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Up to the Last Drop: The Secret Water War in Europe

Is water a commodity or a human right? Cities across Europe are fighting water privatisation.

Editor’s note: This film is no longer available to view online.

Filmmaker: Yorgos Avgeropoulos

In 2010, water was officially recognised as a universal human right by the United Nations. However, the European Union has yet to do the same.

The management of water has long been in the hands of private companies, but resistance to this profit-driven model has increased in Europe since 2000. Activists against water privatisation in Greece, Portugal and Ireland say that the EU applies pressure to privatise water services using the economic crisis as a pretext for the creation of a water market in Europe.

In many cases, the decision to close the book on water privatisation is the response to the failure of private operators to put the needs of communities before profit.

There have been 235 recorded cases of water remunicipalisation in 37 countries from 2000 to 2015, affecting over 100 million people.

“Ninety-four cases of these come from France. And I think that this is quite important as a trend, especially since France is the country that has invented water privatisation as we know it today. The country that knows water privatisation best,” explains Emanuele Lobina, Principal Lecturer in Public Services International Research Unit (PSIRU) at the University of Greenwich.

EU citizens know how they want their water services to be managed. The problem lies with the EU, which places pressure using the economic crisis as a pretext for the creation of a water market in Europe.

by Maria Kanellopoulou, spokesperson, Save Greek Water

In 2010, the city of Paris decided not to renew its contract with French companies Suez and Veolia, two of the world’s largest private water corporations. This was mainly due to the high level of fraud and scandals. Water lobbies funded election campaigns and maintenance work was minimal. The case was similar in the German city of Berlin.

“For 25 years, Paris’ water supply service had been under private management. Having this 25-year-long experience with the private sector we realised that we had lost the technical control over the service. That there was no financial transparency. So we wished to regain control of this service,” says Anne Le Strat, deputy mayor of Paris from 2008 to 2014. “A natural resource as essential as water must be managed by a prudent public authority and not by a profit-driven company.” 

While Paris and Berlin have taken back public control over their water services, the elite of the countries to which they belong enforce the privatisation of water in Greece, Portugal and Ireland.

“A big issue is being raised regarding the European Commission’s role which is imposing privatisation on countries of the south as part of the Troika,” points out Maria Kanellopoulou, a spokesperson for the citizen-led initiative Save Greek Water.

The Troika is a decision group that represents the European Union and is formed by the European Commission, the European Central Bank and the International Monetary Fund.

However, the European Commission claims to be neutral.

Is water a human right or a commodity for the EU?

“We let the member states organise in the way they think is more efficient,” says Enrico Brivio, the European Commission spokesperson for Environment, Maritime Affairs and Fisheries. “Both public and private ownership are possible, so that we have an efficient system that distributes high-quality, safe, affordable water to all citizens.”

Publicly, the commission does not take a stance on water management, but large-scale privatisation features heavily in the loan agreements that the Troika imposes on every Greek government. The Athens and Thessaloniki water companies are always on their list. The same provisions to privatise water and other public assets are featured in economic bailout packages for Portugal, Ireland, and Italy.

The European Water movement believes that water is a “fundamental universal right.” It wrote to Olli Rehn at the European Commission highlighting that the main institutions wrongly apply pressure to southern European countries to privatise water and that this has to stop.

The commission replied saying that it “believes the privatisation of public utilities, including water supply firms, can deliver benefits to the society when carefully made.”

The letter “explained quite clearly that the commission regards the privatisation of public utilities, including water services as something positive for the society,” says Martin Pigeon of the Corporate Europe Observatory. “No one at the commission will accept ownership of that letter because it is quite simply contrary to the treaties. The commission excuses this letter today by saying that an inexperienced, lower level executive wrote it, who didn’t know.”

Increased tariffs, lack of transparency and accountability under private water companies have caused an emergence of remunicipalisation.

Two million citizens from 13 EU countries have pressed the European Commission to recognise water as a human right. They were ignored.

Up To The Last Drop follows the corporate interests of European private water companies and reflects contemporary European values and democracy.