On Tuesday, Baltimore became the first big city in the country to ban water privatization. With a huge margin of victory — 77 percent of voters approved the charter amendment — Baltimore residents declared their water system to be a permanent, inalienable asset of the city. No corporation can take the water and sewer system away from the city. This is a historic victory for local control of water.
Baltimore offers a model for the nation on how to protect local control of essential public services. This measure provides a framework for cities to prevent the sale and lease of their water and sewer systems to outside interests.
When corporations run water systems, they have one primary goal — profit. They don’t have altruistic aspirations of ensuring that everyone has equitable access to safe and affordable water. Many communities that have privatized their water have experienced skyrocketing rates, job losses, or worse service. And this burden falls hardest on working families, poor people, and communities of color.
Baltimore’s charter amendment had full support from the entire city council (it was shepherded by Council President Jack Young to get it on the ballot in time) and it was first proposed and later signed by Mayor Catherine Pugh. Baltimore’s elected officials recognized the importance of preserving public control of this critical resource, but the grassroots-powered movement is what inspired and educated voters about this measure.
Food & Water Watch worked with the campaign committee Keep Baltimore’s Water Public along with labor unions and community groups, including the City Union of Baltimore, AFT-Maryland, AFSCME Local 67, Jews United for Justice, Maryland Working Families, and many other partners. We knocked on doors, called voters, and talked with people at the polls to explain the importance of the ballot question.
For at least 25 years, corporations have sought control of Baltimore’s water system. But now the city has responded with a resounding “No.”
Water companies have approached almost every new mayor and public works director. Most recently, French multinational company Suez and Wall Street firm KKR have aggressively pitched Baltimore officials on a long-term lease of the utility. The companies offered up-front cash for long-term control of Baltimore’s public water system. That upfront money was nothing short of an expensive loan that residents would repay through hikes in their water bills. By passing Question E, Baltimore has outsmarted predatory private companies, stopped these schemes, and protected its water system from extreme privatization deals.
Baltimore is the first U.S. city to amend its charter — the city's constitution — to prohibit water privatization. And it is part of a global water justice movement to realize the human right to water. In 2004, Uruguay voters amended their constitution to become the first country to ban water privatization. Around the globe, cities have committed to keep water services in public control, most recently Berlin and three other German cities.
Baltimore voters too have chosen to resist pressure to sell and outsource one of the most vital and precious resources they have. They have protected public control, accountability, and transparency of their water.
Now that privatization is out of the picture, Baltimore can work to improve the accountability and affordability of the water system and ensure every person in the city has access to safe and affordable water service. Food & Water Watch looks forward to working with other cities to protect their water systems from corporate control and lifting up Baltimore as a model for water justice for the nation.