Can i sell my own water

Selling water to become liquid

A municipality in northern Portugal is resisting privatization

From Nikolaus Steiner

In the opinion of many citizens, it belongs to the general interest: drinking water. (AP archive)

A central demand on countries in crisis like Greece and Portugal is the privatization of the national water companies. In the Portuguese municipality of Pacos der Ferreira, however, the citizens are storming against the project: They have had bad experiences.

The market square of Pacos de Ferreira is packed. Small wooden stalls stand close together. Everything is on offer: from vegetables to handbags. Madalena Martins is standing in the middle and discussing with a group of angry people. She is the president of the citizens' movement "November 6th" and complains with her colleagues about the local private water company. Citizens have to pay up to 20 percent of their income for water, she complains.

"People in Portugal are now saying: 'No, we don't want to privatize the water! If we do that, the same thing will happen to us as to the people in Pacos de Ferreira!' Prices will rise. In Paços de Ferreira the water is 40 times more expensive than in the communities that have not yet been privatized! There the water belongs to the city administration! "

A whole cluster has now grown around Madalena Martins. In addition, people meander to the stalls. One of the group, the lawyer Humberto Brito, points to a large stone fountain on the edge of the market square. Water ripples from a copper iron pipe. Above it hangs a sign: "No drinking water".

"This well here is from 1936. Almost 80 years old. And people always came here to fetch water. Since privatization in 2004, the water here has allegedly no longer been potable."

It has happened to every other public source in town, says Brito as he wipes some of his gray hair off his narrow face. For the lawyer it is clear why: There is nothing to be earned from free well water. For eight years, the water supply in Pacos de Ferreira has been completely in the hands of a private company - with fatal consequences for the citizens, according to Brito.

"The consequences of the water privatization here in Pacos de Ferreira were disastrous! We had a 400 percent price increase in just six years! That is a disaster! There is no longer any economic connection between the real costs of distributing the water and the amount paid at the end of the month shows up on people's accounts! "

But the increased water prices are far from everything, says Brito and gets into his white Mercedes. The journey goes right through the small town, through narrow streets, over green hills.

After about 20 minutes, Brito stops in front of Joaquim Pinto's garden. The short, sturdy man with glasses that are a little too big is standing in front of his stately two-story house, which he built himself. He draws water from a large plastic tub to water the lawn. The pensioner has his own water system and is not connected to the public network. But the private water company wants to force him to do so, he says. He fetches a folder and shows letters: They threaten high fines if he refuses to continue.

"We inform you that ... blah blah blah ... here !: 'THE CONNECTION TO THE WATER AND SEWAGE NETWORK IS MANDATORY!'. That is a lie! This is complete nonsense, and everyone knows that! People lied to! And all for one reason only: This private company wants to make good money! "

Pinto put several thousand euros into his house in order to have an independent water supply. As with him, many old houses in the region have their own system that the private water company cannot make any money with.

"When my house was built, there was still no public water supply. No sewage and no water. I just built it myself and got a permit to use my own water. What happened now is pure Harassment! The police are being sent to the people's homes to force you to have a water connection! Even though you know yourself that this is not true! You are fooling the people! "

The heavily criticized water company sees everything very differently: on its website it says that it guarantees the best water quality for Pacos de Ferreira. However, it does not comment on the allegations of the citizens' movement. The city says there is simply no money to buy back the water company at the moment. Although the protest movement has already brought thousands of people onto the streets here, nothing has changed in terms of water prices. Humberto Brito still wants to keep fighting.

"Despite everything, I believe in democracy! In the will of the people who ignore economic influence. And I believe in that. And I really hope that the city will take control of the water supply in Paços de Ferreira as soon as possible win back! "

But like here it could soon look everywhere in Portugal. The state urgently needs money. A privatization of the water company can quickly flush several billions into the coffers. The surveys, however, confirm that Brito is right: the majority of Portuguese people want their water to remain in municipal hands.