There are two kinds of citizens in Europe. Human beings, and ‘PIGS’. The human beings are hard working people who pay their dues, and who in turn are entitled to human rights. The pigs on the other hand can have their wages and pensions cut by half and have their education, health and future auctioned off to the lowest bidder. Not only, as far as the European Commission is concerned, they don’t even have a basic right to drinking water any more.
I had to look really hard to find information on this, because apparently none of the major papers thought it was news. Despite the European Commission’s official neutral stance on the subject, the troika is pushing for privatisation of drinking water as a condition for countries to be bailed out. The North Central Pennsylvania Gazette reported on it, aside from consumer protection groups like Food and Water Watch and the Corporate Europe Observatory.
Corporate lobbies have been campaigning for decades to privatise everything privatisable, including water. Their justification has always been that privatisation would lead to better quality services at lower prices. In case of natural monopolies, the practice has always turned out to be the complete opposite. So now they are targeting public utilities in bankrupt countries, arguing that privatisation (at ridiculously low prices) is necessary, because otherwise the government won’t have any money for salaries and pensions.
In March of this year a case study on austerity and privatisation in Europe was published. It was entitled ‘Our Right to Water’, and it was commissioned by Canadian based movement ‘Blue Planet Project’. Not surprisingly, the rapport is far from objective. But it makes for interesting reading, that is, if you like horror stories.
It focuses on the result of (partial) water privatisation in Portugal, Italy, Greece, Spain and Bulgaria. It’s the same story over and over again. I’ll give you some highlights.
When the communist regime in Bulgaria fell, the public water system was losing roughly twenty percent of all water in the pipes. At the end of the roaring nineties, through lack of maintenance, this had gone up to about 60%. To get rid of the problem and to make some money on the side, the government sold the Sofia Water Company (Sofijska Voda) in 2000 to ‘United Utilities’, one of the obscure English corporations that popped up after Thatcher’s privatisation orgy of the 1980s.
The price of water in Sofia has more than tripled in a decade, contrary to the promises of the company. Another promise that wasn’t kept was the proposed reduction of water loses from 60 to 25%. As of 2011, the losses in the pipes were still as high as ever. Only in cases of emergency does the company actually invest in maintenance.
Lack of financial transparency, corruption, fraud, and excessive remuneration of the management have been typical of Sofijska Voda in the 2000s. The company’s CEO received a wage of over 400.000 euro annually. Managers would normally make 25.000 euros a month, against average wages in Sofia being around 500 euros.
At the same time the company sued five thousand Bulgarian families, because they were unable to pay their water bill. In early 2012, 370 families were evicted from their homes.
By that time, United Utilities had sold its share in Sofijska Voda to another water vulture, Veolia.
Revenues of United Utilities in 2012 were over 1.5 billion pounds.
In Greece, water has been partially privatised in Thessaloniki and Athens. French multinational Suez took a share in the Thessaloniki aquaduct. Prices have since went up 300%, while the water quality has deteriorated to such a degree that it became a health risk and many people had to resort to bottled water for drinking purposes.
Initially there was a lot resistance against the privatisation among the employees, but when the company announced that they were doubling workers’ salaries, they were happy to drop all their objections. After that, the work force was phased out and reduced, and the bill for the raise in wages was more than paid for by the consumers.
Privatisations of other aquaducts in Greece are under way under pressure from the troika.
In Portugal, authorities have started to concentrate the municipal water companies into large scale national enterprises since the 1990s. It makes it easier for them to be privatised, step by step, starting with concessions for the exploitation of hydrographical basins, river beds, infrastructure etc. At the same time, public drinking fountains have been closed. This villainous practice is common all over southern Europe. During the scorching summers, you will be lucky if you can still find a public fountain that hasn’t run dry.
In Italy, during the 1990s all municipal water suppliers were forced to reorganise as SpA’s (joint stock companies), some of whom would be completely private, others would continue to be publicly owned. In both cases, there was a change in view from water as a public utility and human right, to water as profit. The numbers tell the story. From 1997 to 2006, water prices increased 60 percent, while investments in the aquaducts fell with a whopping 70 percent.
Spain boasts one of the best functioning public water systems of Europe, the Canal Isabel II which supplies Madrid. Destroying something so beautiful is a temptation that no water privateer can resist. And the same goes for all the people in politics who are set to make a good buck out of it. Like they are doing with health care, the government has started to privatise the aquaduct one step at a time, in complete opacity. No-one knows exactly to whom it’s being sold out to, but you can rest assured that the benefits will stay ‘in the family’.
This is the bad news, a very small part of it. But there is also some good news. A year and a half ago, in a referendum that was completely ignored by the media, the Italians voted 96% against privatisation of water (with 57% of the electorate showing up). In 2006, a country with a very particular relationship to water – Holland – has banned privatisation of water by law. Similar legislation was passed in Uruguay. And back in 2000, the people of Cochabamba, Bolivia, successfully rose up when the government tried to sell off their water to American multinational Bechtel.
The sad fact is that human rights and freedoms are not forever. They can be sold out. Everything can be sold out, but only if we allow it to happen, only if we don’t fight back. If you allow corporations to treat certain human beings like pigs, then one day soon, you will be treated like a pig as well.
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