The vast majority of water and wastewater systems in Canada are owned, operated and maintained within the public sector. Essential to our public health system, municipal water systems were one of the first major services to be publicly delivered in Canada. The reason why water infrastructure is overwhelmingly public is because the private sector could not be relied upon to deliver a quality service at a price that all residents could afford. It's therefore ironic that water corporations from rich countries like our own are now trying to persuade developing countries not to develop water resources publicly but to experiment with the private sector instead. What's more, the belief that the private sector can manage our public water resources is now gaining ground in Canadian government and policy circles.
The Private Threat to Public Water
The commercialization of water is creeping forward through the private treatment and delivery of drinking water, through proposals for bulk water exports to the U.S. and through the bottling of municipally treated water for resale by private companies. Not surprisingly, private interests increasingly view water as a source of profit. A May, 2000 edition of Fortune magazine foretold that water would be to the Twenty-first Century what oil was to the Twentieth. Instead of "black gold," we will have "blue gold."
At the same time, our water infrastructure is aging, with estimates of Canada's public water infrastructure deficit in the $50-billion range. Investment is required, and difficult choices have to be made by all levels of government on how best to manage Canada's freshwater resources. For First Nations communities, the issues are even more urgent. Earlier this year, CBC News' in-depth feature, "Slow Boil," reported that drinking water in two thirds of First Nations communities is at risk. Seventy-six First Nations communities are currently under boil-water advisories, and 62 per cent of water operators aren't properly certified. Given this context, privatization is presented to municipal and First Nations governments in a pretty package, with proponents eager to capitalize on difficult budget binds and the need for technical expertise.
Private financing and operation schemes--or public-private partnerships (P3s)--are the vehicle of choice for governments and corporations. P3s purport to allow governments to show balanced budgets. They do this by hiding debt and passing higher costs on to future generations of ratepayers. Government officials are persuaded that formal ownership remains in public hands, despite contracts of 25 to forty years giving corporations control of operations for decades. As experience with them grows, P3s are coming under increasing scrutiny for their higher costs, compromised quality, secrecy, lack of accountability, multi-decade contracts and other problems.
Water P3 in Hamilton: Tried and Trashed
The citizens of Hamilton, Ontario, suffered through one of Canada's most infamous examples of the disastrous consequences of privatized water and wastewater treatment. In 1994, the city awarded an untendered contract to Philips Utilities Management Corporation in return for promises of local economic development, new jobs and cost savings. What the community got instead was a workforce slashed in half within eighteen months, a spill of 180 million litres of raw sewage into the harbour, the flooding of 200 homes and businesses, and major additional costs. In the ten years that followed, the contract shifted four times--with two companies now bankrupt, one of them a subsidiary of Enron! The P3 contract came up for renewal in 2004, with the city eventually opting to bring water and wastewater treatment back into the public sector.
Hamilton's decision is instructive. The council initially chose to try the private option again and instructed managers to issue an RFP. The proposed new contract addressed some of the problems of the previous agreement, including public liability in the case of another spill, liability insurance carried by the operator, and the private operator's requirement to pay for system maintenance and upkeep. …