acquisition, however the private operator AVR rejected the Council’s offer to buy the water system. Soon after, in January 2016, AVR was bought by Liberty Utilities, a subsidiary of Canada-based Algonquin Power & Utilities Corp. In response, the municipality approved an ‘eminent domain’ action on the basis of compelling public interest and issued a formal condemnation to expropriate the private water company and re-municipalize the utility.

MYSORE, KARNATAKA, INDIA

In Mysore, a public-private partnership (PPP) was established between the public utility Mysore City Corporation (MCC) and private company Jamshedpur Utilities and Services Company (JUSCO) in 2008. Under the management contract, the private partner commits to undertaking rehabilitation, operations and maintenance, and improvement in water supply while the public partner provides the funding and retains control over capital expenses, bulk water supply and contracting.The six-year project was supposed to be completed in 2015, but the private company has not been able to deliver on several of its contractual obligations such as piped network extension and metering and household connections, among others. Their failure to provide adequate services has led to strong protests elected representatives, municipal authorities, social groups and residents and resulted in a penalty for the private company imposed by municipal authorities. Several other Indian cities are also struggling against privatization or Public Private Partnerships

This article is a co-publication between Transnational Institute and Occupy.com.
  • The struggle for access to clean water is a primal struggle for life, as has been so beautifully embodied in the rallying cry from Standing Rock “Water is Life”. The inverted set of values of the global monetary economy that institutionalizes “property rights” over even the most basic of “human rights” is the systemic flaw in our thinking that gives rise to endless conflict and structural violence.

    Water is an archetypal embodiment of Nature. A rational set of values recognizes that Planet>People>Property. When we get this wrong in our way of thinking, in our institutions, in our laws, in our relationships with Nature and in the social conditioning of our relationships with one another, we are screwed. Our protests often vilify the 1% and increasingly these days, “Capitalism” but the actual problem is still deeper. It resides in the inverted set of values around which our lives revolve. Money is an archetypal embodiment of Property. The value of money in our modern world is that it can secure for us access to what we need to survive. The problem with private property is that it restricts access to what others may need to survive. The alpha predator that is preventing our access to modern “watering holes” is a human being emboldened by “property rights”.

    Perhaps the most powerful quality of humans is our capacity to share abstract ideas like “money” and “property rights”. The most bizarre aspect of our misunderstanding is our failure to recognize that the shared ideas of “money” and “property rights” is a collaboration on an immense scale across humanity that has made possible our global civilization. We have shared a common agreement to not share. That inversion is at the heart of Capitalism. Is it any wonder that this system is tearing itself apart? Magnifying these self destructive tendencies are the systemic feed backs from the natural ecosystems being disrupted by Capitalism. As Guy McPherson likes to put it, “Nature bats last”. We can think of Nature as the unforgiving force that teaches us the error of our ways. Planet>People>Property. It is time to get our priorities in order or to die.

    We have a vast creative latitude within this understanding to arrive at solutions that involve collaboration and sharing. Technologies are understandings of the chains of causality of the natural world. By sharing technical understandings, what we are capable of manifesting is amazing. But the irrationality of the values at the heart of monetary economics leads to inverted behaviors that seek to enclose ideas as intellectual property rather than sharing ideas. Every technical understanding we arrive at is premised on a long chain of shared prior understandings. Without that sharing, no new understanding would ever emerge.

    Is it clear that sharing benefits everyone. It is equally clear that property is a prohibition against sharing that benefits few. When that prohibition against sharing extends to the most basic necessities of life for others, that is genocide. The structural violence of the monetary economy is institutional genocide on a massive scale. The Adolf Hitlers and the Donald Trumps are merely symptoms of this inverted set of institutionalized values that prioritize property over people and planet. When we embrace property as a basic right, we empower suicidal genocide.

  • Aer O’Head

    No mention of Gaza? Or even the West Bank?

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