From Terrassa to Barcelona: cities and citizens reclaim public water and other essential services

Barcelona, March 22, World Water Day – Confronted with the failings of water privatisation, cities and citizens of Terrassa and Barcelona, in Catalonia, have moved to return water services to public and democratic control, improving their quality and accessibility.

In Terrassa, a Catalan city of about 200,000 inhabitants, over 4,000 people took to the streets to celebrate the turning tide of public water services in the run-up to World Water Day. Terrassa is spearheading the Catalan water remunicipalisation movement. It is the biggest city in the region to bring its water services back under public control.

The private company MINA-AGBAR - a part of Agber group which is a subsidiary of the French water giant SUEZ - controlled water services in Terrassa since 1842. Agber dominates 90% of the private water market in Catalonia and may be concerned that Terrassa will become an example to other municipalities. On December 9, 2016, despite a harassment campaign by MINA-AGBA to prevent remuniciaplisation, 20 of the 27 city councilors voted in favor of remunicipalisation on December 9, 2016.

The city is preparing to stop the recent price increases and reinvent public water ownership and governance in the coming months. Direct control should enable the city to achieve its goals of stabilising water tariffs, improving water quality and efficiency, and increasing investments in infrastructure.

The Catalan capital Barcelona is at the forefront of the debate on how to democratise public services and local governance. On March 21, the conference Water, A Common Good, was jointly organised by Enginyers Sense Fronteres and Barcelona's city administation and Barcelona en Comu. Barcelona en Comu, which is Catalan for Barcelona in Common, is a citizen platform that has governed the City of Barcelona since 2015. It prioritises social justice, community rights and participatory democracy.

Elected officials, civil society members, academics and water operators discussed fundamental questions about how to develop real and effective social participation. For example, what information should be accessible to hold management accountable? What are the criteria for electing civil representatives to an independent observatory? How can social participation influence decision-making? And how can we develop a meaningful, grassroots debate beyond elected representation?

This year's World Water Day also coincided with the launch of a Catalan network of public operators and civil society organisations. Terrassa and Barcelona are two of the seven cities that will drive this network that aims to support cities that are thinking about remunicipalising their water services, learn from each others experieneces and develop successful practices of good, participatory public water management.

During the conference, Barcelona City Council, via the municipal company Barcelona Cicle de l’Aigua SA (BCASA), joined the European Association of Public Water Operators, Aqua Publica Europea. This move gives a clear signal to the private water company Aigües de Barcelona, which is part of the Agbar Group, since it is blocking all civil and municipal efforts to remunicipalise the water services of Barcelona. Agber has enjoyed its dominant position and provided water services in Barcelona since 1867.

As in Terrassa, Barcelona en Comu has the population on its side as well as more and more neighboring cities. Eight out of nine neighboring towns have already passed motions in favour of remunicipalising water services that are governed on the metropolitan level. The growing support for water remunicipalisation adds momentum to the long-awaited court decision. The verdict should determine if the lack of a public tender proves the illegality of Agbar's contract, clearing the way for remunicipalisation.

Water is not the only service that Barcelona en Comu is remunicipalising. In 2016 the Council remunicipalised home care, as the privatised service failed to provide good, steady service quality. After remunicipalisation, while costs remained the same, care and technology were better coordinated and forty new jobs were created. It also remunicipalised three kindergardens and the care for women who were the victim of domestic violence.

Apart from remunicipalisation, Barcelona en Comu is creating local public services, such as three new public schools, a municipal energy company and a publicly-owned funeral company. The latter led to 30 quality jobs, a cost reduction of 30 percent and more accessible and affordable mortuary services. According to the City Council good, municipal public services go together with social participation mechanism to make sure that the service first and foremost fulfills the needs of the people.

In Barcelona, as in many other cities, remunicipalising public services means improving the quality and affordability of public services. Social participation is key to achieving this goal. As Luis Babiano of AEOPAS, the Spanish association of public water operators, stated: “Participation is not an obstacle, but part and parcel of a public system. It is the way to improve essential services.”

Earlier this month, Barcelona en Comu launched a legislative project to boost public participation and political influence: The project aims to foster channels of communication between the population and the City Council and to give citizens the opportunity to participate in decisions about public services and local politics. It will allow citizens to push for municipal actions in the public interest. Soon anyone aged 16 or over will be able to drive and present public consultations that have the support of between 9,000 and 15,000 signatures.

The call for social and democratic public services across Spain and Europe gains strength as the concrete public benefits of remunicipalisation and democratisation in public services, such as reduced tarriffs and costs savings, become tangible in places like Terrassa and Barcelona.

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