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Global water justice activists mobilize to keep water public in Switzerland

Maude Barlow, founder of the Blue Planet Project and Honorary Chairperson of the Council of Canadians spoke in Zurich last week urging the city not to privatize its drinking water systems. 

Her intervention comes at a time of heated debate regarding the future of public drinking water systems in Switzerland.

In July this year, the parliament of Zurich voted to revise local legislation in order to allow for private investments.

As Barlow argued, there is overwhelming evidence demonstrating that privatization has been disastrous for communities around the world: 

“The public and communities lose control as local government officials abdicate control over a vital public service,” she explained. “Private water companies are accountable to their shareholders, not to the people they serve and often restrict public access to information about their operations Because they have to make a profit, they have to cut corners, raise water rates or lay off workers – often all three.”

She urged instead for Zurich to follow the example of other municipalities in Switzerland of adopting local laws promoting public water and the human rights to water and sanitation as part  of a global initiative called the Blue Communities Project. “We should be affirming that water is a human right and a public trust that must be conserved and managed for the public good in law and practice for all time”, she stated.

David Sanchez of Food and Water Watch and Satoko Kishimoto of the Transnational Institute speak in Bern.

An event on private water grabs was also organized in Bern Switzerland last week, which brought together local and global experts including David Sanchez of Food and Water Watch and Satoko Kishimoto of the Transnational Institute.

The Transnational Institute has documented  the cases of more than 200 communities that have ended private water contracts and reclaimed water into public hands. Kishimoto argues that “remunicipalization is often a collective response to the failures of water privatization and PPPs, including lack of infrastructure investments, tariff hikes and environmental hazards.” (See: http://www.blueplanetproject.net/waterjustice/wp-content/uploads/TK-PublicWater-Dec8-Remun.pdf)

The City of Bern was the first city  in Switzerland to become a Blue Community in 2013.  Since then the Reform Church of Bern has been leading  a very successful effort to bring municipalities, churches, universities and other public institutions to adopt the three principles of the Blue Communities Project: 

  1. Water and sanitation are human rights

  2. Water and sanitation services must be publicly funded and operated in the public interest

  3. Water resources are part of the commons and must not be commodified through bottled water or any other form.

The University of Bern, the municipality of St.Gallen, the  municipality of Neuchatel and the University of St. Gallen are among several Blue Communities in Switzerland championing the cause of public ownership of water and sanitation.