riots, rate increases, scandals. From Atlanta to Manila,
cities are confronting the true cost of water privatization.
Jon R. Luoma
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
"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
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
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?