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Free Flowing: How to Keep Our Water Supply Public

Italians have voted not to let private companies take over their public water supply. Our fight in the U.S. is much quieter.

The debate around water privatization has been raging for a while, and the global voice to keep water a public good has been heard loud and clear in the last year or so. Just last month, 96 percent of Italian voters elected to keep their water supply in the public domain. The vote was in reaction to Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi passing a law that would allow private companies to buy up their country's public water utilities.


About 70 million people get their water from privately owned utilities, including almost 1 million people in the United States. Businesses touting water privatization say it's more economically efficient and improves services. But opponents say privatization leads to massive rate increases and snatches away communities' basic rights to keep water the property of all citizens. Whereas most decisions to privatize steamroll any opposition, water strikes a chord because it's so fundamental to our existence and is one of the last resources that belongs to the people.

Thus far, the U.S. has quietly been considering and passing privatization piecemeal rather than with sweeping legislation. As a result, there hasn't been much of a national public outcry, even as local battles get fought every day. The most recent push for privatization has been fueled by a bad economy. In 2010 alone, 39 communities had pending privatization deals, which, if passed, would end up affecting 11 million people. American officials refuse to weigh in on the larger moral issue; when 122 nations in the U.N. decided water was a basic human right, the United States was one of the countries that abstained from voting.

But just because it's slowly happening in the United States doesn't mean water privatization is inevitable. An international grassroots movement has been brewing, and judging by recent outcries in Uruguay, India, South Africa and now Italy, it seems to be having an impact. The dynamic in the States is very different, and reminds me of how our country is chipping away at abortion rights: governments and activists can make a move on policy much more easily if they deal with an issue on a local level rather than in the spotlight of national headlines.

We may not ever have a chance, like Italy did, to definitively weigh in on water privatization. We're also up against intimidating corporate power and a pervasive American faith in the marketplace. But there is a lesson to be learned here: Local involvement is just as important as paying attention to the national headlines. This situation, along with so many other slow "deaths by a thousand cuts" in the United States, is a powerful reminder to stay engaged with our neighborhood's politics.

To find out if your local government is considering privatization, check out this report by Foods & Water Watch.

The World Bank and other international donors often obligate countries to privatize their water systems—or, at a minimum, enter into public-private partnerships—as a prerequisite for investments.The World Bank and other international donors often obligate countries to privatize their water systems—or, at a minimum, enter into public-private partnerships—as a prerequisite for investments.The World Bank and other international donors often obligate countries to privatize their water systems—or, at a minimum, enter into public-private partnerships—as a prerequisite for investmphoto (cc) by Flickr user espensorvik

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