You can’t talk about water without talking about democracy

Monday marked the launch of World Water Week in Stockholm, Sweden. The event, now in its 25th year, is organised by the Stockholm International Water Institute (SIWI) and has been an annual focal point for global water issues since its launch in 1991.

World Water Week brings together some 2,500 experts, including practitioners, decision makers, and business innovators. However, there are very few members of civil society participating from the representative governments that achieved the Human Right to Water resolution in 2010.

SIWI is meant to fight for a more environmentally-sustainable water management system, yet democracy does not figure anywhere in its priorities. This is a very mainstream vision whereby innovation and ecology meet without the active participation of citizens and workers.

For instance, if you try to search for the word “democracy” amongst the hundreds of workshops, events and demonstrations at World Water Week, you will find only one seminar – organised, ironically, by the Swedish Armed Forces! This is like a seminar on rights for chickens being organised by foxes.

But undoubtedly, one of the hottest issues on the topic of water in Europe today is the fight against water privatisation, as exemplified by the struggles in Greece and Ireland.

Greece hasn’t been out of the spotlight in the last few months. The debate over water management and the fight of the organised civil society to stop the plans of the Troika to privatise water have been covered across the media spectrum.

The recent negotiation of a third bailout and the Troika’s subsequent demands for the privatisation of water in Athens and the second city of Thessaloniki has come as a deep shock. The Troika had previously insisted on water privatisation in an earlier memorandum; however this sparked a strong public backlash and was successfully blocked in 2014 thanks to the work of the Greek water unions as well as civil society organisations.

In Thessaloniki, a successful self-organised referendum was held in the summer of 2014, resulting in 98 per cent of the voters rejecting water privatisation. Although this was a non-binding referendum it created a precedent for what followed in the national referendum earlier this year with the Greek public’s clear rejection of austerity measures.

The citizen-led referendum mobilised 218,002 voters and sent a strong signal rejecting the planned sale of the 51 per cent government stake in the Thessaloniki Water Supply & Sewerage Company (EYATH) to private investors. French water multinational Suez and the Israeli state-owned company Merokot wanted to up their share holding in order to take over the city’s water services.

A recent leaked memorandum reveals orders for a further sale of 23 per cent of EYATH’s shares in the short-term. As 26 per cent of EYATH’s share are already in private hands, this would mean 49 per cent of the company would be privately-owned.

It would indeed be a mistake to think that 51 per cent public ownership means the water utilities are not privatised. There are numerous examples of so-called public-private partnerships where private water multinationals own just under 50 per cent of the shares, but have de facto control of the utility.

Defenders of the privatisation like MEP Guy Verhofdstat (who is a board member of Sofina, a company helping to bid for EYATH – or, to be precise, a Belgian-based speculative investment company) appear to be demanding the sale of shares at the highest possible level without being in direct conflict with the court ruling that had stopped the privatisation. It is this type of cynicism that is evident amongst the participants of the Stockholm Water Week.

The latest call for early elections fortunately puts the privatisation on hold. Unless the new government withdraws this sinister proposals it will find staunch opposition.

The other case that has been appearing in the mainstream media is the fight against Irish Water. This quango was created with the sole purpose of installing water meters in the homes of all Irish citizens despite the fact they are already paying for water through their taxes.

This was the straw that broke the camel’s back for hundreds of thousands of Irish citizens that have suffered years of austerity measures imposed by the Troika. Again, World Water Week fails to even mention the mobilisation of more than 200,000 people onto the streets of Dublin. This has been the catalyst for the creation of hundreds of local committees founded to discuss issues relating to water and water management. Ignoring such a movement is typical of those that put innovation before democracy.

In Ireland - like in Italy before it - people are putting into practice a slogan developed by the Italian water movement: “you say ’water’ but you write ’democracy’”. In Stockholm, they obviously have not been reading the news lately