Would You Rather Get Your Water From Your City Government – or From a Corporation?

Demonstrators protest thousands of residential water-service shutoffs in Detroit during a July rally outside City Hall. (AP Photo)

Michelle Chen

In this uncertain economy, whether you think the glass is half full or half empty, you probably take for granted the fact you can fill it by turning on the tap. Last summer, that basic service vanished for Detroit’s working-class households: neighborhoods awoke to the humiliating reality that in the world’s richest nation, this impoverished city’s water had run dry–the city’s stopgap “emergency” response to fiscal collapse.

Detroit’s devastation seems freakish, but we may soon see more resource crises nationwide if pro-business officials decide water isn’t so much an essential entitlement as a commodity to be traded like corn and crude oil. According to research by Corporate Accountability International(CAI), the experience of dozens of communities that have experimented with privatizing their water infrastructures illustrates the danger of prioritizing cost concerns over human rights.

Water privatization in poorer countries has been criticized for leading to exploitation and destabilization of local infrastructures, particularly under “free trade” systems that encourage pro-market reforms. But in US cities too, water systems are being bled by market forces. And in nations rich and poor, when water is corporatized, CAI warns, injustice tends to flow freely:

Private water corporations frame water in business terms, placing economic outcomes over social objectives, preventing prioritization of the poor and vulnerable. Treating water as a mere commodity also relegates it to the whims of the market and bypasses the accountability and transparency of the public sector.

But the cruel effects of water commodification are felt worldwide. With the water shutdown, Detroit exhibited the sort of neoliberal politics that foster both “austerity” and the usual policy response–privatization. When the water got shut down last summer–collectively punishing supposedly “delinquent” customers who were behind on their bills–CAI and community groups expressed fears about the city’s move to consult with a premiere water multinational, Veolia, about revamping the water system and cutting costs. CAI Media Director Jesse Bragg believes Veolia may be looking to seize control of its public water infrastructure, as it has done in other regions, and that with Detroit’s finances in a desperate state, “Veolia may recommend privatization and use this contract as a foot in the door.”

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