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February 27th, 2012

Soaking the Customer

By Wenonah Hauter

Ruby Williams, a 78-year-old Aqua Pennsylvania customer, got stuck with a $40,000 water bill because of a serious leak in the pipes under her home in Bristol Township, Pennsylvania. After her situation garnered national media attention, the private company agreed to reduce her bill to a few hundred dollars.

Likewise, the Price family of Stallings, North Carolina recently had their sewage service cut off by Aqua North Carolina despite having paid an overdue bill. The company demanded $1,000 to restore it — hundreds of dollars more than the actual cost to do the work. Again, thanks to bad publicity and public outrage, Aqua backed down.

It’s not just American consumers that feel the pinch as our municipal water systems change from public to private hands — and it’s not just that Aqua America is one bad actor, either. Private interests worldwide increasingly control our water. Too often, customers are getting a raw deal.

Nestlé, Veolia, and Suez Environnement are just a few of the multinational corporations that either provide water services to our homes, bottle our communities’ spring water, or otherwise control the vast amounts of water needed to power our industries. All of us, like Ruby Williams and the Price family, will pay the price — unless we stop allowing them to turn our water into a commodity that they can exploit, and instead force our governments to do their jobs and protect our water resources.

Many economists, market-oriented environmentalists, and think tanks say we should let the market decide when it comes to water provision. They say that the higher the market value of water becomes, the more likely it is that people will use it wisely. That’s a thorny proposition for a public resource that has no substitution and that is essential for human life. As consumers have seen, market forces can create untenable burdens by driving up water rates.

At the most extreme, companies cornering the water market will price out the poor. As the planet’s population (7 billion and counting) and industrial development increases, entire freshwater lakes disappear, groundwater resources are drawn down, and technologies — including chemicals used in fossil fuel extraction — pollute water supplies. It doesn’t take a brilliant economist to recognize that water will become more valuable. That means the companies that control it will become richer. Nearly 1 billion people worldwide already lack access to clean water and sanitation. Their numbers will increase.

It’s wrong to let the private sector drive water policy. But it’s already beginning to happen. This trend will be on full display in France at the World Water Forum, which begins March 12. Many of the same companies that increasingly control our water will be holding a corporate trade show disguised as a multi-stakeholder forum to create solutions for providing water to the world’s poor. Letting the private sector take the lead on these efforts is like letting the fox guard the henhouse.

After all, as consumers time and time again have experienced, corporations in the water business are accountable primarily to their shareholders, not the people they serve or the localities in which they operate. Conversely, public officials can be voted out if their constituents don’t like the services rendered.

All people deserve access to an adequate supply of clean water. Profits reaped from water services should be reinvested in the local community, not pocketed by shareholders half a world away. It’s in the public interest.

Wenonah Hauter is Executive Director of Food & Water Watch. This article was originally published by Other Words.

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