Just 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 corruption scandals.
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 others.
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 decision-making process.
There are many challenges ahead, but no one said that challenging the neoliberal dogma would be easy. Exciting times!