Andy Blatchford, The Canadian Press
Winnipeg Free Press
September 19, 2010
(This article also appeared on the Oilweek and CTV web sites.)
MONTREAL – A call to end the privatization of municipal water is expected to spill onto the streets Monday outside the World Water Congress in Montreal.
The Council of Canadians has planned a demonstration to denounce privately run community services like wastewater and potable water.
The citizens’ organization insists the resource should not be controlled by companies that put profits before environmental standards and equal access.
Congress organizers say they’re puzzled by the protest. Their event is billed as a chance for international participants to share research and discuss health concerns in the developing world.
But Meera Karunananthan of the Council of Canadians points to the water congress’s corporate sponsors, and describes it as a promotional event for the private sector.
Protesters plan to unfurl an eight-metre-wide banner emblazoned with the message "Water Is A Human Right" on the street outside the conference centre.
They hope to persuade many of the conference’s 3,000 delegates to autograph the giant flag in support.
"We want to draw attention to the fact that this is a conference that’s aimed at promoting private solutions for the world water crisis," said Karunananthan, the organization’s national water campaigner.
"We see water services as being so vital that it needs to be governed by the public sector in the public interest to ensure that all people have equal access."
The congress is sponsored by private multinational water companies like Veolia Water and Suez Environnement.
But organizers insist the event is geared for everyone who works in water, not just those in the private industry.
"Far from it, we’ve got everybody here," said David Garman, president of the International Water Association, which hosts the biennial congress.
"If you look at the program, you’ll just see that it’s completely balanced."
The association, which has 130 member countries, will see participants exchange ideas, share new technologies and present the latest scientific research, he said.
A major topic at the conference will be how water impacts health — not only in urban areas, but in the Third World and disaster zones, like the flooded regions of Pakistan.
"This is a big issue around the world, as you can well imagine," Garman said.
He said the sponsorship funds help pay for delegates from developing countries to attend.
Garman, who’s been with the association since 1976, was surprised to hear about the protest.
"I believe in all my years with IWA this is the first demonstration that we’ve ever had — we’re honoured," he said.
Debate over the privatization of municipal water systems has boiled in recent years as communities try to find ways to fix crumbling infrastructure.
The issue has even surfaced in the Winnipeg mayoral race.
Contender Judy Wasylycia-Leis recently called city hall’s decision to hire Veolia to handle its water treatment a sad irony, especially considering Manitoba is widely recognized for being a leader in water management.
But one supporter of privately operated water services argues that public utilities aren’t serving the population well.
I think we have reason to believe that the private sector could help us out of the mess that we’re in," said Elizabeth Brubaker, director of Environment Probe, an environmental and public policy research institute.
Brubaker highlighted several issues, like how there are hundreds of boil-water advisories every day across Canada and leakage from drinking water and sewage systems.
Municipalities can’t afford the billions needed to fix their water problems, she added.
"(The private sector) could help meet our capital needs," she said. "They have the kind of expertise that almost no municipality has."
Still, Karunananthan insists that big companies cut corners when it comes to the environment. Some have been found guilty of violations like illegally dumping their waste, she said.
"They talk about solving environmental problems and public-health problems," Karunananthan said of the congress.
"We want it to be clear that this conference is about expanding markets and promoting profit for big water corporations."