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Clean, safe and affordable water is essential to human health and well-being. It is a basic human right for people across Canada and around the world. Publicly funded, delivered and operated water systems are the only way to assure quality, accessible and accountable water services for all.

Public water systems – both those in place and those desperately needed – are under threat at home and around the world. Multinational water corporations continue to push for ownership and control of this vital life source. International trade deals heighten the threat, handing corporations new tools to pry open public water systems and shred environmental protections. And increased public financing is urgently needed, to stem the tide of corporations eager to profit from public systems.

Privatization, whether through the all-out sale of assets or through so-called ‘public private partnerships’, has not solved the world’s water problems. In most cases, privatization creates new problems. Yet international financial institutions, corporations and some governments continue to push water privatization in many forms.

CUPE is part of a global labour network fighting to defend public water systems. Our union’s experiences with water privatization in Canada are a reminder that this failed experiment must not be exported to countries confronting the need to develop or greatly expand water systems.

Canada’s public water

Almost all of Canada’s municipal water and wastewater systems remain under public control, owned by municipalities and operated directly by their staff, most of whom are represented by CUPE.

Canadian water systems were built with taxpayer money. They belong to the people, not to for-profit corporations. Over the past several years, however, we have seen increased efforts by private corporations – primarily multinationals (Suez, Vivendi, RWE, Thames) – to break into the Canadian ‘market’.

At the same time, we have seen strong community campaigns supported by CUPE that have most often been successful in averting privatization threats. In fact, the organization that represents privateers in Canada has identified CUPE as its biggest obstacle to success.

Since 1997 CUPE has been waging a campaign to keep water and wastewater services under public ownership and operation. We have fought privatization in all its forms. CUPE believes fighting against privatization also means campaigning for high-quality public water systems. We must develop and promote solutions to problems facing public water and wastewater service delivery, starting at the source.

Water source protection and the environment

One of the best ways to ensure quality drinking water is to protect our water sources and ecosystems. All levels of government must recognize the fragility of our water resources and cooperate to protect and enhance them. This includes enacting and enforcing tough source protection laws.

The export of bulk water for profit jeopardizes water sources. Water cannot be treated as a commodity. The export of water destroys the environment and does nothing to alleviate on-going water shortages around the world. Under NAFTA and other trade agreements, the export of even one drop of water may have far-reaching consequences. Canada needs a national ban on water exports now and CUPE will support efforts to implement such a ban.

Keeping water services public

Public ownership and operation of water and wastewater systems is essential to safeguarding the public’s interest. CUPE will continue to fight against private sector operation, financing and ownership of public water and wastewater services. Operation, control and ownership of water facilities and infrastructure must be kept in public hands and water systems run on a not-for-profit basis.

International trade and investment agreements such as NAFTA, the FTAA and GATS facilitate the privatization of pubic services, including water services. These trade agreements put corporate rights ahead of citizen rights, giving corporations the right to sue governments for any actions taken that might restrict their business operations. Once a service is privatized, trade agreements make it difficult, if not impossible, to bring them back under public ownership and control. Stopping the expansion of trade agreements, and fighting against their most harmful provisions, is a major component of CUPE’s program to strengthen public water systems.

Public water systems must be owned by the people and operated in their interest. Public water utilities also must respect the rights of the water workers who operate them and promote the interests of the citizens who depend on them. Managers and politicians responsible for water services must be held accountable. CUPE advocates citizens have access to decision-making bodies, and have the right to appeal the decisions of such bodies regarding water prices, water quality, infrastructure renewal and water conservation.

One of the best ways for citizens to ensure a good public water system, and to fight privatization, is to organize at the community level into independent citizen groups. CUPE will continue to promote and participate in community-based water watch committees. CUPE is also dedicated to strengthening the networks of international solidarity that support the struggles of people around the world fighting for public water. The multinationals must not be allowed to take hold anywhere on the planet.

Improving public water services

Fighting privatization is only one part of CUPE’s plan to revitalize public water services. Governments have allowed (and in some cases actively promoted) the decline of our public systems. We must organize against this underfunding and neglect, pushing for major progressive changes in how our water systems are operated, regulated, and financed. We must also insist that public water systems promote water conservation.

Federal Water Standards

Canada needs stronger regulations governing public water systems. And these stronger regulations must be enforced. In the aftermath of water quality problems that have had tragic results, some provinces have strengthened their regulations. But our water continues to be governed by a patchwork of provincial regulations that do not guarantee all Canadians access to high quality water. CUPE will push for national water standards and sufficient federal resources to enforce these standards in every community.

Funding for Water Infrastructure

Cutbacks and downloading have put enormous financial burdens on municipalities. The grants and loan arrangements that exist are woefully inadequate. Municipalities must have the financial tools to provide quality services through increased and stable funding.

Over the next 15 years, Canadian water and wastewater infrastructure improvements are projected to cost up to $90 billion. CUPE will continue to pressure federal, provincial and territorial governments to provide more funding for municipal water and wastewater systems.

First Nations communities have special needs regarding funding for water and wastewater facilities. CUPE supports significant additional targeted funding to help First Nations communities develop their water and wastewater systems.

Operator Training and Certification

Water workers keep public water systems running. Municipalities must invest in their workforce, negotiating fair compensation and good working conditions and investing in the training and certification of all water workers. Decisions about training must be made jointly by the employer and union.

Water Conservation

CUPE recognizes water metering plays a role in measuring consumption and promoting water conservation. However, CUPE believes that education and other initiatives need to play a greater role in promoting water conservation. In addition, metering and billing should not be contracted out to private contractors.

Financial Management of Water Utilities

Municipalities must take action to ensure good management of water and wastewater services. CUPE advocates that municipalities take a “life cycle approach” to assessing and funding water services and infrastructure. Municipalities should ensure that sufficient reserves are set aside for short and long-term water infrastructure upgrades, expansion and repairs.

Water Pricing

Municipalities are increasingly moving towards a “full-cost recovery” system for financing water systems, charging water consumers the full cost of water services. CUPE does not believe that full cost recovery from consumers is always the best solution. Municipalities must ensure water rates not become a burden on the poor and that treated water continues to be affordable for all. It is CUPE’s position that:

  • The amount of water required to meet the basic daily needs of people must be provided at nominal cost.
  • Where increases in water rates occur, these increases should be implemented in a gradual manner and not in a way that causes hardship to lower income people.
  • Smaller and more isolated communities are not in a position to recover the costs of operation and infrastructure from water charges without causing undue hardship on lower income people. First Nations communities certainly are a case in point. Such communities need to be provided with special financial assistance from other levels of government.

March 2003 - Kyoto, Japan