When I told my Spanish class that the government in Uruguay had gotten rid of private water services, the teacher was quick to correct me : “the people of Uruguay got rid of private water” he insisted.

In the history of Uruguay the people have used referenda several times to protect the public interest. They even used it to get rid of military dictatorship. According to Carmen Sosa from FFOSE the water worker’s union, in the 90s, an era of privatization run amok in Latin America, the Uruguayan people protected public services from being privatized through a referendum. Just prior to the referendum on water, the privatization of the oil sector was also prevented via referendum.

Guillermo Duchini is the lawyer who worked with “the people” to draft the policy on water. He tends to use the word “vecinos” or neighbours when describing “the people.” It seems to me, perhaps because my Spanish is basic, a very interesting choice of words – one that communicates a sense of responsibility and connection to a broader community. Different from the term “citizens” which describes legitimacy granted by the state and the rights derived from this state-granted legitimacy.

The Uruguayan water policy was not written by bureaucrats or politicians, it was written by vecinos concerned with the Uruguayan government’s decision to sign a letter of intent with the International Monetary Fund to extend the privatization of water services throughout the country . Guillermo, a modest Montevideo lawyer who has studied water policy around the world, was the co-author who had the daunting task of combining ideas generated from months of public consultations held by the civil society coalition CDNAV (Comicion Nacional en Defensa del Agua y de la Vida). It was decided policy alone was not enough, vecinos wanted no less than constitutional reform. This would prevent future governments from modifying the policy without a referendum, Guillermo tells me.

The constituional reform maintains that the right to water must be ensured by goverments and outlaws any form of privatization including contracts with the private sector. It establishes both surface and groundwater as a public trust and bans the commercial export of water. It also ensures public participation in decisions regarding water at every level of decisionmaking. It is quite an impressive text that should serve as a model for other countries.

Tomorrow, I will be visiting activists in Maldonado, the town where Suez operated potable water services. Suez is suing them for defamation for running a campaign to raise awareness about the need for public water services in the community.

Meera Karunananthan

Meera Karunananthan

Meera Karunananthan is the national water campaigner at the Council of Canadians.