Removing water from the grip of technology, finance, and markets

Removing water from the grip of technology, finance, and markets

By entrusting the management of water to the private sector on a massive scale from the 1990s onwards, states have divested themselves of their capacity to manage this common good, which is essential to life, on behalf of the general public, explains Riccardo Petrella, an Italian economist and political scientist. 

Private water management is praised for its professionalism. Is this a key advantage? 

Riccardo Petrella: If this were true, the Scandinavian countries, at the forefront of social progress, would have been considered inefficient for the last seventy years for having had a quasi-citizen, public management of water, along with land, education, and so on. Considering the ‘professionalism’ of the private sector to be an asset is now utterly rejected. For in the end, what does this private sector competence boil down to, if not technological and industrial deployment at the service of financial interests, indifferent to the vital dimension of water for local populations. 

We often claim that water should be recognised as a commons. Is this enough? 

No. We must also address the issue of its management. As a result of deregulation and globalisation of the economy, the state and its services are increasingly privatised, with powers transferred to private entities. The management of living conditions, which is in the public interest, is therefore beyond the reach of public authorities. Water is essential to life and should be considered a public good to be managed by the community. For what better manager of a resource is there than its own community of beneficiaries? That is why I will not even discuss the interest of citizen governance, but simply its ‘inevitability’. 

But isn’t there now a move to return to local management, in cities and regions? 

Yes, but it can be misleading. Oligopolies have long understood the need to adapt to local specificities. Yet we must not confuse ‘local management’ with ‘citizen alternatives’. If technology, finance, and markets continue to hold sway, we will not move forward. This false ‘local’ approach can thus take refuge behind the implementation of technical standards in areas such as resource protection, wastewater recycling, billing, etc. However, if we remain under the control of patents, for example for water treatment, or if the laws of finance continue to dominate economic models, there is no point talking about participatory and citizen-based water management which benefits local populations.