Who Should Own Our Water?

With two-thirds of the world’s population expected to run short of fresh drinking water by 2025, water has come to be known as “the oil of the 21st century.” Around the world, multinational corporations are parlaying the misery of our water-starved regions into profits for their stockholders and executives.

In the United States, 86 percent of people get their household water services from a public utility. But some members of Congress and local politicians want to see private companies take over more water systems. And public utilities are struggling financially to meet federal clean water standards and to maintain and modernize water systems.

So when cash-strapped communities are unable to make necessary water upgrades, private companies persuade them to sell off their public water systems.  Communities that have experimented with privatization have not found that it solves their water woes.  In fact, many private companies are providing worse service at a higher cost than most public utilities.

Here’s why water privatization fails:

Rates Increase
From Lexington, Kentucky, to Felton, California, and Cochabamba, Bolivia, to Manila, Philippines, corporations have consistently raised customers’ rates after taking control of public systems––often making water unaffordable to the poor.

Water Quality Suffers
The private water industry intensively lobbies government regulators to block higher water-quality standards––which corporations view as costly nuisances.

Customer Service Declines
Customer service is often slashed when private corporations take over. Since German conglomerate RWE bought their system, run by American Water, residents of Felton, California, complain it can take months for service calls to be answered.

Profits Leave Communities
Corporations are free to funnel profits out of communities and into the pockets of distant shareholders and corporate executives, instead of reinvesting money into the water system.

Corruption Breeds, Accountability Diminishes
Privatization lacks the transparency on which our democracy depends. Several corruptions scandals have erupted from water privatization deals that enticed publicly elected officials. Joseph P. Ganim, the mayor of Bridgeport, Conn., was sentenced to nine years in prison in 2003 following a bribery scandal involving a private wastewater operator. Corporations are ultimately accountable to their shareholders, not their customers. They often win exclusive, long–term contracts. And they have a monopoly over information, holding private meetings.

Financing Costs More
Unlike public financing, corporate loans have higher interest rates and are not tax-free, which force customers to pay more for repairs, upgrades and other maintenance.

Jobs are Lost
Corporations often cut costs in benefits, such as health care, retirement benefits massive layoffs. Understaffing jeopardizes customer service and water quality. French conglomerate Veolia bought out experienced workers after taking over Indianapolis’ water system in 2002.

The Poor Lose Access
Water privatization is often a condition for poor countries to receive loans from the World Bank and International Monetary Fund. In Argentina, Bolivia and elsewhere, lucrative corporate contracts have led to higher rates for those lucky enough to still have piped water, while excluding––”red-lining”––neighborhoods with no service.

Water Can be Exported in Bulk or Bottled
Transporting water from water–rich countries to water-poor countries, or bottling water for richer consumers, can create huge profits for corporations but carry disastrous consequences––such as over-extracting aquifers that can never be restored.

Reversal is Difficult
Once a government agency privatizes its water system, withdrawing from the deal borders on the impossible. Proving breach of contract is complicated and costly. In Argentina, the Philippines, Tanzania and elsewhere, water multinationals sued for millions of dollars when contract termination was threatened. This could happen anywhere.

See the Top 10 Reasons to Keep Water Local

Food & Water Watch serves as a clearinghouse for information and an ally in organizing to ensure that water––a public resource––stays in public hands. They provide support for the residents, elected officials, water utility staff, and community leaders who are fighting to protect their water from corporate control. In addition to serving as a clearinghouse for communities facing privatization, they alert public officials and concerned citizens about the economic, social and environmental benefits of local ownership, and the risks of privatization.


Sara Y.
Sara Young6 years ago

The mega blasts with Mountain Top Removal Coal Mining, in an area in WV that had a pristine river and 100 year old wells for the residents drinking water, are now both destroyed!!! People, we are dealing with companies that the only thing they care about is production and money. If we don't stand up and yell to the top of our lungs for the expansion of the Federal Environmental Protection Agency, there will be NO CLEAN WATER, NO HEALTHY FOOD AND NO CLEAN AIR!!!

Sonny Honrado
Sonny Honrado7 years ago

Water indeed is becoming expesive.

Michelle R.
J Thomas7 years ago

I'm not looking forward to the next 20yrs. The more I read the more depressed I get.

Steph Ampallang
Steph Ampallang9 years ago

Big issues in India vs Coca cola and in Bolivan government privitising the water. Water under law is something that cannot be owned. eg in Australian if you dont pay your water bill they cannot turn off your water, only turn they pessure down. Water for years has been an issue in Africa, I hope people think about who important it is. in Denmark we pay to have the water supplied to our hoes and pipes mainted at a cheap price. Forcing people tp pay for rain water or water from river etc is not the same nor is needed.

Addys D.
a D9 years ago

I'm so glad you bring this matter to light. I have read plenty on the shortage of water. What people don't realize is the significance of this: we are looking to two major shortages in the near future, food and water. These seem so petty yet you could wreak havoc when hungry and especially thirsty. It is a sad shame that more people are not educated about this and the dire consequences of the wrong decisions. It all hush, hush...and maybe even tried as a conspiracy theory, when if any human takes a good look around at what is going on, really nothing in this world is making any sense. Water...what a commodity. I am so glad that I own land now and have right to my own well. Until the aquifer is empty, I'd better learn to collect rain water asap. Thank you for the supporting contacts. This way I could be informed of decisions that may arise in my county about any privatization plans for the future. This is a very serious matter, and a very real one. Truly, most people live blind.

Denise Lang
Denise Lang9 years ago

Maybe just THE most important issue for our future. Of course, there's the unjustified war on the Iraqi people, the loss of Habeas Corpus, torture...