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Buying back the public, 136 euros at a time
“They can do whatever they want with us but that will be over our dead bodies”.
That was the uncompromising statement of Alex Kastrinakis, an independent Greek film maker who participated at the Alternative World Water Forum (www.fame2012.org) from March 14 to 17 in Marseilles, France. Together with Georgios Archontopoulos, the secretary general of the workers trade union of the Water Supply and Sewage Public Company of Thessaloniki (EYATH), the two shared the on-going Greek debacle and their urgent campaign to stop the privatization of their public water system.
Privatizing Thessaloniki’s public water system
EYATH serves six municipal communities of Thessaloniki, 11 regional communities and over one million people.
The Greek Parliament recently passed a new law to sell the 40% share of the public water system, EYATH, which is the second largest water utility in the country. The sale will automatically transfer the management and distribution of water from the government to the corporate private sector. This law is just one part of the Greek government’s “Fund for the Development of State Property”, an austerity measure package imposed by the World Bank, International Monetary Bank and European Central Bank, which intends to privatize all state-owned properties and enterprises as a solution to their debt crisis.
EYATH has an annual profit of 75 million Euros (EUR) and in 2010 and 2011, despite the Greek debt crisis, their profit rose to 12.4 million and 20.18 million Euros, respectively. The government plans to complete the sale of EYATH by September 2012. Public bidding is set to begin in May 2012. Already, global transnational water companies such as Suez, which owns 5.5 percent of EYATH, are scrambling to prepare proposals and hefty packages to buy the public water company.
According to Theodoros Karyotis, a member of Initiative 136, several articles praising the privatization were released in the media. The articles’ main claim— the privatization and sale of EYATH will help Greece out of its debt. But, “This is a silly excuse; the company’s value is estimate at 50 million Euros, while the country’s debt exceeds 400 billion! Our press releases to all media go largely unnoticed.”, said Karyotis in an email.
136 Movement for the social and democratic control of EYATH
The move to privatize the public water company was met with citizen and popular opposition from the Greek public. On the summer of 2011, a new people’s movement to protect Thessaloniki’s water system and the Greek public amid the crisis was born. 136 Movement (www.136.gr) is a grassroots movement that aims to stop the sale of EYATH and propose citizen’s option to keep water management in public hands through democratic and not-for-profit control.
The Movement’s strategy is two-fold. First, it will attempt to stop the sale of the public water and sewerage company. Second, in case that the sale continues, they will compete with the global water transnational companies through a “citizen’s participation” in the public tender. The 136 Movement is developing a plan for the social and democratic management of the company through the creation of 16 local cooperatives that will be owned by the citizens of Thessaloniki. The plan is to build a model of public water service that is based on transparency, democratic functioning and administration, non-for-profit management, and participation of at least 372,000 households per water meter, which is 72 percent of the total households in Thessaloniki.
The idea is for each household participate in the process through contributing 136 EUR, which is the amount needed per household to complete the 50 million EUR acquisition of EYATH. The debt and economic crisis in Greece, however, makes it difficult for citizens who want to join the initiative to pay even the 136 EUR. In response, the 136 Movement devised a 14-month installment plan for households who cannot pay, with just an initial membership payment of 10 EUR.
The task of stopping the sale of EYATH and bidding against the big water multinationals for sure is an uphill battle for the Greeks. But there is a growing acceptance on the legitimacy of the 136 Movement’s proposal. In a recent poll that was carried by mainstream media, 75 percent voted in favor of the movement’s social and cooperative company. According to Archontopoulos, they are mobilizing not only the support of the unions and the public but also the mayors and local town councils of Thessaloniki’s metropolitan areas. He further stated that raising awareness and addressing people’s fear, uncertainty, poverty, and cynicism created by the debt crisis, are central strategies of the campaign. Their alternative to protect water as a public good presents a counter-development model to capitalism.
Calls for international solidarity
The struggle of the Greeks for public and social control of their water system is intertwined with their fight against the austerity measures and people’s social, political and economic disenfranchisement. Their resolve and commitment to carry out this urgent campaign warrant international solidarity not only from the European water justice activists but from around the world. Asian activists for example have a lot to share from the 1997 Asian financial crisis, the failed privatization experiments, and examples of alternatives to the commercialization of water in the region. Already, there are plans to discuss concrete actions in support of the 136 Movement at the civil society-organized conference (http://corporateeurope.org) on the European Union crisis in Brussels in May. The Greeks are also ready to hold an international conference to gather support for their campaign.
The 136 Movement is well aware that much is needed to be done, especially at the domestic level. But with their determination and with real global solidarity, the people of Greece and of Thessaloniki will be able to overcome the challenges and win this important fight.
Mary Ann Manahan is a program officer/researcher-campaigner with Focus on the Global South. She is part of the Reclaiming Public Water Network, a loose and horizontal international network of activists, trade unionists, public water operators, and academics promoting progressive, democratic, and people-centered models of public water management such as Public-Public and Public-Community Partnerships. She participated at the Alternative World Water Forum through the support of TNI. She maybe reached at firstname.lastname@example.org