In the wake of the defeat of its plan to build an unnecessary desalination plant in Rockland County, United Water New York finds itself under investigation by the New York Public Service Commission (PSC). The reason? Alleged financial impropriety. In other words: while United Water executives have been partying, ratepayers have been picking up the bill.
According to news reports, the company reported a “$7.1 million ‘misstatement’ of revenue” between 2010 and 2014. The “misstatement” led to three United Water New York executives losing their jobs.
A new report by a local NBC affiliate uncovered even more odd expenses. The company paid close to $80,000 for private school tuition for executives’ kids. On top of that, it paid $16,000 a month to rent a house for its CEO, Bertrand Camus, despite the fact that Mr. Camus is both the CEO of United Water and of its parent company, Suez Environment North America. Surely he can afford to pay his own rent.
But what’s even more ridiculous is that the company spent about $6,000 for golf balls in 2012. Keep that in mind the next time someone tells you about the efficiencies of the private sector.
While the company was paying for these perks for its executives, it was seeking outrageous rate hikes for its customers. The company asked for a 28.9 percent rate increase this summer. Thankfully for its customers, New York PSC refused to grant such a large increase and approved one for 13.3 percent instead. During the proceedings on the rate increase, the PSC questioned expenses reported by the company for “holiday parties, award events, gifts, etc.,” as well as for a “wives breakfast” (seriously?) and for alcohol for corporate parties. Ratepayers shouldn’t have to pay more for their water service so that United Water New York can throw itself boozy parties.
Of course, United Water New York didn’t see any problem with including the parties in its request. It told the PSC that it would “provide more benefits than cost.” I doubt your typical Rockland County ratepayer benefits more from a corporate “wives breakfast” than it costs.
We shouldn’t be surprised at this behavior. We’ve chronicled United Water’s failures for years as it attempts to make a profit out of privatizing water service. But lack of surprise doesn’t mean a lack of outrage. For the increasing rates that they’re paying, United Water’s customers deserve better.
A European country in crisis. Men in black come to the rescue. With the complicity of the national government, they impose painful measures on the population. Men in black never forget to be nice to their friends, so the measures include a provision to privatise public water services. As a reaction, massive citizen’s mobilisations take place. The story sounds familiar, doesn’t it?
We have already experienced this situation in Greece, and just a few months ago, Greek citizens won the battle, and water will remain in public hands. Now history repeats itself, and the struggle against water privatisation and commodification is at boiling point in Ireland.
The Memorandum of Understanding signed between the Irish Government and the men in black (also known as the Troika, formed by the European Commission, the International Monetary Fund and the European Central Bank) provides for the introduction of domestic water charges and the establishment of a new water utility, Irish Water, easy to be privatised in the near future. In a nod to their cronies, the men in black tapped former Irish Minister of Environment Phil Hogan, who led the implementation of these changes, as the new European Commissioner for Agriculture and Rural Development.
Following months of protests and resistance, on November 1, more than 150,000 people mobilised across Ireland to oppose the changes. Water charges in Ireland will discriminate against those with less economic means and the unemployed, adding another regressive tax at a time when citizens have been asked to make too many sacrifices to solve an economic crisis which they did not cause. Ireland’s public water system is already paid for through general taxation, which is progressive, and charges commercial users. The Irish people have already shown that they wish it to remain that way.
Once again, European citizens should raise their voice against water privatisation and commodification. Food & Water Europe, together with our allies at the European Water Movement, want to express our solidarity with Irish citizens. Resisting water charges means fighting for access to water as a universal human right, and against the commodification of water. And it means blocking future privatisation attempts.
When will the European Commission finally get the message? Its provisions to privatise water failed in Greece, and they will fail in Ireland if citizens continue with their mobilisation. People in the streets of Dublin, Madrid or Athens; citizens voting in Thessaloniki, Rome or Berlin; nearly 2 million Europeans signing the Citizens Initiative on the Right to Water. All of them are claiming water as a public and common good. Men in black should be nice, for a change, to their citizens — not to their friends.
You can support the Irish campaign on the Right to Water here.
I can’t say that I was surprised as the returns came in from the bruising midterm election last night. It’s no accident that a group of die-hard reactionaries were elected in many states from the flood of dark money, in combination with low turnout and shocking voting rights abuses. Once again, the Democratic strategy of sounding “Republican Light” and relying on TV ads to win seats in a handful of swing states has proven ineffective.
The fact is, no matter which party is in control of Congress, our way forward remains clear: We must continue to organize and keep elected officials accountable on the issues we care about.
While news programs spent most of yesterday and today talking about big wins for the Republican Party and corporations, the American people still managed to make a considerable difference. Voters went to the polls in Reading, Pennsylvania and Sussex Borough, New Jersey to prevent corporations from privatizing their respective water systems. In addition, the people of Athens, Ohio, San Benito County and Mendocino County, California and Denton, Texas all successfully voted to ban fracking in their communities.
This midterm election put communities and corporations up against one another in a very unfair fight. Plain and simple, Big Oil and Gas tried to use money to bludgeon its opposition. In San Benito County alone, the oil industry spent about $2 million in order to spread misinformation about fracking and lead residents astray.
But what did local residents have to fight against this dangerous campaign of lies? They wielded true facts about fracking, backed up by independent scientific research. And these dedicated activists pounded the pavement, talking with neighbors and building a network of trust.
People dedicated to banning fracking in their communities may have been outspent 13 to 1. But they still managed to win, and preserve the wellbeing of the places they live for future generations. To date, 136 communities in the U.S. have banned fracking, and that number is only likely to grow.
By gutting campaign finance laws, the U.S. Supreme Court put a gaping wound in our democratic process. The Koch Brothers and other greedy sources of dark money have given corporate interests a soapbox and a megaphone to push a dangerous, selfish agenda.
Things will be very tough in Congress now, and we expect more McCarthy-like tactics. But Food & Water Watch and our supporters will not be cowed or frightened.
We will continue to fight for our right to clean drinking water and safe food; for our right to know what ingredients are used in our food; for our right to preserve our health and our environment; for our right to create a better, healthier world for our children and future generations.
That’s why no matter what the results of the elections at any given time, we must continue to raise our voices and engage politically so that we can build the political power to create the world we want for our children and grandchildren.
If we have learned anything from the water shut-offs in Detroit and the ongoing water crisis in the Western U.S., it is that every community deserves access to safe and reliable water, regardless of its ability to pay. Yet a new movement is afoot to transfer control of our water to new water markets. Despite the evidence privatizing water doesn’t work, water privatization and market-based schemes are still being pushed upon the public as a solution. Specifically, we are seeing the idea of water markets gain attention, especially in response to the Western drought.
While not a new idea, the widespread use of water markets, which represents the financialization of all of our common resources, is relatively new. They are a false solution that assigns the benefits of our investment in this common resource to a small few at the expense of everyone else, and do little to ensure adequate supply to anyone.
We know that large financial institutions dream of water markets. In fact, Willem Buiter, Chief Economist at Citigroup, has written of his desire to see a global water market: “I expect to see a globally integrated market for fresh water within 25 to 30 years. Once the spot markets for water are integrated, futures markets and other derivative water-based financial instruments — puts, calls, swaps — both exchange-traded and OTC will follow…. Water as an asset class will, in my view, become eventually the single most important physical-commodity based asset class, dwarfing oil, copper, agricultural commodities and precious metals.” Read the full article…
United Nations (UN) representatives Catarina de Albuquerque (left) and Leilani Farha (right) answer questions from local residents during a UN Fact-Finding Detroit Town Hall Meeting.
This past weekend, representatives from the United Nations visited Detroit to witness first-hand the repercussions of the city’s on-going water crisis. Needless to say, they were shocked, as I have been too, despite my many years fighting for water justice in the Motor City.
Ten years ago, when I first started working to preserve the right of Detroiters to safe, clean, affordable water, I never imagined the trajectory that work would take. Quite frankly, some of the politicking that has occurred in those areas over the past decade I couldn’t have anticipated in my wildest dreams.
After sitting under the thumb of a federal judge for 35 years, in March of 2013, the city of Detroit regained oversight of the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department (DWSD). That same month, Governor Rick Snyder sent emergency manager (EM) Kevyn Orr to Detroit to run the city, foregoing in the process, democracy and citizen participation. A few months later, the city declared bankruptcy and the threat of privatizing the DWSD became very real. This past March, after talks with suburban entities over a regional water authority broke down, Orr announced a plan to privatize the DWSD, issuing a request for information from interested parties. Within hours, the DWSD announced plans to pursue an aggressive shut-off plan in the city with a goal of denying water to 1,500 – 3,000 residences a week.
Of course, misinformation about the shutoffs abounded. This wasn’t simply a case of people opting not to pay their water bills. Some 40 percent of the city lives in poverty, victims of decades of misplaced civic priorities and policies that put profits ahead of people. Read the full article…
The city and the suburbs released the Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) that forms the basis of the agreement. A reading of the agreement reveals that it will likely lead to the privatization of the water system.
The creation of the regional authority, the Great Lakes Water Authority, corporatizes the system by putting appointed, unelected officials fully in charge of the big decisions that determine the cost and quality of service. The agreement treats water provision as a business instead of a public service. Corporatization itself is the first step to privatization. The new authority can privatize the management and operation of the water and sewer system without real city input or public approval.
Currently, the Detroit city council must approve any privatization deal because it has oversight of water contracts worth more than $2 million. With this new agreement, the city council will lose that power.
In fact, an independent authority will not give ballot-box accountability to county residents, either; it will just cost city residents their ability to hold the system’s decision makers accountable.
The MOU says that the city will hire Veolia Water North America to review the water and sewer systems and to make recommendations “in evaluating operating models.” Veolia is the largest private operator of municipal water systems in the United States. We can expect that Veolia will likely recommend that the authority privatize the operation and management of the systems. And, we can expect the new authority to pursue those recommendations.
According to the MOU, the authority will be established if Detroit and one of the three suburbs formally approve it. If the other two counties refuse to officially join, the governor would appoint representatives for those counties to the new authority’s six-member board of directors. Because of this and because the MOU allows the governor to appoint one board member anyway, the governor could potentially appoint half the members of the new authority’s board.
Should Detroit approve the deal now, while under the rule of Emergency Manager Orr, but decide to withdraw once the city is returned to democratic governance, the MOU states that the governor would then be able to appoint the city’s representation to the authority’s board and the city would lose the “sweetener” funding for local infrastructure it is being given to buy into the deal.
We know what happens when cities privatize water systems: rates tend to go up, service tends to go down and jobs tend to be cut. That’s why the powers that be try to distance themselves from these decisions and insulate themselves from the potential fall out by establishing these undemocratic boards to do the dirty work. There’s a word for this: cowardice.
But the city council still has the opportunity to reject this deal — and it should. The elected representatives of the people of Detroit should stand up against this sham agreement. It’s possible Emergency Manager Orr will overrule them, but it is the one opportunity they have to put on record that the people of Detroit deserve better. It may even give pause to the unelected forces behind the deal.
In 2008 Ecuador officially recognized the human right to water, joining only nine other countries that have done the same since 1994. Section One, Article 12 of the Ecuadorian Constitution states, “The human right to water is essential and cannot be waived. Water constitutes a national strategic asset for use by the public and it is unalienable, not subject to a statute of limitations, immune from seizure and essential for life.” It is therefore surprising, if not ironic, that over the past several years, interest groups have been colliding over water rights in the Andean country.
So, who is fighting over water in a country that guarantees it as a human right and also happens to be located at the edge of the largest river basin in the world, anyway? As Julia Apland Hitz succinctly stated in a recent piece published by the Earth Institute at Columbia University, “The sides of the conflict can be summarized as the government and big business vs. the indigenous communities, but of course it’s more complicated than that.”
Indeed it is. Around the time of Ecuador’s constitutional referendum, the world experienced a convergence of global crises: in energy, food and finance. These concurring events, coupled with the ongoing threat of global climate change, have caused land grabbing, in which wealthy corporations, powerful national governments and private equity funds have sought available lands abroad for food, fuel and mineral production to prepare themselves for future price increases.
China is perhaps the leading global actor implementing this strategy, and it has its sights on Latin America as a place to invest billions of dollars to finance extractive industries, including oil refineries. Ecuador, a member of OPEC, is expected to receive up to nine billion dollars from Beijing for one new oil refinery alone, amounting to the single largest infrastructure project in President Rafael Correa’s administration.
But how do such energy- and water-intensive projects get off the ground? After a years-long struggle punctuated by fierce debate and protests by groups on both sides of the issue, the National Assembly of Ecuador finally passed a new water law in late June. One of the main changes brought by this new law will bring the nation’s water system, previously under community control, under the subordination of a centralized authority. The new law also allows for groundwater to be included in the sale of land, thus giving the owner, including oil and mining companies, complete control over the resource.
As the law was being passed, indigenous social rights groups began a twelve-day march, or caminata, across the country that culminated in a demonstration just two blocks away from the National Assembly in Quito. They chanted and waived multi-colored banners as they marched in solidarity. Their chants in protest included, “¡El pueblo unido jamás será vencido!” meaning, “The united people shall never be defeated!” During the forming of the new water bill, indigenous leaders demanded legal protections for those communities living near water resources. They argued that these indigenous communities played a vital role in the construction of water networks and irrigation canals, and warned that this new law could pave the way to water privatization.
President Correa has been defensive on the issue, claiming that the protesters are merely political opponents and asserted that the new law will not lead to privatization, adding, “It is a rude lie to say that the water is going to be privatized.” He adds that privatization of the country’s water is prohibited by the Constitution and the new law.
Just two weeks after celebrating the passing of Ecuador’s new water law, President Correa met with President Xi Jinping of China to discuss future development plans and to promote bilateral relations. At the meeting, held in Brazil, Correa acknowledged China’s support in its economic development including oil refineries, and funding of proposals and basic industries.
Having had their water supply contaminated due to oil extraction in the past, many of Ecuador’s indigenous people fear that the passing of this law, which effectively ends community control of their water, represents a slippery slope toward privatization. Jorge Herrera, president of Ecuador’s largest indigenous organization, summarizes his side’s position by saying, “Our concern is that control of water stays with the community. We consider it an ancestral right, not one of the central government.”
Andrew Diaz is an international policy intern at Food & Water Watch.
Right now, in the heat of midsummer, thousands of Detroiters do not have access to safe drinking water, cannot flush their toilets, bathe their children, wash their dishes or boil water to cook food to feed their families. This is what happens when we treat water like a commodity instead of a common resource and basic human right.
The Detroit Water and Sewerage Department says that more than 80,000 residential households are in arrears, in addition to many Detroit businesses, so it is cutting off service to households that cannot pay their bills. With nearly 40 percent of Detroit residents living in poverty, water bills are simply unaffordable for these households. That’s why the United Nations (UN) recently declared the shut-offs in Detroit a violation of the human right to water and has called for immediate restoration of this essential service.
It is in this context that Nestlé Waters North America has revved up its PR machine after delivering bottled water to Detroit residents. Does Nestlé believe that this gesture will actually relieve the horrible, unsanitary and unsafe conditions of a mid-summer without running water? Or is it simply banking on the fact that its PR stunt may pay off down the road?
The decision to deliver one truckload of bottled water to Detroit is not enough to fix the city’s water woes, and it seems the real beneficiary of Nestlé’s PR stunt is Nestlé.
While we do not wish for anyone to go thirsty, and we appreciate the efforts of the groups in Detroit doing all they can to help their neighbors, Nestlé’s gesture completely misses the seriousness of the situation. A family cannot actually survive the summer’s conditions on bottled water, let alone a small, limited amount of it. Bottled water is not practical for flushing toilets. It cannot keep children clean and fed, and it cannot prevent the spread of disease. Detroiters don’t need environmentally wasteful and inconvenient water that costs thousands of times more than their tap water. They need their pipes turned back on.
Second, Nestlé’s bottled water delivery (water, mind you, that has been usurped from communities that need it) to Detroiters casts a curious shadow on the root of the issue: the privatization and commodification of our water resources.
Bottled water takes public water supplies to sell at prices that are unaffordable for many people around the world. If given the chance, the industry would create a world where rich people buy their water in expensive, environmentally damaging bottles, while our public water systems erode and deteriorate, leaving poor people without safe and clean water.
In Detroit, we’re seeing the consequences of what happens when government bureaucrats treat water like a commodity. The Detroit Water Board uses that false notion to rationalize cutting service off to people that genuinely cannot afford to pay their bills. It is unconscionable to leave poverty-stricken households, including families with small children, without water during the heat of summer.
Water is not a widget to be bought and sold. It is an essential public service and a common resource. Our elected officials have a fundamental responsibility to ensure that everyone has access to safe and affordable water service.
In the midst of this internationally-recognized water crisis, bottled water cannot prevent this looming public health crisis, but turning the taps back on will. Take action to give Detroit real relief: restored service at an affordable rate.
All over town, church bells were tolling, but they were not marking the top of the hour as they usually do. Upon hearing this signal, masses of townspeople came from all directions, armed with stones, pipes, even sticks—anything that was lying around was fair game that day. Off in the distance, the opposition could be seen approaching through the haze, their fifteen hundred shiny, black helmets slowly marching forward as one force behind the protection of their transparent shields and riot gear. As the dark swarm of police approached down the narrow, twisting streets, the crowd of townspeople braced themselves. They shouted commands at each other to hold their positions. Soon, the objects in their hands would become a barrage of projectiles hurled at the officers in an effort to keep them back.
This scene was the culmination of thirteen months of acrimonious debate. San Bartolo Ameyalco is an otherwise unremarkable town sitting on the hills of the Álvaro Obregón delegation, or borough, on the fringes of Mexico City. Founded in 1535, the town is one of the oldest communities in the Federal District, and is indeed one of the older settlements in the whole of Mexico. Its history probably dates even further back, as it is believed that the town was first settled by the native Tepanec people.
What brought the early settlers to this area, and what has kept people in San Bartolo ever since? The residents of the town simply know it as el ojo de agua, or “the waterhole”— a volcanic spring that has been faithfully providing freshwater to the community from the time of its founding. In fact, Ameyalco is a Nahuatl word meaning “place from which the water flows,” which it continues to do at a rate of about 60 liters per second.
It is this water supply that is at the heart of the dispute that is taking place in one of the largest and most densely populated cities on earth. Desperate to find additional water sources to supplement a rapidly-depleting aquifer below its soil, the government of Mexico City announced in April 2013 that a part of San Bartolo’s water supply would be joining a larger system delivering water across the entire borough. The residents of the town, whose name is often referred to simply as Ameyalco, responded with a clear voice: “no.”
Miguel Ángel Mancera, the mayor of Mexico City, insists that this project would benefit at least twenty thousand people. Many of Ameyalco’s residents, however, believe that the main beneficiaries of such a project would be the rich, inhabiting hastily-built communities with profits from international business —such as the community of Santa Fe, built over a former dumping ground not far from Ameyalco — and with no prior infrastructure for delivering water.
The government asserts it has a responsibility to deliver water to these newer communities, and that the people of Ameyalco do not have the right to selfishly appropriate this precious resource. Meanwhile, the people of San Bartolo proclaim that their water is not for sale, as water is already scarce in their community. Additionally, they say that they should not have to pay the price for the city’s poor planning.
The floodgates of this controversy finally burst wide open on the morning of May 21, 2014, as workers of Sacmex, the Mexico City water company, arrived to lay the pipe that would connect San Bartolo’s water to the wider network. The residents were determined to guard their spring in any way possible. Once it became clear that efforts to continue the construction project would be met with resistance, the riot police were called in. There are conflicting reports, but the ensuing clash resulted in at least fifty to seventy of the townspeople injured or hospitalized, over fifty policemen injured—at least two of them seriously—and property damage around the area of the conflict, including several destroyed police vehicles.
Despite the opposition to the construction plan, the project in San Bartolo was carried out. The government has stated that Amayalco’s spring has not been affected by the plan, but instead it was the nearby water system by the name of Cutzamala that was connected to the borough-wide system. The borough of Álvaro Obregón has even released a statement guaranteeing that San Bartolo’s spring water will not be mixed with this larger system. There are many in San Bartolo who see this as just the calm before another storm, and as a result want to negotiate terms with the government. However, their demand is to have their rights respected by having a seat at the discussion table, and for the government to be transparent about its plans regarding the region’s water.
In the meantime, Mexico City continues to literally sink under its own weight as it swiftly drains its underground water reservoir ever more quickly. As its vast and growing population continues to demand more and more resources, it is a near certainty that this complex and contentious issue is far from settled.
Andrew Diaz is an international research and policy intern with Food & Water Watch. He currently attends the University of Maryland at College Park and majors in geographic information science and minors in international development and conflict management.
The lengths some companies will go to stop communities from gaining local control of their water systems can seem completely crazy. Tomorrow, voters in California’s Monterey Peninsula will go to the polls to decide whether to take the first step toward buying their water system from American Water’s California arm. Read the full article…
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