Barcelona’s battle to take its water company back under public ownership is reaching its climax in the courts and at the ballot box.
When the citizen platform, Barcelona En Comú, crowdsourced its manifesto for the Barcelona city elections in 2015, its most popular proposal was to remunicipalize the city’s water company, Agbar (subsidiary of the multinational, Suez Environnement).
Three years on, the government is locked in a struggle for remunicipalization that epitomizes the concerns of the new municipalist movement: protecting the commons, challenging corruption, and harnessing the symbiotic relationship between institutional and non-institutional politics.
The motives for remunicipalization are numerous: a global study by the Transnational Institute in 2015 concluded that towns and cities that remunicipalize their water tend to enjoy increased quality and lower tariffs for consumers. Barcelona is no different; the water rights platform Aigua és Vida estimates that water rates set by Agbar-Suez in Barcelona are 91.7% more expensive than those in neighbouring municipalities that manage their water publicly. This is particularly important in the Spanish context, where 17% of the population suffers from “energy poverty”, meaning that they face hardship in paying their electricity, gas or water bills. In Barcelona, where 10 information points have been set up since 2015 to advise citizens on their energy rights, over 170,000 people have been found to be suffering from this specific kind of poverty.
Economic arguments aside, remunicipalization is also motivated by an understanding of water as a human right and an essential element of ecological sustainability. According to these principles, water should be governed as a commons, that is, owned and managed collectively and democratically by communities, rather than run for profit.
Read more on the website of OpenDemocracy