Privatizing water leaves us high and dry

Judy Darcy
Halifax Chronicle
August 12, 1999

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In her Aug. 5 article “Private operator best for Halifax system,” Elizabeth Brubaker gives CUPE a failing grade, claiming we did not do our homework; yet she has presented no facts to back up her position, a position which appears to be based solely upon ideology.

The mantra that privatizing services automatically results in better service and lower costs is simply wrong. If it did, the U.S health care system would cost less than Canada’s and 43 million Americans would not live without health insurance.
On the subject of water, it is true that Britain and France have private ownership of water. In France, towns served by private water pay 30 per cent more than towns with public water. In Britain, privatization hiked prices by 67 per cent and dysentery increased six-fold, causing the British Medical Association to blame Britain’s private water system for increasing health risks to the population.
As for the Philippines and Malaysia, if private water is such a big success, perhaps Ms. Brubaker would like to sample some unfiltered drinking water there. If not, how Third World countries’ water supplies are relevant to Halifax’s is beyond me.
Much more to the point is the experience of privatizing sewage treatment in Hamilton, Ont., not included in her article. There, Philip Services (now in the throes of bankruptcy) operated the sewage plant for close to four years. So lax was the enforcement, 180 million liters of raw sewage backed up into homes and businesses as the result of one spill. And as is typical with privatization, the public picked up the costs for the cleanup.
I wonder if Ms. Brubaker would buy a car under the same terms she endorses for Halifax’s sewage system. For 30 years, it will be operated for profit by a private company. Then, just as it is breaking down, it will revert back to the public so taxpayers can foot the bill for massive repairs. Common sense says this will cost more in the long run.
The public sector is not perfect, but in those instances where it fails, it is more often due to under funding than not caring for the public good. With private corporations, the only object is more profit. This is fine for making soap, but not for a service so vital as water.
While Ms. Brubaker affords me an “F” for my efforts to retain public ownership of water, perhaps I can point her to the words of her ideological soul mate. I don’t quote Margaret Thatcher often, but Halifax needs to know that Thatcher called the privatization of Britain’s water her one big regret.
Judy Darcy is national president, Canadian Union of Public Employees.
Elizabeth Brubaker Responds
Just the facts?
September 3, 1999
Dear editor:
CUPE’s Judy Darcy, protest­ing that my support for water privatization is rooted in ideol­ogy rather than facts, offers some “facts” of her own about Britain’s experience with water privatization (Aug. 12 opinion ar­ticle).
According to Ms. Darcy, the British Medical Association has blamed Britain’s private water system for increasing health risks in that country. Three years ago, in its only study of water to date, the BMA con­cluded that “a causal link has yet to be established between water disconnections and infec­tious diseases.” Perhaps Ms. Darcy was confused by the BMA’s proposal to forbid water companies to disconnect non-paying customers. Regardless of that proposal, the BMA has taken no position on water priva­tization.
Water privatization may well have enhanced public health in Britain, having improved drink­ing water quality and reduced the levels of bacteria and viruses contaminating seaside beaches.
Ms. Darcy also claims that Margaret Thatcher called water privatization her one big regret. That claim contradicts Mrs.Thatcher’s public statements. In The Downing Street Years, Mrs. Thatcher dismissed opposition to water privatization as “emotive nonsense” and “weak,” and boasted that privatization im­proved environmental regulation and enabled companies to raise capital for the investments needed to improve water quality. Ms. Darcy’s office has refused to reply to my two requests for the source of the alleged quote.
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