By David Sánchez
Food and Water Europe El Agua No Es NegocioJust one year ago we were
arguing about how Spain was still resisting the last wave of water
privatization, as a result of austerity policies and debt, seasoned with
But as a result of the local and regional elections a year ago, the tide
changed. As a reaction to the long-term crisis, attacks to public
services and corruption in traditional parties, many citizen movements
organized to run for the elections, with great success in Madrid,
Barcelona, Zaragoza, Ferrol, Santiago, Cádiz, Coruña and Valencia, among
One of the key achievements of those movements was to introduce in the
public sphere the debate on how to manage public services, like water.
By the end of 2015, 57 percent of the population in Spain received their
tap water from a private operator. One of the most worrying consequences
is that more than 500,000 families receive water cut off warnings every
year, according to data from the Spanish public water companies association.
Valladolid, a city of around 300,000 inhabitants and capital of the
northwestern region of Castilla y León, took the first big move a few
weeks ago. The local government announced that the city would recover
public control of water management, 20 years after the privatization of
Aguas de Valladolid, when the contract expires in July 2017. Aguas de
Valladolid is now part of the AGBAR-Suez group.
The reasons for remunicipalization sound familiar: underinvestment in
infrastructure, high tariffs and lack of democratic control over such an
important resource, among others. These are the same problems that led
more than 200 cities worldwide to take back control of the water systems
in the last 15 years.
Remunicipalizing a public service is a complex process. Valladolid will
create a public company that will hire the current 150 workers of Aguas
de Valladolid so no expertise or jobs are lost. They announced
investments of 178 million euros in the coming 15 years to renew the
infrastructure. And even doing so, tariffs will increase less than a
third compared to the period where management was private.
This is great news for the citizens of Valladolid, but also a strategic
milestone for the whole country. Valladolid is the biggest Spanish city
to ever carry out such a process, and will surely pave the way for many
other cities that have announced similar intentions. At the European
level, it is a great symbol of this global trend. Spain is one of the
countries most severely hit by austerity and water poverty and an
inspiration for the movements still resisting privatization, like
citizens in Greece.
Remunicipalization is a huge step, but it is not enough. Public
management needs to be transparent, democratic and participatory. It
needs to guarantee the human right to water, as well as investments to
secure a sustainable supply. It is fundamental to design a sustainable
management plan to protect the ecology of natural water cycles and
maintain the quality of water in rivers and aquifers. It’s also
important for maintaining good working conditions for water company
employees, which need to be fully integrated into the democratic
There are many challenges ahead, but no one said that challenging the
neoliberal dogma would be easy. Exciting times!