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Water Rights are Civil Rights and Civil Rights are Human Rights

The lack of accountability for privatized water companies leaves room for significant environmental damage.

by Molly Bangs
Apr 27 2017, 6:00pm

Photo via Flickr user Steve Johnson

An April 20, 2017 press conference in Atlantic City, New Jersey was held to protest the state's planned privatization of the city's water utility company and to advocate for its citizens' right to public referendums. Speakers included Cornell William Brooks, president of the NAACP, as well as Mary Grant, expert from Food & Water Watch. Brooks posed a simple question to the crowd in the city's council chambers: "Why is the NAACP here in Atlantic City? Because we understand water rights are civil rights and civil rights are human rights."

Private companies have aggressively purchased water systems from municipalities before in cities like Bayonne, New Jersey and Scranton, Pennsylvania. Grant spoke to me about the detrimental effects of switching to privately owned water systems, which include the "loss of local control over rate, type of project, and transparency."

"We've witnessed mass water shut-offs in cities like Detroit, and these privately owned water companies are not subject to Freedom of Information Act requests or held accountable to anyone but themselves," Grant said.

This lack of accountability for privatized water companies leaves room for significant environmental damage.

Science journalist Jeneen Interlandi wrote in Newsweek, "private operators often reduce the workforce, neglect water conservation, and shift the cost of environmental violations onto the city. For example, when two Veolia-operated plants spilled millions of gallons of sewage into San Francisco Bay, at least one city was forced to make multimillion-dollar upgrades to the offending sewage plant. (Veolia has defended its record.)"

Food & Water Watch has found that publicly owned water systems more actively promote water conservation than private companies do, as demonstrated during droughts in California. Grant agreed that conservation issues as a whole are problematic with privately-owned water systems, adding, "Private companies are less likely to pursue green infrastructure projects."

In fact, they actively use infrastructure damaging to the environment instead, as was seen with United Water's attempt to build desalination plants in Rockland County, New York. Desalination plants harm wildlife, are energy inefficient, produce excessive wastewater, and negatively impact water quality.

Ecosystems critical to our drinking water supply, like watershed land, have also been put in harm's way due to privatization: In the 1980s, private company United Water sold off so much watershed land in Bergen County, New Jersey, that it triggered the passage of the state's Watershed Protection Act. United was ultimately charged with 165 violations of the act.

Environmental justice—though certainly not limited to the privatization of water systems, as demonstrated by Flint, Michigan (which has a publicly owned system)—comes into play here.

As political scientist Jessica Trounstine wrote for the Washington Post, "If Flint had been mostly white and mostly well off, it is possible that the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality and governor would have listened more attentively [to the warning signs of the water crisis]. But what's even more likely is that the deep financial woes that led to this series of disastrous choices would never have taken place."

Simply put, too often, it is low-income communities and people of color who feel the brunt of environmental, health, and financial effects of water companies' malpractices.

I asked Grant if private companies target low-income communities. She answered that while it does depend on the contract at hand, she does know of certain companies that "have explicitly targeted towns with budget deficits." In 2010, Don Correll, then-CEO of American Water, told his investors that the recession paired with crumbling water system infrastructure presented golden opportunities for privatization.

In the United States, we know that there is a stubborn racial income gap. These socioeconomic disparities, the most dramatic for black and Hispanic families, are largely due to institutionalized racism in U.S. policy on everything from housing to education. And such demographics correlate with municipal budget deficits: a 2016 study from the John S. Watson Institute for Public Policy of Thomas Edison State University wrote:

In the same way that concentrated poverty contributes to multi-generational structural poverty for individuals and families, that same concentrated poverty creates structural conditions for municipalities that practically guarantees year after year of budget deficits, [and] fiscal distress.

By contrast to these areas of concentrated poverty, many of the largest, wealthiest cities in the United States -- like New York and San Francisco -- operate with thriving public water systems, having seized control of previously privatized water systems in the nineteenth century, largely due to health concerns.

There's been an uptick of municipalities purchasing private systems in recent years, but with the world's water supply decreasing, holding those governing our water systems accountable is more important than ever. The clock is ticking for Americans and the ecosystems on which they rely.

To learn more about the demographic trends of privatization, read Food & Water Watch's most recent report on water; to advocate against environmental damage caused by poor water governance, interact with The Nature Conservancy's resources on watershed areas and water conservation.

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Food & Water Watch