Article – Waves of resistance: from Greece to India, people safeguard water for the common good

Last month, 1,500 organizers in Thessaloniki, Greece risked arrest, placing unofficial ballot boxes by nightfall on street corners throughout the city. Their bravery paid off, as the next day more than 200,000 residents cast a vote on the pending privatization of their water system. Hundreds of volunteers worked around the clock to tally votes under the watchful eye of international observers. As morning dawned, a crowd gathered to hear the results. Before long, a huge cry of victory rose up: the “no” vote won by a resounding 98 percent. Once again, the people’s choice was clear: keep our water in public hands!

You see, in the face of Greece’s flailing economy, global lenders have put enormous pressure on Thessaloniki to privatize its water supply, arguing that doing so would save the city money through promises of cost-cutting and efficiency measures. And Thessaloniki isn’t alone — communities around the world are feeling the heavy hand of lenders (primarily the World Bank) pushing private water as the answer to their water woes. But the residents of Thessaloniki — like those in Jakarta, Indonesia and Nagpur, India — know that with privatization come rate hikes, empty taps, mass worker layoffs and dangerous health and safety violations.

Indeed, though Thessaloniki’s local government continues to doggedly pursue the private water contract, its efforts were recently dealt a critical blow. Just a few weeks ago, Greece’s highest court made a landmark ruling that private water violates the government’s constitutional obligations to protect peoples’ health and well-being. Campaigners in Thessaloniki are expected to launch a new legal action immediately, seizing this precedent to save their water from a corporate takeover.

Such successes are part of the growing wave of grassroots resistance to the threat posed by global water corporations and the institutions – namely, the World Bank — that support them. And Corporate Accountability International is in the thick of it: helping pull back the shiny veneer of the World Bank’s “success” stories to expose the truth. We are providing tools, platforms and resources to help communities protect their most basic precious resource from corporate control.

Grassroots power halts private water in Indonesia

In Jakarta, Indonesia, for instance, we supported our allies, including the Peoples’ Coalition for the Right to Water (KRuHA) in compelling the governor to keep water under democratic control. His decision will end the disastrous private water contract that resulted in years of limited access, spotty water quality and the third-highest prices in Asia. Predictably, Suez isn’t giving up without a fight. It’s putting tremendous pressure on the governor to repurchase the utility at a high cost — from the global corporation that mismanaged the system in the first place. That’s why we stand with the coalition of organizations in Jakarta who have filed a lawsuit seeking to annul the privatization contract as unconstitutional from the beginning. The suit is already gaining traction: Indonesia’s National Human Rights Commission testified that its water should remain in public hands. And, we continue to support our allies as they call on the Governor to resist pressure to cave to corporate demands.

It is paramount we see the Jakarta success through, because it is setting a precedent for cities across the Southeast Asian country to protect their water from corporate control. City officials in Tangerang, Indonesia are up against the World Bank’s push to line up a multi-million-dollar corporate takeover of the city’s water system. Having seen the disastrous results in Jakarta, and balking at the tariff increases required to cover the associated costs and profit margins, Tangerang officials have refused to green-light the private water scheme.

Looking towards the future: Nagpur, India

The successes in Greece and Indonesia demonstrate that civil society wants to keep water in public hands. And yet the World Bank continues its dogmatic promotion of privatization as the solution to our global water crisis — even when evidence clearly shows otherwise.

For instance, it is heavily promoting its project in Nagpur, India as a “success” to be replicated in communities elsewhere in India and throughout the world. This is astounding, given the dire reality on the ground.  From extraordinary fees charged to those who can least afford them — and the threat of water cut-offs when they can’t pay the price — to pumping in dirty water from a reservoir filled with waste, and lengthy delays and sky-high cost overruns, the project has been a failure any way you look at it.

Fortunately, there are many groups and people in India who are exposing the truth behind the World Bank’s PR spin. We are working with our allies in India to debunk the World Bank’s claims of success. For example, we’ve partnered with Jammu Anand at the Nagpur Municipal Corporation Employees Union to shine a light on the true cost of the World Bank’s Nagpur project. Together, we launched a joint media release reaching more than 2 million people in over a dozen major press outlets in India and beyond. This media attention ensures that communities targeted by the World Bank for privatization have the information they need to resist the World Bank’s efforts. It also ensures that those who can influence the World Bank to change course on water are gaining a deeper understanding of the full scope of harm caused by poster-child projects like Nagpur.

What do you think?

From the clarion call of the residents of Thessaloniki to keep their water public, to the outraged activism of Jakarta residents fed up with their failed private water systems, people around the world are making one thing clear: it’s people, not global corporations, who ought to control their water.  Indeed, there’s nothing less at stake than our most basic right: the human right to water. What do you think? Should people – or global corporations – control our water?

Autora, Shayda Naficy is Director for Challenge Corporate Control of our Water.

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