The Infrastructure of Survival

[This text was originally published in AREA Chicago #10 in October 2010]

Mayor Daley is considering privatizing Chicago’s water system through a long-term lease to a private company. Ever since the city made $1.83 billion leasing out control of the Chicago Skyway and $1.16 billion on the city’s parking meter deal (in large, up-front payments that are quickly used up), the mayor has been looking for other public resources to sell off to the highest bidder. Chicago’s water system may be at the top of the list. But unlike other infrastructure that Daley has privatized at the expense of taxpayers and city residents—roads, parking garages, parking meters—water is a human right, and something no one can live without.

Based on the experiences of other cities that have privatized their water systems, Chicagoans have every reason to expect that a lease of our water infrastructure will result in rate hikes, layoffs of workers, and loss of public control over this vital resource. We can also expect to see a spike in the quantity of water going to waste. While private companies make claims of increased “efficiency,” privately-managed water systems have actually been found to have more leakage and wasted water than municipal water systems. Under a privatized, for-profit structure, city residents are charged extra for this “unaccounted for” water.

Some context

The world is running out of clean, drinkable water. On a planet covered with oceans, only 3% of the world’s water is fresh water, and much of that has been polluted beyond human use. Globally, millions of people die each year due to lack of access to clean drinking water. Access to water has been a cause of violent conflict in places such as Darfur. To exacerbate the problem, world population continues to grow; industrial agriculture, with its insatiable water appetite, continues to expand; and the development model and way of life that created the water crisis (more production, more consumption, more sprawl, more stuff) remains the dominant paradigm. Institutions like the World Bank have predicted that the next world wars will be over water, as this critical resource becomes increasingly scarce.

Seeing the water shortage writing on the wall, a few transnational water companies have worked aggressively to gain control of water resources around the world, privatizing the commons (what belongs to everyone) and making a killing in the process. For its part, the World Bank has responded to the global water crisis by partnering with these mega-corporations, privatizing water in some of the world’s poorest countries and making it available only to those who can pay. Consequently, water has grown into a 400 billion dollar per year industry.

While most of these resource grabs have happened abroad, water privatization has been steadily growing in the US over the past decade. In 1997, a change in tax law made it easier for private companies to acquire municipal water systems for 20 years or more, giving companies a longer period to make a profit off of water customers and making water leases more appealing. Since then, large multi-national water companies have been showing up to political soirees like the National Conference of Mayors to wine and dine decision-makers and extol the virtues of privatization.

The first big US city to try water privatization was Atlanta. In 1999, Atlanta established a 20-year operation and management contract with United Water. The company increased water rates, cut the number of jobs in the water system from 700 to 300, and fell behind on service requests because of the staffing shortage. Residents complained of brown water, low pressure, and other problems. At one point United Water had a backlog of 13,000 service requests. It was such a disaster that the city cancelled the contract after just 4 years, in 2003.

Since then, private water companies have taken a somewhat different approach, targeting smaller municipalities for privatization and gaining control of water systems town by town. But recently, there has been a shift in this strategy as cash-strapped cities with aging water infrastructure have become more open to the idea of handing over maintenance responsibilities to private companies. After the Atlanta debacle, the next big city to be approached was New Orleans; they rejected the idea of privatization. The third big city to be courted by private water companies is Chicago.

Chicago: Home of Mayor Daley

When reporters asked Mayor Daley in October of 2009 about private meetings he was having with consultants over more privatization deals, he responded “Everything is always on the table.” He expressed this same sentiment again as recently as March of 2010, but has refused to go into any details about a potential water privatization deal. According to the Chicago Tribune, he “did not discount the possibility of privatizing the city’s water system… but Daley said he would not answer whether he wants to do that because it would stir up too much controversy.” According to the Wall Street Journal, Chicago currently leads the nation in municipal privatization efforts.

When Mayor Daley decided to privatize the city’s parking meters, the public—and many Aldermen—found out about the plan just two days before City Council voted on it. Plans to privatize our water could be moving ahead behind closed doors, and if we wait for a public announcement to act, it may well be too late.

If Chicago privatizes its water system, it will also set a dangerous precedent for the rest of the country. Nationally, there has been a rise in privatization in many sectors—health care, education, transit, prisons, water, wastewater, trash collection and other city services. Public space is disappearing at an alarming rate. Public benefits are being cut. More and more aspects of our lives are mobilized to benefit someone else’s bottom line. It is a global trend, but right now Chicago is ground zero in the battle against privatization.

Water for Life, Not for Profit

Several organizations across the city have come together to defend Chicago’s water system and keep it in public hands—including the Little Village Environmental Justice Organization (LVEJO), Food and Water Watch, 8th Day Center for Justice, and a newly-formed group called CAPOW! (Citizens Act to Protect Our Water). All of these groups and more are collaborating on a series of actions and events designed to get the word out about Daley’s latest privatization scheme and to pressure city aldermen to block any privatization of Chicago’s water.

LVEJO’s primary focus is environmental justice. In Little Village, LVEJO has been organizing with local residents to close down a dirty, aging coal-fired power plant, among other toxic industrial sites. LVEJO also works to establish more parks (with input and participation from the community), equitable and expanded public transit, community gardens, and an overall transition toward self-sufficiency and local democracy. LVEJO’s newest campaign fights water privatization, from the perspective that privatization of the commons is a social justice issue. We oppose any privatization of common resources, from public transit to education to health care to water.

Millions of people in and around Chicago depend on the city’s water system to meet basic needs. It is imperative that we get organized now to defend everyone’s right to safe, clean and affordable water—before a deal is made behind closed doors and rushed through city hall. Water is a human right and the basis for life on Earth, not a commodity to be monopolized and sold to the highest bidder.

Please join us in claiming water as our common resource, working to keep our water infrastructure out of private control, and defending the rights of low-income communities and future generations to have access to this vital resource. To get involved in the campaign to defend Chicago’s water, or to arrange for a presentation or film screening in your community, contact


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