Putting Water Back in Public Hands

  March 21, 2013

Putting Water Back in Public Hands

Nick Buxton: Paris and other cities have remunicipalised water that had been privatized saving users money and introducing more democracy and transparency
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Putting Water Back in Public HandsPAUL JAY, SENIOR EDITOR, TRNN: Welcome to The Real News Network. I'm Paul Jay.

In an earlier interview, we talked about the fire sale of European public assets that is taking place during the current crisis. Now we're going to talk about some possible alternatives to that strategy.

Now joining us from Davis, California, is Nick Buxton. He's communication manager for Transnational Institute, which provides critical analysis for movements working for social and environmental justice.

Thanks for joining us again, Nick.


JAY: So talk a little bit about your organization and what you've been talking about in terms of what might be an alternative strategy to privatization.

BUXTON: Well, we've been working for a number of years particularly on water privatization and supporting movements who are fighting water privatization in the south. But more recently, in more recent years, we've been looking at a really interesting trend that's happening.

As cities across the whole world have been experiencing the negative impacts of privatization, they've been--some cities have actually reclaimed control over their water. And we've documented what have been some of those experiences.

Perhaps the most famous example is Paris. Now, Paris is the home of Suez and Veolia, two of the biggest water multinationals in the world, who privatized and took over privatized water systems right across the globe. Their city decided, despite being the home of these two multinationals, to take back, about two or three years ago, the water back into public hands. Of course, it led to a lot of resistance from those companies and a lot of attempts at sabotage.

But when they took back control, they were able to start to tackle some of those arguments around efficiency and show that they were rather fraudulent, and they found, rather, by putting it in public hands, they were able to save, in their case--in the first year, they saved EUR 35 million, which led them to reduce all the rates right across the board by 8 percent for ordinary Parisians. So they showed that this--what was really happening was that the state subsidies and the high water rates were really going towards short-term profits and not being invested in the network and not benefiting consumers.

And they were also able to do things that private companies wouldn't do, for example, setting up very interesting public-public partnerships with other water utilities, particularly in the south, supporting developing countries, creating whole issues around transparency, setting up a website where people could see what was being repaired, what was being done long-term, even having public participation in some decisions about where priorities should go in terms of future investments.

So they not only showed that this idea that private isn't always efficient is wrong; they also showed that public can, especially if it's been reinvented and include concepts around participation, transparency, solidarity, can play a much bigger social role. And that's not something that's just happening in Paris. We looked at communities in Tanzania, in Dar es Salaam, where they reclaimed their water and the benefits that that's brought to people in Dar es Salaam. Again, in Canada, Hamilton, Canada, and Malaysia, we looked at--right across the continent. There were lessons.

JAY: What was the Canadian example? Because there you have a--.

BUXTON: It was in Hamilton, Canada. They took back their water, and they managed to save CAD 6 million and have also been able to reduce their rates. So I know a bit less about the Hamilton example, but they were one of the cities that has been able to, again, have a bigger picture than just one of saving money, which they've been able to do, but also one of looking more socially and have a--could be more of a public--in the broad sense of a public good.

JAY: And are there any cities now that are sort of fighting that battle to either prevent privatization or to publicize something that has been privatized?

BUXTON: Yeah, there's many examples. Indonesia, in Jakarta, there are struggles going on. And there are lots of struggles across the world which are fighting around these issues.

And some of the re-municipalizations haven't been successful. And I was reading the other day of one in Bolivia that's been reclaimed, but people are really saying it hasn't lived up to the expectations. So it's not a question that you re-municipalize, you necessarily have success.

But if--what we were trying to show are the more successful case studies. And they have largely been successful.

But what are the learning points? How can we make sure this experience is universalized? Because one of the things I think we're also trying to show is that it's not a question of returning. Ninety percent of the--in terms of water, 90 percent is still in public hands. It's a better solution than a private solution. But it also has in some cases serious problems. And we need to reinvent public and make sure it brings in concepts around transparency, participation, to really ensure that it's a dynamic public good that serves people and serves communities.

JAY: Is there a model of that somewhere?

BUXTON: Well, that's--I think these are some of the examples that we looked at, and in particular Paris, Hamilton, Malaysia, in Dar es Salaam.

JAY: So in Paris, what is that transparency? How does the public interact? What's the dynamic?

BUXTON: Well, they set up through using largely web mechanisms in Paris. It works well there. They set up a whole--and they've set up a whole citizens' water observatory, where everyone has a role and is actually involved in some of the running of the company and advising the company. So that's--they've used something called, yeah, an observatory, using various civil society groups to really have a say in the future of the company. And in Buenos Aires they've set up committees to advise the company, and they're also involved in very interesting public-public partnerships with different cities in the south.

So there are different examples, but they're ones that do--they're not without their flaws, but they do provide some hope, and they show that this idea that privatization is the answer is not the case.

JAY: Alright. Thanks for joining us, Nick.

BUXTON: Thank you.

JAY: And thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.


DISCLAIMER: Please note that transcripts for The Real News Network are typed from a recording of the program. TRNN cannot guarantee their complete accuracy.


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