Article – Building a new public ethos of water

The neoliberal wave of water privatisation has been pushed back by popular resistance, but corporations are finding new channels to advance their takeover of water, warn water justice activists

It is not often that social movements up against some of the most powerful corporate interests have much cause to celebrate. But water justice activists from the Reclaiming Public Network meeting in Barcelona in November 2013 had a good reason to acclaim progress while also looking ahead to new challenges.

In the 1990s and the early part of the 21st century, the wave of water privatisation seemed unstoppable as corporations took over municipal water utilities from Bolivia to the United States. Corporate giants like Suez and Nestle bristled with confidence that one of the world’s last commons could soon be under corporate control. But their confidence proved to be unfounded.

Faced with unexpected resistance in city after city, and unable to deny increasing evidence exposing the failure of corporations to deliver on their promises, the same corporate giants have retreated in recent years into talking about ‘pragmatic’ public-private solutions.

The Reclaiming Public Water network of water activists, trade unions, researchers and public water operator was one of the actors that helped force this turn-around. Nevertheless, those gathered at the meeting in Barcelona warned of significant challenges ahead to prevent new corporate takeovers of water while meeting the need to turn the UN-declared human right to water into reality and deliver fairly distributed, sustainably-managed and publicly, democratically controlled water for all.

Failure of water privatisation

David Hall, former director of Public Services International Research Unit, shared data1 that showed that the number of leases or concessions to corporate water giants has declined significantly since 2000 following high-profile failures to deliver expected performances and in the face of major popular resistance.

The mantra, preached by water companies and neoliberal ideologues, that only private sector could deliver efficient services has also patently been exposed as a lie. No less than 86 cities worldwide have experienced first hand the failures of privatisation and are currently “re-municipalising” – bringing back water and sanitation services into public hands.2 The most iconic case is that of Paris, headquarter of global private water companies Suez Environment and Veolia. To their embarrassment, the city has chosen to set up a new public company Eau de Paris, with a vision of delivering water services based on sound social and environmental justice.

These alternative public models have proved more equipped than private operators to deal with the complexity of water resource management. They are able to carry out integrated long-term planning, while corporations tend towards short-term approaches based on maximising profits and repaying shareholders. New York for example is investing US$ 15 billion dollars over 15 years to protect its environmental watershed upstream.

US based activist Daniel Moss argued that “public water operators can play a central role in linking up different actors across a watershed to protect water resources. After all good water comes from good environment.” In Bangkok, the public water authority MWA, partnering with UNDP, has set up innovative recycling and agro-ecological farming projects, thus strengthening communities’ commitment to protect water resources. Chatsinee Surasen ofMWA explained that “conserving water resources helps reduce costs of water production meaning we can invest more in forward-looking partnership projects with communities.”

Evolving threats and strategy adjustments

Yet while privatisation maybe diminished, activists warned that it still remains a threat to many cities around the world. Stories from Jakarta (Indonesia), Osaka (Japan) or Thessaloniki (Greece) reminded everyone that the fight to rollback corporate enclosures of public water utilities is still at the heart of water justice movement.

International institutions, such as the World Bank, have also become more sophisticated in their promotion of privatisation; avoiding straight-forward concessions, but increasingly using back-door efforts to privatise, such as Build-Operate-Transfer schemes (BOTs) that encourage private companies to build waste water treatment plants or reservoirs or Private-Public Partnerships (PPPs) between private companies and public authorities. These projects are attractive to corporations as they avoid the usual political risks, yet provide very profitable opportunities often against the public interest.3 Transaction costs tend also to increase dramatically under BOT and PPP arrangements, putting an added burden on water ratepayers.

Beyond the arena of water services, lies the growing threat of corporate enclosure of water for productive uses. Water is often the context or the goal of land grabs for mining, agriculture, energy, hydropower and other capital-intensive activities. In the wave of global land grabs, powerful actors are not only physically grabbing water resources, but also the power to decide how water resources are used often to the detriment or exclusion of poor and marginalized communities and their ecological habit. The water justice movement committed itself to working harder to address these issues in their strategies.

Water justice activists are also looking beyond the simplistic private/public dichotomy to look at the broader issue of commodification. There is a noticeable tendency whereby public water operators behave like corporations, even working as multinationals in other countries.

For instance, some Dutch public operators are acting as private companies in Africa and Asia. The enclosure of water and sanitation services access is then realized through the implementation of neoliberal management principles within public water sector utilities. Termed more broadly “corporatisation” this process reflects new shifts in neoliberal policies around water services and calls for adjustments in strategy.

Even the victory of UN recognition of the human right to water, long advocated by water justice activists, needs more work to properly hold multinationals accountable given its ‘corporate appropriation’ noted Meera Karunananthan of the Council of Canadians. Suez has, for example, declared its strong belief in the right to water, yet uses this to justify further privatisation. In this arena, water justice activists hope to learn from the struggles over the right to food, where there has been more success at building a radical social justice interpretation of this essential human right.

The spread of alternative models of water management

The biggest challenge of course is making public water utilities work efficiently and justly. This is a particular challenge for cities retaking official control of privatised water services.

Berlin for example recently decided to re-municipalise its water services. This came at the cost of buying back the contracts made with the corporations, for 1.3 billion euros, almost 2 billion if including debt interest. This financial burden will severely restrict the public water utilities’ social and environmental ambitions in future years. Berlin’s citizens are well aware of the challenges, noted water activist Dorothea Haerlin, who said that their group put up a banner on the day of the decision that stated: “After remunicipalisation, democratisation.”

Defining public, beyond the narrow limitations of ‘state’ or ‘municipal’ owned is also important. Experiences shared from Colombia and Bolivia clearly demonstrated the importance of autonomous community water systems to ensure universal water access, especially to poor and marginalised communities.

Acountability and transparency are certainly a key feature for building democratic public water utilities. Samir Bensaid from the state water company in Morocco said that without citizens and workers’ participation, public management too often leads to bureaucracy, unaccountable and corruption – all used by neoliberal politicians as a pretext to justify privatisation.

In this context, the emergence of Public-Public Partnerships (PUPs) was seen as a critical development for helping to build water justice. PUPs refer to collaborative partnerships between public agencies, communities and civic organisations to improve the effectiveness of water and sanitation services as well as water resources management. Spanish public operators working together under the umbrella of AEOPAS are committed to work with water authorities and communities in Mauritania, Malawi, Cuba, Nicaragua and El Salvador.

Despite severe social challenges and financial constraints in these countries, AEOPAS members have succeeded in jointly diagnosing and developing plans for improved water distribution, resources protection, capacity building, asset management and investment. Nine public water operators from Kenya to Ecuador attended the meeting; all were engaged in PUPs and able to share their own perspectives and the ways they were working to deliver democratic public water for all.

Towards a genuine ethos of public water

Emerging from these new models and partnership is a new ethos of public water – characterised, as Emanuele Lobina of the University of Greenwich explained, by solidarity not profit, collaboration not competition, effectiveness rather than just efficiency, trust and openness not secrecy.

This ethos advocates water management forged around common values that exclude profit-seeking approaches. It rejects a price for water; even if water services should be paid for, based on fair distribution and affordable tariffs for all without discrimination. It advocates water services built around community-development rather than development of markets; developed through collaboration rather than competition; judged by social effectiveness and not just economic efficiency.

This ethos will only be properly built if it is done inclusively, with the joint efforts of citizens, communities, public operators, and workers.



1 Public Services International Research Institute (2011), Trends in Water Management 

2 Public Services International Research Institute (2013), List of Water Remunicipalisations worldwide 

3 Public Services International Research Institute (2011)

Font: TransNational Institute

AutorTimothé Feodoroff, investigador del TransNational Institute

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