Intervenor: vol. 26, no. 1, January - March 2001

Walkerton Update - CELA's Response to the Efforts of Privatizing Water

Water treatment and delivery systems are one of the items that the Harris government repeatedly flirts with privatizing. The Walkerton crisis has escalated the questions of the probable impacts of privatizing water services. For example, did the pushing of municipalities onto private water labs for testing in any way affect how quickly the public became aware of the water problem? If the Walkerton water system were privately owned or operated would the water have been in better condition?

CELA, the Canadian Union of Public Employees, and the Ontario Public Service Employees Union are preparing a paper on this issue for the Walkerton Inquiry. The paper makes the case for why it is essential to avoid the privatization of the ownership, operation and delivery of water services in Ontario's municipalities.

The paper is based on the experiences of those who have privatized their water systems (partially or completely) or flirted with privatizing them. In the paper, we describe the negative experiences in places such as England where water systems were privatized, places in Canada that flirted with privatizing but backed off when they realized the negative impacts that would be created (York Region, Quebec City, Montreal), and places in the U.S. that sold off their water systems and are now trying to buy them back. The transnational water industry is also explored.

A reason frequently given for privatizing the water treatment and delivery system is that municipalities cannot afford to upgrade failing water infrastructure. Our paper shows that this is a myth. Municipalities have plenty of financial capacity to upgrade and maintain the water infrastructure and are able to do it at a more reasonable cost than can private companies. We recommend that municipalities do a better job of planning for long-term rebuilding and financing of their systems. In addition, we recommend that small municipalities develop co-operative arrangements with each other for water delivery, as has been done in some other parts of Canada.

John Jackson is coordinator of this project. He is also a board member of CELA.