The problem of drinking water is not confined to Flint, Michigan, where manslaughter charges are now possible. Fracking chemicals have been detected in Pennsylvania well water. And there are still at least 4000 homes in Detroit where water has never been turned back on after massive shutoffs attracted international attention in 2014.
But, as Suzanne McGee agues, perhaps the biggest problem with drinking water in the United States is privatization.
The appeal of privatization to municipalities struggling to balance their budgets isn’t hard to see. They get to transfer one big headache to someone else to deal with, dust their hands, and move on to address the next problem. And it’s up to companies like American Water Works to make it all come together: to invest the capital required, upgrade the systems, and generate a profit. . .
Utilities of all kinds are discussing the need to raise their rates to cover the cost of financing infrastructure improvements. It’s tough enough when those utilities aren’t private corporations with an incentive to maximize profits, but city departments. Even then, citizens in cities such as Baltimore and New York are in financial peril and losing access to their water supplies. Throw the profit motive into the mix, and things could get worse. What happens if those for-profit utilities have too many delinquent bills, and shareholders are unhappy? The pressure will be on to cut costs, which could result in some of the same problems that prompted the sale in the first place.
Water isn’t a private commodity, but a necessity of life, making access to it a public good. And steps need to be taken to ensure that access remains open, not to install toll gates and barriers.
Let’s remember that it was the “water wars” in Bolivia that led to the formation of a “broad alliance of farmers, factory workers, rural and urban water committees, neighborhood organizations, students, and middleclass professionals in opposition to water privatization,” which was later joined by the militant federation of coca growers from the Chapare, led by then labor leader Evo Morales, which ultimately led to the overthrow of two neoliberal presidents and the subsequent election of Morales and the Movement Towards Socialism party.
Bolivia’s constitution now proclaims that access to water is a human right and bans its privatization.