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Great Lakes Article:

Water for Profit
Contamination, riots, rate increases, scandals. From Atlanta to Manila, cities are confronting the true cost of water privatization.
Mother Jones Magazine

Even before the water turned brown, Gordon Certain had plenty to worry about. With his north Atlanta neighborhood in the middle of a growth boom, the president of the North Buckhead Civic Association had been busy fielding complaints about traffic, a sewer tunnel being built near a nature preserve, and developers razing tidy postwar ranch homes to make room for mansions. But nothing compared to the volume of calls and emails that flooded Certain's home office in May, when Georgia's environmental protection agency issued an alert to North Buckhead residents: Their tap water, the agency warned, wasn't safe to drink unless they boiled it first. Some neighbors, Certain recalls, had just fed formula to their baby when they heard the alert.

"I had parents calling me in tears," he says. "The things that have happened to the water here have sure scared the hell out of a lot of people." A month later, another "boil water" alert came; this time, when Certain turned on his own tap, the liquid that gushed out was the color of rust, with bits of debris floating in it.

Atlanta's water service had never been without its critics; there had always been complaints about slow repairs and erroneous water bills. But the problems intensified three years ago, says Certain, after one of the world's largest private water companies took over the municipal system and promised to turn it into an "international showcase" for public-private partnerships. Instead of ushering in a new era of trouble-free drinking water, Atlanta's experiment with privatization has brought a host of new problems. This year there have been five boil-water alerts, indicating unsafe contaminants might be present. Fire hydrants have been useless for months. Leaking water mains have gone unrepaired for weeks. Despite all of this, the city's contractor -- United Water, a subsidiary of French-based multinational Suez -- has lobbied the City Council to add millions more to its $21-million-a-year contract.

Atlanta's experience has become Exhibit A in a heated controversy over the push by a rapidly growing global water industry to take over public water systems. At the heart of the debate are two questions: Should water, a basic necessity for human survival, be controlled by for-profit interests? And can multinational companies actually deliver on what they promise -- better service and safe, affordable water?

The complete version of Water for Profit can be read in the November/December, 2002 issue of Mother Jones magazine.


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