The battle for public water in Italy: an anticipation of European water policy and a test of political maturity

Among the many things that keep us busy in Italy these days there is the battle around “privatization of water”. Here’s an excerpt from A Water Commons Clash in the Coliseum to give some context:

“At the end of November 2009, a new law was approved. Its name is Ronchi Law: the starting point of water services privatization was launched! Since then…five Regions have excepted to know if this law goes against on what’s foreseen in the Italian Constitutional Chart… and the Italian Forum of Water Movement (IFWM) with many other civil society organizations has also decided to set up a referendum to cancel the law”

What will happen with this law is very important also for its potential impact on similar policies across the European Union. Quoting again from

“A successful outcome of the referendum would send an important signal to Brussels, so that the European Commission hopefully will not ignore that a liberalisation and privatisation of the water sector will provoke strong and public opposition.”

Here are a bit more information and food for thought.

Under this law, water as such remains public. The laws makes it possible to assign direct control (as in “more than 50% of the stocks”) of the companies who manage water distribution networks to private owners who are in it for profit, not just to government- or city-owned ones. Of course, the distribution networks are de-facto monopolies. You can’t have more than one set of pipes bringing water into each house or apartment, so that the owner can choose who should be his or her water supplier. Therefore, there are plenty of fully justified concerns that if whoever controls the one set of pipes is a company that must only maximize profits for its stockholders, prices will skyrocket and/or that remote or low income areas won’t be serviced at all (which, incidentally, is just what already happens in Italy and many other countries when you look at ADSL connectivity).

The “water must remain public” theme was a very important one in the regional elections that took place last april. According to some sources, summarized on Beppe Grillo’s blog, the campaign for the post of Puglia’s governor (Puglia is the southeastern part of Italy, the “heel” of the boot, so to speak) was little more than a fight to control Puglia’s aqueduct, the bigger one in southern Italy, and a huge source of money and political power.

Even after the elections, a lot of attention and discussion remain. For example Italia dei Valori (IdV), the party founded by ex-Public Prosecutor Antonio Di Pietro, will promote its own referendum to “keep water public”, instead of supporting the one launched by IFWM. It will be really interesting to see how this will turn out: assuming that both referendum are approved, how will it feel to vote twice in a year, if not in the same day, to abolish the same law in two different ways?

There is no doubt that this will be a battle to follow closely, because of both its national and european impact. Privatization opponents continuously point out, for example, that after several years of private management from two multinationals, Veolia and French-based Suez, the city of Paris will take back under its own control the municipal water distribution network, saving an estimated 30 millions of Euros each year. The Hungarian city of Pecs also fought Suez last october.

Personally, I too think that water is too important a resource to be managed only looking at profit. I also fear, however, that all this battle, while undoubtedly a crucial one, is often carried on in a limiting, if not misleading way. I hear too often say “water management must remain public” in a way that looks too much like “don’t delegate water control to a private company that only acts for its own profit: delegate it to somebody that you yourself elected to work for you… and be happy with that. Even if he won’t ever tell you what he’s really doing, why and at which cost”. As I explained in detail in Should water be public or private? Australian, of course!:

“What is the difference between a private, for-profit water management company and a non-profit, government or city-owned one, if citizens have no way in both cases to check how things are going before it’s too late?… Without complete information it is not possible to really have citizens control of water management. As long as the relevant data remain, for all practical purposes, extremely private even when, thanks to the Internet, it would cost very little to make them public, it makes little difference whether they are public or privatized.”

As a proof of this, here in Italy we have plenty of cases already of public management of water that is really expensive and low quality. I summed this up in another article, Again on public or private water (this time in Rome):

The citizen of Velletri (near Rome) say: “Is it right to pay higher fees if we still get NO water for many hours every day? Are we paying a fair price for water that is not compliant with current laws, that is water that cannot legally be defined as drinkable? On top of this serios situation there is the fact that Acea never answered to tenth of compliants and denounces” and in Zagarolo (same region, different province): “water is rationed… and distribution is often interrupted even in moments when it’s theoretically granted by contract”

So I’m both concerned about privatization of water management in Italy and about seeing (in citizens, not in politicians) this attitude of “only those that we voted can do whatever they please with our water. If we voted for them we can stop caring.” That’s why I think this water battle, besides its own intrinsical criticity, will also be a good political maturity test for all Italians nd then European citizens.

4 Comments The battle for public water in Italy: an anticipation of European water policy and a test of political maturity

  1. AvatarPatrick Anderson

    The water (and all Sources of Production) must be privately owned *by the Consumers* under the constraint that any Profit collected from newcomers is treated as that Payer’s investment.

  2. AvatarWes Strickland

    You are right that the advocates of public water often lean on rhetoric of “our” water and “public control” even though in reality such control is normally remote and water systems are left to managers except in crises or for someone’s momentary political gain. I think that the real issue is, what operational goals will the system have, what financial resources and who is the person in charge. A private company run well is generally better for citizens than a government agency run incompetently, and vice versa. Often the public v. private debate comes up when there is a crisis because of past bad management, and there is a suggestion for change. Either the public employee unions rise up to defend their incompetent boss, or the customers rise up to attack an incompetent private company. One must be very careful as you suggest when analyzing what is really happening in these debates. But the true facts are rarely known to citizens, so I think these decisions are very difficult to put to a vote that has any real value.

  3. AvatarMichel Bauwens

    what I read is the following: an essential resource for life should be entrusted to entities only interested in their shareholders profit, and because the public is incompetent, it should not have a say in these matters? so privatisation should be a private matter, done without the involvement of the citizens?

  4. AvatarMarco Fioretti


    You wrote:

    I think that the real issue is, what operational goals will the system have, what financial resources and who is the person in charge

    The point / focus of my post and of the original articles I wrote is a bit different: I am only trying to point out that, no matter how you define goals, find the necessary money and choose who will be in charge, you must have an efficient, complete, real time monitoring system that tells you how things are going: for example if and how much water is wasted were, and other data I mentioned in the original articles. In other words, I’m only saying that it’s useless to define long-term, general goals, funding and managers if you then let them free to do whatever they please without continuous control.

    But the true facts are rarely known to citizens, so I think these decisions are very difficult to put to a vote that has any real value.

    exactly my (only) point: let’s make the true facts, that is the raw data showing how the system is working, viewable online in real time.

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