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…
In its latest effort to undermine the public interest, California American Water (Cal-Am), a subsidiary of American Water, has poured $2.2 million so far into defeating Measure O, outspending Monterey’s local public control campaign by about 45 to 1. But money can’t truly buy votes and corporate scare tactics shouldn’t fool the Monterey Peninsula community. Ratepayers in Felton, California benefitted from a public acquisition of Cal-Am water, and the Monterey community surely would as well.
On June 3, Monterey Peninsula residents will vote on Measure O, which local group, Public Water Now, collected some 8,400 signatures to place on the ballot. If passed, Measure O would set the Monterey Peninsula Water Management District on a track to purchase the water system, primarily by funding a study to determine whether a public takeover of Cal-Am is “feasible and beneficial.”
Not-so-shockingly, Cal-Am, the sole contributor to the “No on O” campaign, seems to be emptying its pockets to make sure Measure O doesn’t pass, but perhaps this is because it fears the truth: studies show that public ownership of municipal water systems benefits communities by providing lower rates and more dependable, safer water service, and many voters in Monterey know this. Read the full article…
Negotiations for TISA, the Trade in Services Agreement, began in 2012 when a group of 20 World Trade Organization (WTO) members formed the “Really Good Friends of Services” (no, I’m not making that up). These Really Good Friends decided to negotiate a new deal outside of the normal WTO framework.
Like the TPP and TTIP, the TISA would undercut domestic regulations designed to protect local workers and small businesses, as well as the environment, so that large multinational corporations could reap larger profits. Little wonder when the Really Good Friends’ really good friends –- the banks, oil and gas industry, and private water companies, among others –- have been pushing for this agreement. TISA would allow foreign corporations the same access to domestic markets at “no less favorable” conditions than domestic companies. At the same time it would block local governments’ attempts to regulate, purchase and provide services. Under TISA, privatization of local water systems would be made easier, and fights against privatization would be made harder. Oh, and it could use investor-state dispute resolution to allow foreign companies to sue our local governments if they don’t like our laws and regulations, just like the TPP and TTIP. It’s outrageous!
TISA is really just another effort by large corporations and the big banks that fund them to push an agenda that they can’t get passed through democratic means. It’s part of the same agenda being pushed in the U.S. by the Koch brothers and ALEC. And, with the Supreme Court paving the way for these same companies to pour millions upon millions of dollars into our elections, we need to fight back harder than ever.
Read the report by Public Services International. Then, email your Member of Congress and tell them you oppose fast track trade deals that will undermine our laws and harm our communities and our environment.
Here at Food & Water Watch, we know that profit-driven motives often clash with providing clean, safe drinking water for the public. This is why in Portland we oppose the corporate-funded initiative that attempts to fix what’s not broken. Otherwise known as The Water District Initiative, this proposal would shift the regulatory power of our water and sewer systems to an elected water board, creating a new water district to govern our local drinking water. And while we support local control of our water systems, this water board could allow corporate polluters to shift the costs of pollution they cause onto to the backs of taxpayers.
Currently, the Portland City Council oversees the Portland Water Bureau and the Bureau of Environmental Services – the two agencies responsible for running our sewer and water system. This initiative would remove the authority of these long-standing agencies that have effectively and transparently overseen our water system and hand it over to a potentially inexperienced water board without the proper oversight. Under this initiative, previous employees of the municipal water system wouldn’t be allowed to run for this board, yet someone from a corporation who would stand to benefit from deregulation could.
You may wonder, how this initiative came to be. Well if you follow the money, you’ll see that five giant corporate backers have covered more than 90 percent of the campaign costs. This raises concerns that water board elections could also potentially be bought by these corporate interests. For example, two companies that support this initiative, Portland Bottling Company and major polluter Siltonic, stand to benefit from the creation of a new water board that they could stack with their own handpicked members. Passage of this measure could lower water rates for these major water users and polluters while probably raising them for Portland families. Read the full article…
This week, the U.S. House Transportation & Infrastructure Committee’s special Public-Private Partnership Panel held a roundtable discussion on the use of public-private partnerships (P3s) in water and wastewater systems. I was pleased to represent Food & Water Watch as the only witness critical of these needless corporate get-rich schemes.
Food & Water Watch works to ensure the food, water and fish we consume is safe, accessible and sustainable. So we can all enjoy and trust in what we eat and drink, we help people take charge of where their food comes from, keep clean, affordable, public tap water flowing freely to our homes, protect the environmental quality of oceans, force government to do its job protecting citizens, and educate about the importance of keeping shared resources under public control.