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Canada Infrastructure Bank eyes privatizing local water systems across the country

Press Progress reports that buried in the Canada Infrastructure Bank (CIB)’s annual report is praise for the water system in the town of Mapleton in Wellington County, Ontario as an example of a good private-public partnership (P3). The CIB report says there is “potential” for similar privatization schemes across the country.

The Trudeau government created the CIB as a Crown Corporation in 2017. According to its website, the “Canada Infrastructure Bank attracts and co-invests with private sector and institutional investors in new, revenue-generating infrastructure projects that are in the public interest. Our priority areas are public transit, trade and transportation, green infrastructure and broadband.”

Although most municipalities own and operate our drinking water and sewage treatment plants, the infrastructure is deteriorating due to chronic underfunding. The federal government could provide low-cost public funding for municipalities, but instead is pushing public-private partnerships (P3s) that put our water at risk.

Mapleton, Ontario received $20 million from the CIB. In its report, the CIB said spending $20 million to “attract private sector capital and expertise to renew its publicly-owned local system” is an “innovative approach” that could be replicated across Canada.

While going to the private sector to fix aging infrastructure would help the government’s bottom line, a growing list of evidence shows P3s have less oversight and accountability, are more expensive and less safe.

As Council of Canadians Water Campaigner Vi Bui wrote in a previous blog, “privatized drinking water and sewage treatment services directly threaten our human right to water. P3 projects cost more, eliminate jobs, lack transparency and exclude municipalities from the decision making process. Our communities are left paying the price. Private providers charge on average 59 per cent more per household for water and 63 per cent more for sewer compared to the public option.”

In one P3 example, in 1998, Hamilton, Ontario signed a 10-year P3 deal for their water systems. Soon after, residents woke up to 135 million litres of raw sewage spilling into the harbour, and flooded basements and businesses. Hamilton’s water service workforce was cut in half, project costs ballooned, and the water contract changed hands four times.

Eventually, through public pressure, the City of Hamilton took water back in public hands, saving the city and its residents millions of dollars.

Having private interests involved in an important public resource like water puts our drinking water at risk. And it’s people in communities across the country that can help to safeguard water services from private takeover.