Water Should Be a Public Good, Not a Commodity. Catalonia Is Showing How

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Yves here. Some readers have asked for more positive stories on how to move forward with agendas that advance the interests of citizens at large, as opposed to corporations and the super wealthy. Given the ongoing and too often successful efforts to privatize water supplies, Catalonia is an important case study of how to reverse this tendency.

One reasons we don’t feature much in the visionary future-oriented category is that a lot of the proposals show a lack of understanding of the complexity of the issues, and address only part of the problem (and then often the easiest part). Or they make a decent enough stab at defining the terrain, but then engage in “Assume a can opener” level remedies.

Having said that, while this post on water is useful, I wish it had spent more time describing how the various activists were able to achieve this win. And I’d very much like to get comments from readers in Spain as to how it works. The administrative structure looks complex, and that may be a deliberate choice to impede capture by the professionals who will run the water works. That may not be a bad thing with a utility, since there should not be that many decisions to make on a daily or even monthly basis.

By Míriam Planas, an activist with Engineering Without Borders in Catalonia and spokesperson for L’Aigua és Vida (Water is Life), an organisation that campaigns to remunicipalise water in the Barcelona region and bring it back into public control, and Juan Martínez, a member of the Taula de l’Aigua de Terrassa and becomes the president of the Terrassa Water Observatory, designated by the Plenary. Originally published at openDemocracy

Despite being a public good, water is often treated as a commodity. While some argue that privatisation of water increases efficiency and improves the quality of water services, the negative effects in terms of loss of accountability, poor performance, and elevated utility costs are well documented. As the corona virus makes its way into poor and vulnerable communities, we are yet again reminded of the devastating impact that these have on people’s lives. When your ability to protect yourself from infectious disease is determined by your access to safe and affordable water, water service provision is not a matter of convenience – it is a matter of life and death. Worldwide, civil society organisations (CSOs) and grassroots movements therefore argue that water management should not be handled by private companies. Instead, water services and policy need to be democratised and placed under public control.

This is not always an easy task, but in Catalonia, years of hard work has paid off. The movement to remunicipalise water supply in the region has grown slowly and steadily over the past decade, thanks to the Aigua és Vida(Water is Life) platforms that many local groups set up since 2011. Local platforms such as Aigua és VidaGironaand Tauladel’AiguadeTerrassahave also emerged. After successful remunicipalisation, the Terrassa Water Observatory was established in 2018 – a dedicated citizen organisation that guides strategic decisions affecting Terressa’s water management. The Observatory has now become a point of reference for other municipalities that wish to build new forms of water governance.

Recovering Ownership of Water Services in Terrassa

Terrassa is a relatively large municipality (more than 200,000 residents) located some 20 kilometers away from the city of Barcelona. Although its water supply services are now managed by a public enterprise that is 100 per cent owned by the municipal government, the municipality’s support of public water ownership is quite recent. Before 2016, the water supply services in Terressa were managed by the private company MinaPúblicadeAguasdeTerrassa,S.A. This company was awarded its concessions in 1941 and had thus run the water services for over seven decades before the pro-public platform Tauladel’AiguadeTerrassastarted to push for a non-renewal of the concessions in 2013.

Together with other local networks,Tauladel’AiguadeTerrassalaunched a 2015 campaign called ‘Social Pact for Public Water’ that focused on public, participatory management of the entire water cycle. The campaign was a great success. In 2016, the Terrassa City Council decided to reclaim control over the water supply not only by creating a new public enterprise, but also by establishing a whole new water management body – the Terressa Water Observatory (Observatorio del Agua de Terrassa). What is the Observatory? It’s for water management to be truly participatory and to ensure citizen decision-making power. Users can discuss their water concerns and make collective recommendations to the public water company – Taigua, Aigua Municipal de Terrassa.

The Observatory as a Forum for Collaboration

The Terrassa Water Observatory was based on the model of the Citizen Parliament of Terrassa, a forum that promotes debate and agreements pushed by citizens for consideration by local government. As an autonomous organisation, the Observatory is responsible for carrying out studies and advising the Terressa City Council on all matters related to municipal water management.

The Observatory’s highest governing body – the Plenary – is composed of representatives from each political group in the municipality and representatives of technical staff, business, community groups, and unions. Both the elected president and the Plenary itself can invite people from outside the Observatory (with no voting rights) to enrich the debate and discussion on any specific issue. In addition to this, there are six working groups and three collaborative boards that work to implement the Plenary’s work plan. The working groups are open to everyone from civil society who wishes to contribute. The three boards (on education, research and citizenship) act as interest groups and help strengthen the Observatory’s role and influence by being the central point of communication between community groups, universities, and the Observatory. Although its organisational structure is quite complicated, it also enhances its consensus-building capacity and gives it a high level of legitimacy.

The organisational structure of Terrassa Water Observatory

Moving Forward – A Model for Management?

Since the Observatory water management model is relatively new, there is still a lot to tease out. There is significant public support for the Observatory in Terressa, but also ongoing debates about the different actors’ involvement: what are the roles and responsibilities of the local government and the public water operator? How should information be managed? Where and how does coordination take place?

Answering these questions will require time and effort coupled with a good portion of patience. Building collaborative water governance is not done in a trice. However, in a region where eighty-four per cent of people depend on a private company for their water supply, the Terrassa Water Observatory represents more than a body that ensures that citizens have a say in the production of policy. It also represents a new political culture, where recovering public water management means actively fostering social empowerment. This is clear when looking at the tangible results such as training proposals for educational activities within schools that the Observatory has produced in only a matter of months.

Evidently, the Observatory’s work both depends on and strengthens people’s level of engagement. Promoting active citizenship, this provides yet another reason why we should look to Terrassa. In a time of crisis, we are now more than ever in need of good examples of how citizens can take the lead in the management of common goods.

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  1. jackiebass

    The same arguments are used to privatize everything. When privatization of something is later studies most studies show that in most cases it falls on its face. In aa few cases privatization is better but in the vast majority of cases it doesn’t live up to its claims. Smaller government advocates use privatization to make government smaller. The reality is that making government smaller is a con job. The goal is to transfer public assets to the private sector at bargain basement prices. After businesses loot something they return to taxpayers to fix. It’s really theft and no different from robbing a bank.

  2. The Rev Kev

    People in Spain may wish to weigh in but I wonder if the droughts that hit Barcelona over the past decade or so drove the desire to put water back into public hands once again. Back in 2008 Barcelona nearly ran out of water and they had to pump it in from France. Rain was very low in 2017 too which was almost as bad as the 2008 drought. If private companies sought to take advantage of these drought (perish the thought!) this may have been the thing to break the 80-year hold that private companies had on water-


  3. Off The Street

    On the topic of water games, I have boycotted any and all Nestlé products for years, and not just because of their water grabs in the US. I’m watching for the next news in California about how Cadiz is going to do something to the detriment of water drinkers everywhere.

    Fever-induced hallucination – GW Bush and his extended family hand over their aquifer in South America to a public and transparent trust as partial settlement of crimes, publicized or otherwise, where their family members and operatives were involved.

  4. McWatt

    Here in a Chicago, Illinois suburb we buy our water from Chicago. Currently the Lake Michigan water level is so high that the water is washing over lake front hiking and biking trails and damaging riparian homes. A few years ago our suburb started using their Water Dept. billing as a way to help balance their budget so rates have gone through the roof. One of my bills use to be 285.00 per quarter is now 900.00. We haven’t been able to afford to even water our garden any longer. I am imagining this is the same for many people.

    Water should not be used as a revenue stream for municipalities.

  5. Off The Street

    Good news about what most people think is another public good.
    ICANN rejected the sale of its .org directory.

  6. DJG

    I note that the concession for the Terrassa water management company was given in 1941. This would have been part of the consolidation of the Franco dictatorship after the triump of the Falange in late 1939. The fall of Barcelona and Catalunya had happened earlier in the year.

    As described in Wikipedia (and in case you are wondering about Catalan nationalist tendencies):
    “On January 24 [1939] Garcia Valiño occupied Manresa,[29] and on January 25 the Nationalist vanguard occupied the Tibidabo in the outskirts of Barcelona. The Nationalists finally occupied Barcelona on January 26,[30] and there were five days of looting by the Yagüe’s Regulares[31] and extrajudicial killings (paseos).[32]

    And then the Catalan language was put under a ban.

    Manresa is just north of Terrassa.

    Most likely, the municipality would have owned water services under the Spanish Republic, and during the early stages of the Spanish Civil War, such public works were nationalized. So the Falange was making a point of undoing the work of the Republic. (And as noted here at Naked Capitalism more than once, the efforts of the right, and specifically of fascism, always entail extensive privatization of public goods.)

  7. Dick Swenson

    If you want an interesting discussion of water, watch Planet of the Humans. It has a discussion of the irrigation of the area east of Phoenix that is sucking the aquifer dry, Apparently this area is a set of farms behind fences. It is owned by Saudis. The same Saudis apparently ruined a major area of Saudi Arabia some years ago using the same practices.

    The movie, available on Youtube, is pointed at the hypocrisy of many environmental groups and individuals. Its message is that the earth has a limited carrying capacity and we have already exceded tthat capacity in human terms. But the same is true for water.

    Note that this was the message of the Club of Rome in 1968. Sorry to be so negative, but we are doomed.

    1. rob

      The saudi owned farms of the US southwest were a story a decade ago plus some…
      the irony is/was that at the same time all the “wars” against “terror” were chasing a “tail” of a dog on the hunt… right under our noses…
      While the population was watching “fake” wars…. and told to worry..
      the royal family and friends were able to produce food stuffs… and “get the water for free”..
      Pumping out water in 36″ mains… 24 hrs a day….
      What water supply? it ain’t our water supply….Why should we not water the desert with it…is what they were saying..

    1. BlakeFelix

      When I was in California I think that the farm I was on had to buy the rain that fell on their own farm. The previous owner had sold it.

  8. Tekyo Pantzov

    I think re-municipalizing the water supply is an excellent idea. The recent trend toward privatizing public services like transportation and water, handing them over to global corporations and letting them rip off the citizens has been a disaster.
    However discussions on such matters are not helped by using the wrong terminology, as this article does when it falsely claims that water is a public good. In economics a public good is defined as a good that is both non-excludable and non-rivalrous. In other words (1) there’s no way to make people pay for it because you can’t prevent non-payers from consuming it, and (2) by consuming more of it I am not reducing anyone else’s consumption. Typical examples are air and sunlight.
    Traditionally the term applied to universal health care, universal postal service and guaranteed municipal water supply has been “public service”, but in the US that term was replaced in part by “utility”, which does not imply either public ownership or the aim of satisfying the population’s needs instead of selling a merchandise for profit.
    In any case they had better come up with a new word for it pronto, because “public good” doesn’t do the trick.

  9. rd

    NYC is an excellent example of water as a public good. It controls a significant watershed in the Catskills and has a complex reservoir and pipe system to deliver world-class water to NYC. Irrigation isn’t a big water user in the Northeast, so the water is used by individuals, commercial buildings, and industry.

    California has similar systems but they are largely captured by the agriculture community so the water is largely used to grow almonds, alfalfa, rice etc. in a desert.

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