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LATIN AMERICA: Social Front Against Water Privatisation

Fabiana Frayssinet

RIO DE JANEIRO, Jul 27 2011 (IPS) - Civil society organisations in Latin America have begun to coordinate joint actions in the region to curb what they see as a tendency towards privatisation, while protesting what they call a range of “subtle” ways of undermining public control of water.

Although they admit that the trend towards private management of water resources is not yet completely clear, the organisations “are working on that debate,” Catholic priest Nelito Dornelas, adviser to Brazil’s national bishops’ conference, told IPS at a National Forum on Climate Change held last week.

What is clear is that there are many specific situations in each country tending towards that end, according to the organisers of the International Seminar on the Political Panorama of Water Privatisation Strategies in Latin America, held Jul. 20-21 at the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro.

“There is a water privatisation strategy underway in Brazil, similar to what happened with electricity when rates went up around 400 percent after privatisation,” the Movement of Dam-Affected People (MAB) stated.

“We have to mobilise people around this debate,” Dornelas said.

Participants in the seminar said that what is needed is a referendum in countries of the region, like the one held in 2004 in Uruguay, in which voters approved a constitutional reform that defined water as a public good, or the latest one in Italy, in which 95 percent of voters rejected the privatisation of the management of water services.

Today Latin America has the strongest public ownership of natural resources of any region, and for that reason it is important to begin to mobilise in order to preserve that wealth, MAB national coordinator Rogerio Hohn told IPS.

The seminar “sought to prompt broad debate among the organisations of each country, in order to come up with joint solutions,” he said.

MAB says the privatisation of water is taking on different “subtle” shapes, such as putting the administration of water into the hands of municipal authorities, to debilitate negotiations at a national level; charging for its use; or seizing control over water in sectors like agriculture, mining or sanitation companies.

“Even hydropower dams are a form of privatising water, because not only energy is sold, but also the water in the reservoirs,” said Hohn.

Brazil’s Environment Minister Izabella Teixeira drew attention to one aspect of the national report on availability and quality of water, recently presented by the national water regulatory agency, ANA.

The study shows that 69 percent of water used in Brazil goes towards crop and pasture irrigation, and that more than 90 percent of this proportion is used by the private sector.

“We have to see whether those irrigation zones are in areas that are vulnerable in terms of water supply, in order to ensure agricultural production in the future, or change the use of the land in those areas,” said Teixeira.

The report, which the administration of leftwing President Dilma Rousseff will use as the basis for the implementation of water management policies, states that livestock accounts for 12 percent of the 69 percent of water that goes to agriculture. Consumption in cities, meanwhile, accounts for 10 percent of total water use, and industry accounts for seven percent.

Brazil is home to the world’s largest reserves of fresh water: 11.6 percent of the planet’s total and 53 percent of South America’s water.

According to the ANA study, Brazil has 34 million litres of water resources per capita – supplies that could shrink if privatisation of water moves forward, according to Edson Aparecido da Silva, coordinator of the National Front for Environmental Sanitation.

In an interview with IPS, Aparecido da Silva explained that in Brazil, sanitation services are still mainly public, with only nine million people in this country of 191 million served by private sanitation companies.

However, private sanitation services have shown that “in a short time they can expand sanitation, by around 30 percent of the population.”

“In other words, we are facing a constant threat of further privatisation,” he added.

That process runs counter to the tendency in countries like Argentina, Germany, France and Italy, where public control is being reasserted over sanitation services, da Silva said.

Services “that were private are being returned to public hands because governments saw that costs for the public were rising and that many citizens were being excluded from coverage, especially in the poorest countries,” he said.

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