Locals fight to burst water bubble

Towns rebel against their cash-strapped governments' plans for privatization

In the town of Candeleda, in Ávila province, the rumors are flowing about what will happen to the water that runs along the open channels on some of its cobbled streets. The Popular Party-governed town hall has plans to privatize the management of the water supply, which here forms a central part of local life. Without setting foot outside this town at the foot of the Gredos Mountains, you can visit the gorge that supplies its 5,200 inhabitants with water and forms a popular bathing spot every summer.

It is a decision that residents have met with protests. "Water is not for sale, but to be defended," read the badges and placards of the almost 150 locals who congregated in the town hall on January 9, while their politicians debated a moratorium on the issue, which was rejected.

Some of the protestors argued they were victims of the "water bubble," in reference to the growing number of towns that are handing over the management of their local supply to large companies for long periods in exchange for an annual levy or investment in infrastructure.

The growth of this bubble has been repeatedly condemned by the Spanish Association of Public Supply and Sanitation Operators (Aeopas), which calculates that the management of the water supply in 50 percent of Spanish towns is entirely in private hands - from collection and purification, to the tap. In 80 percent of cases, they belong to companies run by Fomento de Construcciones y Contratas (FCC) and Grupo Agbar.

Local governments have no funds to deal with expenses.  Water services are the last jewel"

"The construction boom is over and they lack money," says Luis Babiano, manager of Aeopas. "Local governments have no funds to deal with expenses, investments and commitments. The solution they propose is to sell what they can. Water services are the last jewel. Companies move into a market in which there is no local competition and there is a guaranteed customer."

In Candeleda, the spokeswoman for the local platform against town-planning speculation, Pilar de Diego, says that "managing the water creates profits, it doesn't make sense for them to privatize it." She cites data supplied to the Finance Ministry from the town hall itself saying that water management earned it 36,000 euros in 2011, over 44,000 euros in 2010 and 94,600 euros in 2009.

Loss of control

But Mayor José María Monforte says the figures do not include indirect expenses such as those for tarmac, when a street is dug up to make repairs. The town hall does not have the money to run the service or make the necessary investment - "around eight or nine million euros" - he says.

The conditions of the tender hand the management of the local water supply over to the successful company for 30 years and stipulate an investment of 500,000 euros for constructing and improving infrastructure - a long way from the eight or nine million cited by Monforte.

Seventy-five percent of the investment must be made in the first two years and the rest within five years. "What will happen in the other 25 years?" asks the town's former Socialist mayor Miguel Hernández, who is now in opposition.

In the town, the worries are about losing control - for a long period of time - as well as bill rises. The conditions say charges can be increased after the third year with permission from the town hall, but no one believes that will be much of an impediment.

The mayor does not think any rise would exceed two to four percent, but a local government in Huelva recently accepted a 10.3-percent hike proposed by a public-private group run by Emahsa and the Huelva Municipal Water Company, which is 49-percent owned by Aquagest, a firm in the Agbar group. In a statement, the company justified the increase on a drop in consumption owing to greater awareness among citizens and the collapse of the construction sector.

"The difference between public and private is profit," says Babiano.

Monforte argues that the privatization plan is an opportunity to generate employment in the town, where 600 people are jobless - the main argument that is pushing people to support it. However, critics point out that the winning company is under no obligation to give jobs to local residents.

The debate and protests in Candeleda are a reflection of what is happening in other towns on a increasingly frequent basis. Many of these protest groups - the most famous of which is perhaps the platform that fought against the privatization of the Canal de Isabel II water company in Madrid, currently suspended - have united under the Public Water Network. Lawyer Pilar Esquinas, one of its coordinators, believes "rapid mobilization by citizens is fundamental" to preventing the "commercialization of water."

Residents in Valladolid, Puerto de Santa María, Córdoba, Barcelona and Madrid are already coming together to protest and the battle should also be taken up in international organizations and the courts, says Esquinas. She believes the "human right" of access to water and sanitation may be in danger. "In the Netherlands, public management is protected by its Constitution," she notes.

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