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 telling you the story of one of North America’s first water systems, built in 1837 by a private contractor after a cholera epidemic. Just like our private companies today, that private contractor’s first interest was in making a profit, and so it was that only rich neighborhoods were connected to the pipe system. In the 1850s, the city council decided to buy into the company and collected taxes to fund an extension to the system, a set-up similar to the modern public-private partnerships that you describe. However, this system also failed to provide all of the people with safe drinking water, because it simply was not profitable to provide water for the city’s poor. After a second cholera epidemic, water management was finally taken into completely public hands, and a taxation system was established to fund the system. In less than three years, practically all citizens had access to clean drinking water.

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Maude Barlow, national chairperson of the Council of Canadians.

Water is our most precious gift and is essential to all life. But all around the world, we have taken water for granted and massively misjudged the capacity of the Earth’s water systems to sustain the demands made upon it. Instead of taking great care of the limited water we have, we are diverting, polluting, and depleting it at an astonishing rate as if there were no reckoning to come.

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You correctly mentioned in your email that water utilities are facing the enormous challenge of having to replace their aging pipes and other infrastructure. Private interests worldwide have seen these infrastructure needs as a huge opportunity to profit off our public systems. These companies rarely pay for the ownership or use of the public infrastructure that already existed before taking control of the system. The way they stay in business is through cutting costs and charging ever-increasing user fees to a public that will always be thirsty for clean water. You also mentioned that there are a number of privately owned water systems in the U.S., but you failed to make the distinction between locally owned, not-for-profit water systems, and the for-profit water systems that are increasingly being controlled by a few large multinational corporations.

This is an important distinction that should not be overlooked. The effects of this massive privatization experiment have been nothing short of disastrous. In Bolivia, thousands took to the streets in protest after drastic rate increases that a Bechtel-owned private company imposed after taking control of a city’s drinking-water system. In the Philippines, the government has had to buy back the system from another Bechtel-owned company after water rates increased by as much as 700 percent in some areas. In Argentina, a corporate consortium composed of French water giants Vivendi (now Veolia) and Suez reneged on a contractual obligation to build a sewage treatment plant, resulting in 95 percent of the city’s wastewater being dumped directly into a river. In a South African community, service fees tripled and thousands were cut off who could not afford to pay after a British company took over the water system.

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As these same companies move into more and more small American communities, we see that the cities simply don’t have the legal and financial resources to compete when problems arise with the large multinational corporations that are buying up our water systems. During an attempt to seek compensation after a sewage spill in Hamilton, Canada, the city had to brave corporate buyouts, company financial meltdowns, and even the Enron scandal in order to receive compensation for its residents. These tragic scenarios make it clear: When the primary interest is shareholder returns and market share, water for people and for nature will be left out of the picture.

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

You have said that the private sector is able to improve operating efficiency, access capital, and apply technical and managerial experience. But these can also be accomplished by a publicly controlled and operated water system. It must be emphasized that the vast majority of water systems in North America, and consequently the expertise about water and wastewater treatment, still lies in public hands. Many North American cities have considered and rejected water privatization to address their crucial infrastructure needs and have instead turned to existing public solutions and best practices. Communities like Miami-Dade, Fla., and King County, Wash., have saved money, rewarded employees, and enhanced services while maintaining or improving water quality and protecting the environment — and they have done so while maintaining ownership, operation, and control of their essential water services.

As citizens around the world share the negative experiences of water privatization in their communities, we realize that the decisions being made at the local level are linked to a global struggle around control of the world’s remaining freshwater resources. At stake in this is the whole notion of “the commons,” the idea that through our public water we recognize a shared human and natural heritage to be preserved for future generations. Citizens around the world are standing up to global private interests that would like to see our water privatized and commodified, and are fighting to take back control of their water systems for people and for nature.

Just as we learned with the first water systems in the 19th century, the water we drink is simply too precious to trust to corporate hands, and too essential to rely on market forces alone to ensure equitable access and distribution. The solution lies in declaring water as a human right and a public trust to be guarded by all levels of government; in sharing information and best practices on our public water systems; and in overseeing and protecting our public drinking water for future generations.

We await your reply,
Maude and Sara