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Owen Sound debates the human right to water

Liz Zetlin with her granddaughter Emma. Photo by James Masters/ Owen Sound Sun Times.

Blackburn News reports, “[Owen Sound Water Watch] committee spokesperson Liz Zetlin says they’re asking the city to declare water a human right, to ensure the city’s water and water treatment facilities remain in public hands and want bottled water phased out.” The Owen Sound Sun Times adds, “There is growing support behind a campaign to have Owen Sound classified as a Blue Community. Six hundred people have signed a petition that asks city council to approve the designation, which includes three principles aimed at protecting drinking water and ensuring it is available to everyone.”

Last summer, the Water Watch committee asked city council to declare Owen Sound a blue community, but the matter was referred to the Operations Committee which in turn asked city staff to develop a resolution the city could support.

The Sun Times notes, “[Staff] did not recommend Owen Sound become a Blue Community or ban the sale of bottled water on city property. It instead called on the senior levels of government to enhance its financial support for upgrading water and waste water systems and would have only committed the city to continue to operate its water system in a way that meets or exceeds all government requirements and to provide ‘healthy and convenient’ beverage choices including tap water at its facilities.”

More specifically:

The right to water

– Councillor Jim McManaman, vice-chairman of the operations committee, is concerned with the implications of recognizing water as a human right if someone does not pay their water utility bill. He says, “We were concerned about how do we deal with people that are in arrears or cutting peoples’ water off if they’re unable to pay.”

The Water Watch committee is now looking into ways the city could help people unable to pay their water bill, such as through a partnership with a community agency. We would also add that the United Nations says, “Disconnection of water services because of failure to pay due to lack of means constitutes a violation of the human right to water and other international human rights. According to international human rights law, it is the State’s obligation to provide urgent measures, including financial assistance, to ensure access to essential water and sanitation.”

Bottled water

– McManaman has also noted that the city has a contract with Pepsi that allows the company to sell bottled water in city facilities through to 2018. He says that many city-owned recreation sites do not have drinking fountains so selling bottled water in those locations is an alternative to juice and pop.

We believe it would be possible for Owen Sound to be declared a blue community if it agreed now not to renew its contract with Pepsi. We also agree with the city staff’s recommendation that tap water be made available at city facilities. And we would draw attention to the recent decision by Hamilton city council to ensure that public drinking water fountains were installed in a new stadium. The provision of public water there is considered a corporate standard for the city.

Public-private partnerships

– The city also has a contract with Veolia Water Canada to operate parts of its wastewater system. And McManaman does want to be “tying the hands of future councils” since a public-private partnership may be considered in the future.

Here we would encourage city councillors to read the report Here to stay: Water remunicipalisation as a global trend. It highlights that there has been at least 180 case of remunicipalisation in 35 countries over the last 15 years. Cities have increasingly rejected P3s because water privatisation has led to poor performance, under investment, disputes over operational costs and price increases, soaring water bills, difficulties in monitoring private operators, lack of financial transparency, workforce cuts and poor service quality.

The Blue Communities Project is an initiative of the Council of Canadians and the Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE). For more information about it, please click here. We extend our solidarity and support to the Owen Sound Water Watch committee and the growing list of Owen Sound residents wanting to see their community become a blue community.

The Water Watch committee now has until September 1 to submit a revised resolution to the city.