With thousands of households in Detroit and Baltimore facing water service shutoffs, and a drought looming over California, it might not seem like there’s much good news in the world of water these days. But the recent publication of Our Public Water Future: The Global Experience of Remunicipalisation highlights the advances made in communities around the globe to take back water as a public good, and reminds us that that we can and should enjoy unfettered access to safe, clean, affordable water, as long as it’s managed as a common resource, not a commodity exploited by corporations.
What is remunicipalization, exactly? It’s when a community resumes public operation and management of its water system, often after private operation has failed customers in some way. We’ve documented at length the problems experienced by customers of privatized water systems—higher rates, poor service and lack of accountability being some of the most egregious examples. It’s no wonder then that many communities opt to reclaim control of their drinking and wastewater systems.
According to the book, over the past 15 years, 235 communities in 37 countries have remunicipalized their water systems, affecting some 100 million people. The number of remunicipalization cases doubled in this period, compared to the first decade of this century. As my colleague Mary Grant noted in a chapter she contributed to the book, water privatization is actually pretty rare in the United States—as of 2012, only six percent of local governments contract their drinking or wastewater services to private, for-profit entities. Since 2000, major water companies have lost 169 contracts in the United States.
Why do communities choose to remunicipalize? The main motivations are to save money, improve service and ensure that resources are better managed. A Food & Water Watch survey of 18 communities that remunicipalized their water services between 2007 and 2010 found that public operation saved an average of 21 percent.
This was certainly the case in Fairfield and Suisun, California. After three decades of private operation, the towns, which shared a wastewater system, decided to terminate their contract with United Water. While a desire to cut costs played a big part in the decision, the district also learned that public control of the system would increase efficiency by attracting and retaining more qualified personnel. Since regaining control of the system, the district has increased the number of wastewater employees on staff, cut costs by seven percent and saved taxpayers $1.3 million.
While some cash-strapped cities consider selling or leasing their water systems in order to address budget shortfalls, they should pay close attention to their counterparts that have rejected private operation and returned to public control. In reality, municipalities pay more for privatized service, and can achieve cost savings that simply aren’t possible under private operation. Private drinking and wastewater providers don’t enter the business just to provide a service—they’re in it for the money.
Public operation eliminates this profit-mongering, as well as the overhead expenses associated with negotiating and monitoring complicated contracts. Moreover, publicly run utilities reinvest the money they receive from collecting on water bills, reinvesting that capital where it’s most needed—back into the communities they serve.
For more information on remunicipalization, or to reclaim control of your community water system, check out Food & Water Watch’s Municipalization Guide. To learn more about global efforts to take back water systems, read Our Public Water Future: The Global Experience of Remunicipalisation.