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Battle to keep water public is too important to lose

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In Canada, as in most parts of the developed world, our civic governments have for decades run drinking water and waste water treatment systems as a public service. This is because generations have realized that water is something distinct and precious that must be managed as a public, not private, good.

However, in the last 25 years, two trends have been combining to promote the steady shift of water from a public good to private commodity.

The first of these trends is that senior governments have adopted a free-market agenda based on the belief that government should “get out of the way” of business. As a key component of this agenda, they have implemented policies to promote the privatization of many government services. In the case of public water services, they have deliberately avoided needed investments for many years. This has brought us to the present situation, in which crumbling public infrastructure has created a pressing need for massive infrastructure investments.

As a solution to this manufactured and convenient crisis, governments have promoted public-private partnerships, or P3s. A P3 is an arrangement whereby a private corporation provides some combination of financing, designing, building, and operating an infrastructure project, such as a water treatment plant, and the government pays a yearly fee through a contract often lasting 30 or more years.

Although governments promote P3s as a way to save public money, critics have shown repeatedly that they cost more, since corporations have higher borrowing costs and also must generate a profit. Moreover, because of commercial confidentiality requirements, P3s are much less transparent and accountable.

Not surprisingly, ordinary citizens have been vigorously fighting P3s wherever they’ve been proposed. One of the biggest P3 battles in Canada was fought in 2001 over the Seymour-Capilano water filtration plant. The regional government proposed developing the project with a corporate partner, but the citizens of Metro Vancouver were steadfastly opposed. More than a thousand citizens packed a town-hall meeting demanding that the plant be developed as a public project. In the end, citizens won a significant victory and the Seymour filtration plant was developed as a public project.

Those fighting to keep water public know that corporations involved in the water business have strong government allies ideologically committed to the P3 agenda. For example, both the Canadian and B.C. governments have mandated that the P3 option must at least be considered for any public infrastructure projects over a certain budget. In Victoria, the Capital Regional District is embroiled in a debate over a possible P3 for a waste water treatment system. Kim Manton of CUPE says, “From the beginning this sewage project has been in the crosshairs of the B.C. government’s privatization agenda.”

The second trend fuelling the commodification of water is bottled water. The bottled-water companies have been promoting their product with slick marketing campaigns designed to convince people that bottled water is better than tap water. Companies such as Coke, Pepsi and Nestle take public water, re-filter it, bottle it and sell to consumers at massive profits. Bottled water sales help establish the notion that water is a commodity like any other, and the production and transport of the bottled water creates huge amounts of greenhouse gas and plastic garbage.

New and emerging threats are trade deals under negotiation with the United States and Europe. These deals may well facilitate further privatization of Canada’s water resources and water infrastructure by American and European corporations. Not surprisingly, the anti-democratic Harper government is not even consulting Canadians on the issue or submitting the agreements to Parliament for approval.

It often seems a daunting task to try to keep water under public control. Despite the enormity of the challenge, concerned citizens must continue to fight privatization because the battle over water is just too important to lose. We can either allow ourselves to be bamboozled by a powerful corporate water cartel (and their government collaborators), which wants to profit off something essential to life, or we can reassert democratic, public control over water and our public services.

Originally published as Special to the Vancouver Sun, March 23, 2010

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