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Fighting the corporate agenda in Budapest

I am at the Budapest Water Summit this week working with friends from Public Services International, the Transnational Institute, KruHa Indonesia, Food and Water Europe, IBON and FIVAS from Norway. The Budapest Water Summit is yet another UN event dominated by the corporate policy agenda. It features an exhibition where UN agencies display their information alongside corporations – like Veolia and Nestle – that are peddling the latest profit-making schemes as solutions to the environmental and economic crises. One panelist summed up the general tone of the summit in this morning’s plenary session when he said, “water is everybody’s business.”

Another panelist, Andre LaPierre of the Global Environment Fund, claimed, “we all agree private sector involvement is good for everyone.” Perhaps he hasn’t heard that people around the world are taking to the streets demanding that water and sanitation services be controlled by communities and not corporations. In fact, Budapest recently terminated its contract with Suez Environment and RWE, renationalizing its municipal water services after many years of dissatisfaction with inadequate services. And Budapest was not the first Hungarian city to do so. In 2009, the city of Pecs annulled its contract after determining that price hikes had violated the public interest.

Gabriella Zanzanaini of Food & Water Europe and I attended an interactive session targeting youth which was facilitated by the Global Water Partnership – an international network comprised of both public institutions and private corporations. Young people were asked to deliberate on which factors should be considered when determining water prices, and why it is that water isn’t valued within the global economy like gold and silver. We wound up in small discussion groups where Gabriella and I encouraged our fellow participants to see how the very framing of these questions reinforced a pro-corporate ideology, treating water as a commodity that can be bought and sold.

At our own event promoting a water justice perspective on the implementation of the human right to water, we dispelled the myth that the private sector would bring silver bullet solutions to the global water crisis. The real crisis is a political one: corporations are attempting to control water policy to guarantee secure access to scarce water resources. When governments relegate basic services, such as water and sanitation, to profit-driven multinationals that hike up the service fees and exploit scarce resources, we are dealing with a crisis generated by an unsustainable economic model.

Yet that model continues to be promoted around the world at events like the Budapest Water Summit, where governments discuss the future of the world’s water with polluters and water profiteers rather than with the communities most impacted by the global water crisis.