Is water a commodity or a human right? Cities across Europe are fighting water privatisation.
What has been humanity’s defining technological accomplishment in recent centuries?
The breakneck pace of scientific and industrial change may complicate attempts to answer this all-encompassing question, but Yorgos Avgeropoulos is certain of the importance of one major advancement.
“Being able to turn the tap on in our homes and have water running is what helped our civilisation take off,” says the award-winning documentary maker and journalist. “This is the big difference compared to the 19th century and before.”
Still, about 30 percent of people today worldwide, or more than two billion, lack access to safe, readily available water at home. At the same time, urban demand is increasing while warnings of shortages are getting louder. As such, questions around who controls water in major cities are increasingly being asked.
With this in mind, Avgeropoulos set out to explore a growing global trend that has seen cities reject the long-established, profit-driven privatisation model in order to regain hold over their water and sanitation management.
His documentary, Up to the Last Drop, was filmed over four years in 13 cities across Europe during the eurozone crisis. It follows the business interests of water corporations and captures the fight to resist privatisation, especially in the countries mostly affected by Europe’s austerity crisis.
Al Jazeera spoke to Avgeropoulos about making his film, Europe‘s water lobby and the consequences of privatisation.
The interview below has been translated from Greek and edited for clarity and brevity.
Al Jazeera: Why did you decide to shoot this film?
Yorgos Avgeropoulos: Water is the most important issue of our time – it’s not just a valuable natural resource upon which our existence depends, but also an issue of democracy.
I first came across the subject while filming another documentary called Life for Sale, which looks at the world’s biggest water market in Chile. There, a private company can buy a river or a lake and keep all the water for itself with huge consequences for the local population.
I then decided to look into what happens in Europe, and the idea started formulating in 2011 when Italians resoundingly voted against the privatisation of their water.
The European Central Bank then sent a secret letter, later brought to light by the Italian press, asking then-Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi what he was planning to do about water privatisation ‘despite the results of the referendum’.
Reading those words made me shiver. I couldn’t comprehend how unelected officials could use such language in documents addressed to the leader of a sovereign state.
It was shocking and that prompted me to make a documentary about water in Europe, firstly because this is about democracy and secondly because it’s now clear that the European Commission, despite its rhetoric claiming neutrality on water management, is essentially pushing towards privatisation through its practices.
This is both immoral and undemocratic.
Al Jazeera: A central theme in the documentary is the contrast between what happens in major capitals in Europe’s economic powerhouses and the policies put into practice in the bloc’s crisis-hit member states. Can you explain this?
Avgeropoulos: The level of hypocrisy is astonishing. In recent years, large cities in central and northern European countries like Paris and Berlin have been remunipalising water services after determining that the private management model which they tried for years had failed. But at the same time, Europe’s financial and political elite is pushing the crisis-hit countries of the south to privatise their own water systems.
The European Union might claim that it does not take a stance, but whenever there is a bailout deal between the Troika and countries like Greece or Portugal, the European Commission is part of that agreement and signs it. And despite all the official denials, its de facto position is to favour privatisation.
So there is this big contradiction.
At the moment, there is a very significant movement around the world in support of remunicipalisation. In Europe, there are hundreds of such cases, with most being in France, the country which invented water privatisation as it’s known today. This must send a clear message to everyone because it’s very important for people to see that cities with decades-long experience have assessed that this model failed.
The thinking should be to treat water as a valuable natural resource and not as a commodity because then things might get very dangerous. People might have their water cut off and be left to die because they won't be able to pay for it. This can't be happening in the 21st century. It's shocking; it defies logic that someone can see water as a commodity - like a shoe, a shirt or a sausage.
Al Jazeera: How powerful is the water lobby?
Avgeropoulos: It’s one of Europe’s most powerful; it can be said that it’s comparable to the pharmaceuticals’ lobby, if not bigger.
Firstly, if water is seen as a commodity, a view I disagree with, then it’s easy to see that it’s an extremely profitable business. Everyone needs water, so a private water company does not have to look for any customers, its clientele is secured.
Secondly, unlike any other sector, companies in this industry have guaranteed profits. They sign contracts which include clauses stipulating that if consumption declines or a city’s population does not increase then the local authorities will have to cover the difference.
In other words, if business goes well, then all’s good, if not, then all’s good too, the public sector – meaning the taxpayers – will pay again.
This is unheard of and unique in private enterprising, which is fundamentally linked to risk – yet private water companies can go to arbitrary courts and win compensation for loss of earnings if the consumption of water or the population size has not increased.
There are cases like in Barcelos, Portugal, where things are tragic. The municipality is essentially hostage to a huge compensation which it could only pay after 500 years.
Al Jazeera: What are the consequences of privatisation?
Avgeropoulos: Apart from the price hikes, the truth is that it’d be at least surprising to expect from a private investor to think long-term. Their thinking extends only until the end of their contract, maximum 25-30 years. But when it comes to water management, this is not enough. We must be preparing for many generations ahead and constantly investing in new technologies.
In the end, lack of investments means poor quality water.
With water also being such a profitable business, the industry has been a source of scandals, like in France where politicians were paid by water companies to renew contracts in perpetuity.
Finally, with water in private hands and seen as a commodity, there are no social policies in place whatsoever – the poor are left helpless.
Al Jazeera: If food has commercial value, why not water too – as executives of large corporations have argued in the past?
Avgeropoulos: These kind of arguments can be very easily discredited, simply by using common sense. And that’s why even small groups of people were able to succeed in their fight against powerful interests.
Water is not a foodstuff, we can grow tomatoes but we cannot produce water – if we could, water scarcity wouldn’t be the major problem that it is.
I’m not of the opinion that water must be free. It is indeed costly to clean water and bring it to people’s houses. Being able to turn the tap on in our homes and have water running is what helped our civilisation take off – and this is the big difference compared with the 19th century and before.
So it’s a service that must be paid for but the thinking should be to treat water as a valuable natural resource and not as a commodity because then things might get very dangerous. People might have their water cut off and be left to die because they won’t be able to pay for it. This can’t be happening in the 21st century. It’s shocking; it defies logic that someone can see water as a commodity – like a shoe, a shirt or a sausage.
Al Jazeera: How can people fight against this?
Avgeropoulos: What the film clearly shows is that small groups of people can make a difference – those behind the water movement in Ireland were not many, they were just people who joined forces at some point locally and now they have many chances to win their case.
This doesn’t mean that the EU is still not pressuring Ireland. But the same happened and is still happening in Greece, with the referendum in Thessaloniki, so I believe that this is the only course of action: small groups of people teaming up with other small groups and resisting in this way.
Still, it’s key that people are informed about such an important subject. And that was the deeper reason why I did this film. I had the need to decode and provide a panorama about Europe’s water policies at this very moment.
What I realised was that people are ignorant about the issue, despite water being something so important in our daily lives. People were approaching me after watching the film saying, ‘you’ve showed us a new world, we had no idea’.
Al Jazeera: Why is it an unknown issue?
Avgeropoulos: It’s because it’s usually not part of the daily mainstream media coverage. The news about remunicipalisations is rarely reported as there is a wider view established in Europe that the public sector is something evil that must be limited.
Europe’s prevailing ideology today is neoliberalism, which demands the lessening of the public sphere across all sectors – from water management and energy to education and health. Look, these unelected politicians currently running Europe did not fall from the sky – they were put there by a certain financial and political elite based in northern European countries such as Germany and France.
So when the elected representatives of the European people, the members of European parliament, are entirely powerless then it’s not a fluke that this gap is filled by politicians who believe in this ideology and do what they think is right.
The main argument is that public companies do not function properly.
I agree with that view but this doesn’t mean that water must come under private control. What must happen instead is to fix what’s wrong so that public companies operate without problems. We don’t just get rid of what doesn’t work well; we try to repair it because we’ve seen many times, especially in the case of water in countries like the UK where neoliberalism prevailed in the 1980s, that private companies also don’t function properly.