Privatisation de l’eau

Compte tenu de la dégradation des installations et des services d’aqueduc au début des années 90, les conseillers municipaux commencèrent à considérer demander au secteur privé de fournir efficacement Moncton en eau propre.

Avec presque aucune consultation publique et sans recherche élaborée, la ville de Moncton décida de privatiser l’eau et accorda un contrat à US Filter, en espérant diminuer les coûts et améliorer les services.

Avec le soutien du SCFP, il a été possible de démontrer que non seulement la privatisation de l’eau résultait dans des coûts plus élevés et moins de services mais qu’un autre problème plus important encore était soulevé, la question du contrôle de l’approvisionne- ment de l’eau.

Plusieurs résidents de Moncton se réunirent pour former SOS eau Water Sankwan dont le mandat est de conserver la gestion de l’eau dans le secteur public, comme il se doit.

Water Privatization

Louisa Barton-Duguay
SOS Eau Water Sankwan
August 2002

ater in Moncton has long been a hot topic of discussion. Back in 1989, the city councilors were
discussing the turbidity of the water. Moncton's water was brown as a result of little particles that evaded the filtration devices, in addition to pipes and water mains which were old and in need of replacement.

There were a lot of complaints and the city began looking at alternatives. Private companies were actively seeking city water systems for management and presenting their systems as the logical and efficient way of the future and presenting themselves as having the most technical expertise, the best access to materials and efficiencies of scale.

By the fall of 1993, Moncton's city council had decided to privatize the entire water distribution system. This was never debated in public forum. It was presented as the best way for Moncton to have good clean SAFE water. Tenders were put out for a water filtration contract and the successful
bidder was actually a Canadian company, Hardman Group, later to purchased by
US Filter, a US owned company. And then several years later this company was
purchased by Vivendi, a French owned multi-national with activities in over
100 countries.

In the meantime, the water coming out of the tap had become very brown and several boil orders were issued. US Filter promised quality water coming out of the tap just like the best bottled water. Late in 1999, Moncton had its privately-owned filtration system in place and clear water flowing, albeit heavily chlorinated and with other invisible chemicals for cleaning purposes.

The next step was to upgrade the water mains. The city proceeded to negotiate with US Filter/Vivendi to take over the renewal of the entire water distribution and sewage disposal systems in Moncton.

In 2001, Canadian Union of Public Employees, CUPE, became concerned about the jobs and the people working for the city in water facilities. They were told that a private company could operate more efficiently than a city crew. CUPE decided to take an active role. Their studies have shown that privatization has meant higher costs and less services. It soon became clear that the issue was even bigger. Moncton citizens would not be in control of their water management and a foreign owned company would be able to invoke international trade agreements, such as the GAT, NAFTA, and WTO regulations, to possibly gain access to fresh water across Canada for private profit.

The publicity that CUPE and the Moncton and District Labour Council brought to the issue garnered the attention of Avi Lewis, moderator of the national TV program Counterspin. In October, 2001, a townhall discussion, televised nationally, on private versus public control of city water systems ensued. The citizens of Moncton, who had been going along, trusting their elected representatives to make the best decisions for the city, became concerned about their public water supply. A small group of people formed an action group, SOS Eau Water Sankwan, to learn more and inform the public of their findings.

I first became involved in January, 2002. I was visiting Beth McLaughlin and we had spoken before on environmental matters and politics. Two other people were coming to her house to sign a letter addressed to the Minister of Supplies and Services, Dale Graham, and they were looking for a fourth. The City of Moncton at this time was in the process of awarding the contract to upgrade the water distribution system, estimated to be anywhere between $70 and 250 million dollars, to US Filter/Vivendi. Studies and cost estimates had never been done.

This contract would privatize the distribution of water and the sewage disposal systems. Doing so, the City of Moncton was not following the proper procedures required by provincial law according to the province's Public Purchasing Act.

When a city has a large contract for work or supplies, they are required by law to advertise and call for tenders on the contract. Moncton had not done this. They had not brought the issue of contracting out the distribution of water to a public debate and only said that after all the details were in place they would let the citizens of Moncton have two months to scrutinize the document. The contract for water filtration is over 300 pages and the correspondence that went into negotiating the new contract was over a foot thick. The contract was being negotiated behind closed doors and it appeared to us that once the city had a contract it would be very difficult for the public consultations to have any influence on the deal.

The city manager, Al Strang, and the Mayor of Moncton, Brian Murphy, are both involved with a lobby group called the Canadian Council for Public-Private Partnerships. The city manager is on the board of directors and the Mayor has traveled to conferences to speak about how wonderful the public-private partnership for the filtration of the water is between Moncton and US Filter. Neither of these men consider this to be a conflict of interest. Both of these men plus several of the city councilors traveled to Europe and to cities in the United States, at the expense of the water company, to view facilities in other places. These trips are not seen by the city as a conflict of interest.

In January, SOS Eau Water Sankwan organized a Teach-In to inform the citizens of Moncton about the effects of water privatization. This attracted approximately 45 people who filled in registration forms indicating how they could help. A core group began meeting every week.

We wrote a list of questions that we thought every person in Moncton should be asking their city councilor about water privatization. These questions were about costs, accountability, and conservation. On this handout, we included the name, phone number and email address of every city councilor. These questionnaires were handed out at the market on Saturdays and distributed door to door. Councilors did receive many phone calls with people looking for answers to the questions.

We also organized teams of people to put posters, produced by CUPE, up on telephone poles all over town, saying, "No to Water for Profit." People were also encouraged to put these posters in their windows.

The Common Front for Social Justice, a group of university students and Professors, and CUPE brought in international activist, Ricardo Petrella, from Belgium to speak at the University of Moncton. He has written The Water Manifesto, which is about the need for water to remain a public good and the effect of water privatization in other countries. In many countries, poor people are denied access to fresh drinkable water because the do not have the money to pay for it. A golf course is given higher priority than people. Money is all it takes. Is it money that should determine how water is distributed?

One city councilor, Brian Hicks, spoke up and asked questions of the Mayor, in public, and many times was told the contract under negotiation could not be discussed in public. We went to the city council meetings and asked questions. No one seemed to know what the cost of upgrading the water distribution system should be. No studies had been done, nor any independent cost estimates. It seemed they were ready to hand the system over to US Filter and we would pay whatever the cost came to. There was no way to compare what the cost would be if US Filter did the work or if the city's current employees did the work. There was no way to compare the cost of the city borrowing the money for necessary upgrades from a provincial loan fund at a low interest rate or having the money supplied by private investors.

The Federal government has programs for infrastructure renewal. Moncton has received $10 million under this program. No one knew if the city would be eligible for this funding if the water system was to be privatized.

Both Vancouver and Montreal investigated privatizing their water systems and rejected the idea. Montreal quickly discovered how much more expensive it would be. Vancouver needed a citizens action group to bring out the true nature of the contract before rejecting the deal.

What we do know is that private investors need to have a profit or they don't invest. There are only so many ways to make a profit: use lower cost materials, cut the number of workers and cut the wages, or increase the cost to consumers. At the time, Vivendi/US Filter was involved in 281 lawsuits across the world. Some of their ventures have resulted in local people demonstrating in their streets, some of which have been killed. This did not feel like a trustworthy company to our group. The World Trade Organization, the General Agreement on Trade, and NAFTA all seem to side with big companies and profits against governments and the rights of people.

Some members of our group suggested guerilla theatre in front of City Hall. They donned their flashiest business suits and little piggy noses and set out to sell water to people walking by. Other people handed out information to passers-by. We did this at lunch time when there was a good chance of giving the information to the Mayor and city councilors, as well as many office workers out for their lunch break.

To further increase awareness, we partnered with the Council of Canadians, and brought their water expert, Jamie Dunn, in for a conference. We again went to the market and handed out invitations to people. We targeted Main Street at lunch time and gave out invitations. Even if people didn't come to the conference, they knew something was going on with the water.

Quickly, it seemed the city was about to put the water agreement to the public. We would have only two months to try to stop the council from signing the contract. Only one councilor, Brian Hicks, was opposed to the way the city had negotiated this contract. On March 4, city council was set to table the contract. We went to the streets, to the market, to our phones and to email, to get as many people as possible to this meeting. About 100 people showed up. The matter was dealt with swiftly. It seems that a private meeting had taken place that afternoon at which the councilors decided to delay the process of privatization until a study had been done on the actual costs. This study has been out for public tender.

SOS Eau Water Sankwan continues to keep the issue of access to fresh water before the public. We have written a Declaration on Water, which has been distributed door to door along with background information and a postcard to be returned to us. Before the council meets, one of our members distributes the postcards to councilors so they will not forget that we are still concerned. We will keep informing the citizens about what is happening and continue our effort for water to stay in public hands.

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