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Public water a source of national pride in Uruguay

I am in Montevideo for four weeks to study the right to water campaign which led to a national policy against water privatization in Uruguay. When I tell people who ask me what I am doing in Montevideo one of the first things they tell me is that water can be drunk straight from the taps here. Over and over again, on the streets, in cafes or stores people inform me with pride that they have clean in drinking water. It’s quite a contrast to Canada where we either take our drinking water for granted or have bought into the myths propagated by bottled water companies that our public water is sub par.

This national pride in public water services has been cultivated for many years now by a strong water justice movement comprised of water workers, community organizations, unions and academics. Their campaign is a model for the rest of the world. In 2004, before the presidential election, they collected the signatures of 10% of the population on a petition demanding a referendum on the right to public water services on the election ballot. When two thirds of the population expressed their support for the recognition of water as a human right that must be ensured by the government, Uruguay stood up to pressure from the International Monetary Fund and multinational water corporations operating in the country by prohibiting private water services. Just last week, the process of nationalization was completed when the public water utility took over the last for-profit water service.

As mentioned in a previous blog, this development in Uruguay has become a symbol of hope for the water justice movement and the month of October, when the vote took place, is now celebrated worldwide as Blue October. In the next few weeks I will try to learn what I can about the strategies and tactics the water movement has used here to build support for public water services. I will be visiting Maldonado where a group of community activists campaigned against Suez, the French multinational water company operating water services in their town. I will speak to executives from the public water company who were in favour of water privatization as well as the workers who organized to protect public services. I will also interview academics and activists who have been working on environmental and social justice issues in Uruguay.