Thessaloniki, Greece: Struggling against water privatisation in times of crisis

03 June 2014
Article

Already subjected to the consequences of the European and Greek debt crisis and the resulting austerity measures, privatisation will continue to hit Thessaloniki hard. In a referendum the people voted overwhelmingly against water privatisation. While their struggle continues, they look upon the crisis as an opportunity to intensify the search for democratic alternatives.

''We are the first drops of the heavy rain that is coming.'' With these words, the documentary STAGONES ends. STAGONES captures the various pressing water struggles throughout Greece and these last words express the feeling of many water activists in Thessaloniki. Access to water is one of the most – if not the most – pivotal human rights, and it is one that is at risk when the management of water is privatized.

Due to increasing neoliberal pressure that started in the late 1980s, water has become as a commodity supposedly in need of privatisation, thereby fulfilling private interests instead of society's needs. Under the guise of public-private partnerships, many governments are collaborating with private bodies to profit from water and sewage management. The Greek Government, and its extension TAIPED1 - the body that carries out sales of public utilities - started a bidding process to sell EYATH, the Thessaloniki Water Supply and Water Sewage Company, to the highest bidder. As in other cases of privatisation, the French multinational giant, Suez, is a major shareholder and already owns five per cent of EYATH shares.

With the people of Thessaloniki already subjected to the consequences of the European and Greek debt crisis and the resulting austerity measures, they will continue to be hit hard if privatisation goes ahead. As part of the opposition to the commodification of water, a referendum was held on 18 May, 2014 that had a convincing result. The overwhelming majority of the 218,000 participating citizens voted against privatisation.

In the spring of 2011, Thessaloniki's indignados2 movement orchestrated a mass mobilization when well over half a million people took to the streets to defy austerity and demand democracy, by opposing the push for privatization. The water workers of EYATH and a group of citizens gathered and set up initiative K136 to get water into the hands of the people. Today, over 50 citizen groups – made up of thousands of people – support the struggle to make water a public good. The main and most well-known initiatives are SOSte to nero, K136, and Water Warriors. To coordinate the many groups SOSte to nero (SAVE the water) was created in 2013, with K136 and Water Warriors both being part of SOSte. Water Warriors was formed later that year to mobilize young people who were not yet involved in the water struggle.

This article addresses the following issues: the struggle against water privatisation that has been ongoing since 2007; the different, though united, initiatives that actively oppose water privatisation; the road to the referendum; some of the challenges; and citizen participation in withstanding privatisation.

Corporatization as prelude for privatisation

The Greek Constitution states that water management should be in the hands of the municipality, except for the water management in Thessaloniki and Athens, where the companies EYATH and EYDAP3 formally belong to the state. EYATH was founded in 1998 when the Water Supply Organization and the Water Sewage Organization merged. They were public utilities and the ruling party, PASOK4, fused these organizations into one company in the hope of making a profit.

In 2001, when EYATH entered the stock market, it was split into EYATH, which manages the water, and EYATH SA, which owns the infrastructure. The same year, 26 per cent of EYATH was sold to small investors. Then, in 2006, it became clear to the workers of EYATH that privatisation was being mooted. The struggle against privatisation began in 2007 when mismanagement drove EYATH unionists to stage a three-day hunger strike. In 2008, the water workers occupied EYATH for 12 days. Since then, strikes and occupations have recurred repeatedly.

EYATH managed to remain a viable company, turning a €72.5 million profit between 2007 and 2011. The company’s profit of €17.8 million in 2012 explains the increases in water bills, and attracted the interest of Suez and other profit-seeking bidders. Nevertheless, investments in and improvement of the water infrastructure did not happen. Water tanks and a main pipeline from the distillery to the city should have been built but were not, with the risk that any damage could leave Thessaloniki and its residents without water. The decreasing quality of the infrastructure is also related to the increasing work that is being subcontracted. In 1999, EYATH had 650 workers and now, in 2014, less than 250 workers remain. Moreover, the 2,300 kilometre network is maintained by only 11 plumbers. As more work is being outsourced to the largest Greek construction company AKTOR5, and other small investors, the quality of repairs and installations has worsened.

Since the start of the crisis, 30,000 water meters have been cut because businesses were closing and more and more people could not afford their water bills, even though the water supplied by EYATH is the cheapest in Europe. Moreover, as the number of homeless people increased, public taps were closed off, meaning that the poorest now had no access to clean water.

Crisis provided a momentum for full privatisation

Greece was hit hard by the European financial crisis, and TAIPED was set up in 2011 to sell Greek public properties to the private sector. Water and other public resources went on sale to make money at the people’s expense. That year, 40 per cent of EYATH shares were transferred to TAIPED and in 2012, the remaining 34 per cent of EYATH shares was handed over to TAIPED. This corresponded with the second bailout plan of the European Union and the International Monetary Fund to “save” the Greek economy. EYATH’s union went to court to show that mistakes had been made when stock was transferred, in order to prove that the transfers were therefore unlawful.

Now, both the state and TAIPED point to each other saying they are not responsible for the privatisation of EYATH. In the meantime, the Greek Government offered 51 per cent of EYATH shares and the company’s management to the highest bidder – probably to sell the remaining stock at a later stage. Among the bidders were the French multinational giant Suez together with AKTOR; the Israeli company Mekorot; and the Citizens’ Union for Water initiative by K136. The Citizens’ Union proposed social management by means of cooperatives in Thessaloniki’s municipalities, a proposal that K136 is still working on.

The union was excluded from the bidding, although its bid met all legal requirements. K136 initiated a lawsuit because the bidding process was not transparent, and demanded the reversal of the union’s disqualification as well as the annulment of the entire competition. If EYATH is fully privatised, the tendency to minimise profits and investments in water systems is likely to be reinforced.

People's struggles against privatisation

The water activists in Thessaloniki have learned from social movements beyond Greece’s borders. Many are aware of the water privatisation in Chile under Augustine Pinochet, and the initiatives have been inspired by the water wars in Cochabamba, Bolivia, the binding referenda in Italy and many other successes. Due to a reluctant government, Thessaloniki's movement organized an unofficial referendum in conjunction with the municipal and regional elections. Even though the result - 98 per cent of citizens voted against the privatisation - is non-binding, it could strengthen the awaited verdict of the court case – when the statement confirms the illegality of the share transference of 74 per cent.

The outcome is regarded as the will of the people and could be a signal to the unwanted bidding companies. The movement fears that if privatisation goes ahead water prices will increase, water quality will continue to deteriorate due to a lack of investment in infrastructure, and more water meters will be cut off. As shareholders profit from privatisation, the population suffers from higher prices and lower water quality. The poorer population especially runs the risk of being denied from this vital source of life.

The referendum succeeded because the movement concentrated its strengths on stopping privatisation. In the meantime, K136 has been working on an alternative proposal. K136 collaborated closely with EYATH and its bid in 2013 was supported by the water workers. K136 is convinced that the water is a commons which should be managed as a cooperative system so that future privatisation is impossible. K136’s proposal is that if each household pays €136, one non-profit cooperative per municipality – 11 in total – will be in charge of the water.

The model is based on direct democracy, meaning that decisions are taken at open assemblies and are based on the principles of self-management and one person, one vote. Moreover, the cooperative would make sure that shares cannot be sold to third parties so that the water remains in the hands of the people. Currently, nine cooperatives are registered and, as long as privatisation is on the table, the cooperatives are to inform and involve the people in their respective municipalities.

SOSte to nero, which coordinates all the water initiatives, including K136, takes the stance that the water should be public, which is understood as being owned by the people, the municipality and/or the state. SOSte to nero has made a lot of effort to inform the population of Thessaloniki about the water issue. In the run up to the referendum, the members of SOSte – and of the initiatives it encompasses – were in the streets daily to notify the public of the need to oppose privatisation. To mobilize the people and to keep spirits high, demonstrations were organized, concerts were held and buildings of EYATH were symbolically occupied. Although much work needs to be done to keep the public continuously engaged, more and more people are supporting the water movement.

Water Warriors was established to mobilize those people who are against privatisation, but who have not yet decided on an alternative. The initiative is made up of dozens of young people and experienced activists who strongly believe in democratic management that revolves around citizens’ participation. It works closely with K136 and organized many events at Aristotle University and elsewhere to inform students and others about Thessaloniki’s urgent struggle against privatization and about the referendum.

The road to the referendum

May’s referendum was the first referendum in Greece organized from the bottom up, and is regarded as a milestone in the unification of the movement against privatisation. All initiatives argue that water – one way or another – belongs to the people. It seems to be agreed that it is of the utmost importance that the population will (co-)decide on issues about water. The initiatives and neighbourhood groups support the water struggle work based on assemblies, and make decisions by means of people’s participation. Despite natural disagreements among them, they do their best to collaborate and the referendum enabled them to join forces

The referendum was organized in 11 municipalities of the region of Thessaloniki. After extensive debate, the question posed was: Do you agree with the privatisation of the Water Supply and Sewerage Company of Thessaloniki SA? YES or NO?

By having the referendum on the same day as the elections, water activists were concerned that people would be pre-occupied with the elections instead of the referendum. There was also the risk that participants who supported parties or ran for elections would put their own political interests ahead of the referendum. In addition to suspicion about political parties, people struggling against privatisation were worried about municipal intervention. However, as time passed, cooperation improved. Six weeks before May 18, the structure for organizing the referendum was decided on and approved by the Regional Association of Municipalities.

This association said to fund part of the referendum as it is under less state control than the municipalities are. The structure had a central and municipal component. The central organization had a five-member committee including two mayors, the president of the municipal council of Thessaloniki, George Archontopoulos, the president of EYATH and member of SOSte to nero, and Lazarus Angelou, representative of K136. Additionally, the central executive committee consisted of 13 members; 11 representatives of each municipality, one representative of EYATH, and one representative of K136. On a municipal level, local committees were made up of three members: one delegate each from the municipality, EYATH and K136. To inform the public and attract volunteers, these committees – together with the various initiatives – personally approached people in their neighbourhoods.

In the run up to the referendum Kostas Nikolaou, one of the K136 leaders, said: “[It is time] to go into the neighbourhoods, to go everywhere… into shops, cafes etc. to inform people about the referendum. […] We have to go out to the people.”

Challenges within and beyond the water movement Although the struggle against water privatisation has gained momentum, there have been challenges. First, despite persistent efforts, there are difficulties in acting as one movement. Questions were raised about whether the initiatives are democratic and open enough or if this discussion should be delayed in favour of getting the referendum organized in time. Also, despite the common goal of opposing privatisation, disagreements about future management went at the expense of the struggle's impact on society.

The need for unity relates to the second challenge: the ambiguous meaning of “public” water. The term has the connotation of water being owned by the state, the municipality and the people. However, in deciding on the management – in a later stage – these connotations appear to be mutually exclusive. Although citizen participation is stressed in some way by all factions, some of the activists are in favour of water being state owned, others advocate for it to be a cooperative, while the mayors would like to municipalize the water. This discussion will be continued.

The third challenge relates to the authorities, because the water struggle has to maintain a delicate balance between being a citizens’ movement and cooperating with the authorities, be they parties or municipalities. As the referendum was drawing closer, the mayors assisted with the organization of the referendum. While cooperation was perceived as positive, water activists were cautious and wanted to keep the referendum in the hands of the citizens. The same goes for the parties. Because Greek parties have a reputation of being undemocratic and corrupt, activists worried that the interference of parties would be at the expense of the bottom up character of the referendum, which would have cost popular support.

Fourth, due to the crisis and the many socio-economic problems it entails, the movement faces great difficulties in mobilizing people. On the one hand, many struggles are on the agenda, from destructive mining in Chalcidice – an area 100 km away from Thessaloniki – to the 3 million people who have no access to health care in the country. More and more people are concerned with surviving and do not perceive the water struggle as a priority.

The majority of people may not (yet) realize the consequences of privatizing water management. For this challenge to be overcome, much has to be invested in keeping the people individually informed about their right to water, the ills of privatisation and the viability of alternatives. Meanwhile, to develop alternatives, commonalities have to be sought to improve the dialogue within the movement and with the whole of society; a dialogue which is ongoing because the movement mobilized a great number of people to get the referendum organized. Therefore, the last challenge is for the initiatives to unite their efforts after the referendum as well, in order to maintain and further increase peoples’ engagement.

The vast majority says NO to privatisation

On 18 May, 2014, activists and citizens rallied around to monitor the referendum’s voting process in the 11 municipalities of Thessaloniki. The initiatives successfully gathered over 1,500 volunteers to coordinate the voting, demonstrating the poll’s grassroots character. The central government in Athens responded by calling the referendum “illegal” and banning the organizers from schoolyards where the voting should have taken place.

Nevertheless, 60 per cent of the voter turnout also participated in the movement’s referendum: over half a million citizens took part in the municipal and regional elections, and 218,000 people also took part in the water vote. Citizens’ responses were enthusiastic but firm, saying: “The water is ours, and they will not get it!’ Finally, after hours of counting, the efforts were rewarded because 98 per cent voted against privatisation. This decisive outcome leaves no doubt that the citizens of Thessaloniki are strongly against their water falling into private hands.

A preliminary conclusion It is widely agreed among the movement and citizens alike, that the privatisation of EYATH should be resisted. All those involved in the water movement have worked hard to consolidate people’s resilience. The run up to and outcome of the referendum has been pivotal in engaging and mobilizing people to support the struggle. By acknowledging the common values, the importance of citizen participation, and the need for unification, it is possible to convince the public – the initiatives, the people and the authorities – to continue working together and building democracy to get EYATH out of TAIPED and into the hands of the people.

In order to maintain, unify and reinforce the struggle, challenges and disagreements are the key to finding a consensus that will put citizens' participation at the centre of water management. Building participatory democracy is a long-term and valuable undertaking that lies at the heart of the movement. Ultimately, it is up to society to decide.

Edited by Vicky Quinlan

1. Hellenic Republic Asset Development Fund
2. An offshoot of the Spanish indignados movement (15M), which opposed the bailing-out of banks and subsequent austerity measures.
3. Athens Water Supply and Sewage Company in Athens
4. Panhellenic Socialist Movement
5. member of ELLAKTOR Group