Water Privatization, Corruption and Elections in Spain

Food & Water Europe’s David Sánchez weighs in on the upcoming election in Spain: The stakes are high, and the water movement will closely follow the elections this Sunday as an important round of the ongoing battle for water as a public good and a human right in Europe.

By David Sánchez

Food & Water Europe: 2015 Elections in SpainSpain is holding regional and local elections this Sunday. As a Spanish immigrant in Belgium, and a water activist, this week my attention will be split between the activity in Brussels and the elections, which will be an important milestone in the struggle for public water in Europe.

These elections are really special because Spain is a country going through an extremely long crisis. Its economy and welfare state have been destroyed by austerity policies, while the political parties that ruled the country for decades are involved in a series of corruption scandals. As a reaction, many citizen movements have organized to run for the elections, and remunicipalization of public services, including water, is one of their key targets.

Water management is a competence of local and regional authorities in Spain. Many of them have privatized water services in recent years as a way to ease public debts. By the end of this year, 57 percent of the population in Spain will receive their tap water from a private company. And one of the most worrying consequences is that more than 500.000 families are receiving water cut off warnings every year.

Besides, there is a strong connection between many of these privatization processes and the biggest corruption scandals reported recently by media. We can find examples all around the country. In the northwest, the company Aquagest, a subsidiary of AGBAR-Suez, is involved in the biggest corruption scandal in the region of Galicia, known as “Operación Pokemon“. More than 100 politicians are accused of being involved in bribery, fake invoices and nepotism around the concession of water management contracts in dozens of villages and cities. And we are not talking peanuts here; the biggest contract, in Santiago de Compostela, accounted for 18 million euros. This scandal involving Aquagest also affects the neighboring region of Asturias, with dozens of city councilors and majors under investigation.

If we move to the northeast, media report evidence of bribes paid in the form of donations to the ruling party in Catalonia, Convergència Democràtica de Catalunya, by tenders applying to manage public services like water. Also, five town councilors were arrested in a village in Tarragona, accused of malpractices to grant water management to the company Sorea, again part of the AGBAR-SUEZ group. Even the management of the water cycle in the metropolitan area of Barcelona, granted to AGBAR, was taken to the Anti-Corruption Special Prosecutor’s Office by the platform Aigua es Vida.

Going south, we find similar reported cases in Bollullos del Condado, in Andalucia, involving the company Aqualia, part of the construction group FCC; and in Cáceres, Extremadura; and in Gandía, Valencia, involving another Suez subsidiary. These are just some examples.

In this context, more than 300 civil society organizations have joined a call, “IniciativaAgua2015“, to commit to public water management after the elections, which is being followed by many political parties in Catalonia, Andalucia and Aragón. Some of the citizen movements running for the elections that are advocating for water remunicipalization, like the platform in Barcelona, are ahead in the polls.

So the stakes are high, and the water movement will closely follow the elections this Sunday as an important round of the ongoing battle for water as a public good and a human right in Europe.