Everyone knows that water is the stuff of life. But is it best viewed as a commodity or as part of the commons? Should providing safe, affordable water be the role of governments, corporations, or partnerships between the two? On Tuesday, July 13 (dates may vary for local stations), the PBS show P.O.V. is airing “Thirst,” a documentary by Alan Snitow and Deborah Kaufman that addresses these and other issues about water privatization. In partnership with P.O.V., Grist is hosting a week-long debate on the merits of water privatization between Peter Cook, executive director of the National Association of Water Companies, and Maude Barlow and Sara Ehrhardt, anti-privatization activists with the Council of Canadians.

Dear Peter,

We would like to begin by thanking you for your comments. While we, too, would like to work toward solutions to address the water challenges that we face, we simply cannot accept the “water customer” approach that you have presented throughout this discussion. This approach presents water as an economic resource to be managed by market forces, and fails to acknowledge water as a shared social and environmental resource necessary for all life.

Although you have provided statistics around water-service business growth and a generalized look at contract renewal rates, you have not shown how the corporations you represent — who answer only to their contracts and their shareholders — are actually able to address citizens’ valid concerns regarding access, affordability, and accountability of water systems in our communities.

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Maude Barlow, national chair of the Council of Canadians.

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You noted that in our discussion we focused on the global water crisis and the failures of water privatization worldwide. We feel that it is imperative to raise awareness of the challenges being faced by developing communities today and of the role that we in the developed world can play in stopping the privatization programs of the World Bank and other international financial institutions and in promoting nonprofit, community-based solutions.

However, as you have shown, the same privatization experiment is occurring in our own communities in North America. In the United States, water privatization has led to rate increases, deterioration of water quality, lack of access to information, and staff layoffs in a number of communities. Last year, the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists released an extensive report outlining these issues and documenting several water-privatization failures in the U.S. The report describes failed public-private partnerships in Atlanta, Indianapolis, and Camden, N.J., and also refers to numerous cities that either have returned or are proposing to return flawed private contracts to public hands.

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You have claimed that private water companies have a strong record of bringing efficiency, savings, and environmental responsibility to communities and municipalities. The citizens that we work with in American communities tell us a different story. They tell us that in the past, your association has been involved in lobbying Congress and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to refrain from adopting higher water-quality standards, and that you have requested that federal regulations be based on cost-benefit analyses rather than public health concerns and sound science. Although you have previously implied that the corporations you represent put funds back into communities through the taxes they pay, your organization has also persistently sought to pass proposals to decrease taxes for these same corporations. Within this context, the large water rate increases that are being proposed in the U.S. will only serve to line corporate pockets — doing nothing to improve the essential drinking-water service infrastructure in our communities.

In recent years, numerous communities in the U.S. have decided to either end the privatization experiment and return control of their water to public hands, or have rejected privatization outright to explore innovative public service delivery models. These communities have been rewarded with significant cost savings while maintaining citizen ownership and control. In Florida, a municipal buyout of United Water brought an average 25 percent rate reduction for citizens; in San Diego, a public program to enhance operational efficiency saved the utility $37 million in the first two years; in Ohio, the city of Washington Court House took their water system back into public hands and now enjoy a $500,000 annual surplus that they can reinvest in their utility or return to citizens.

Sarah Ehrhardt, national water campaigner of the Council of Canadians.

There is a growing body of knowledge suggesting that the imperatives of economic globalization that you appear to advocate — unlimited growth, a seamless global consumer market, corporate rule, deregulation, privatization, and free trade — are the driving forces behind the destruction of our water systems. Ninety-five percent of the world’s drinking-water systems are publicly owned; experimentation with privatization has entered our communities with little or no public debate around the implications of such a fundamental global shift of water governance and responsibility. I would encourage you and others to review information from Public Citizen, Alliance For Democracy, the Sierra Club, the Polaris Institute, Public Services International, and, of course, the Council of Canadians for facts on water privatization to supplement this exchange.

On these websites, you will find: reports of failed privatizations in the United States and throughout the world; documentation of the role that water corporations and their associations have played in lobbying to prevent improvements to drinking-water quality; stories of citizen resistance to water privatization in their communities; legal opinions around water privatization and the implications of international trade agreements; examples of successful public reengineering projects that have saved municipalities money while maintaining public control; and tools that citizens can use to join the growing global water movement and take action in their communities.

As we have asserted throughout this correspondence, water is simply too essential to rely on market forces and consumer principles alone to ensure equitable access and distribution. Never before has there been such an urgent need for citizens to take action in defense of water for people and for nature. We must move beyond private corporate interests and work together to declare water a human right and a public trust to be guarded by all levels of government; to share information and best practices on our public water systems; and to oversee and protect our public drinking water for future generations.

Maude and Sara