Chapter 03: Services - Field Stories
Water Privatization

Every day, millions of women and young girls are vested with the responsibility of collecting water for their families. With a growing list of governments choosing to vest responsibility for providing a life-sustaining service, such as water, in the hands of large companies, how do citizens, especially women, ensure that they receive access to affordable, high-quality and reliable water services?

Like many countries in Latin America, Uruguay courted private sector participation in its water and sanitation sectors in order to improve efficiency and service quality. One example of a city where private companies took over the responsibility of water provision is Maldonado. In Maldonado, the majority of residents are workers and their main concern was maintaining community standpipes in the city. The standpipes were the result of efforts made by the public water and sanitation ministry (OSE) to ensure potable water reached those households that lacked piped water. The municipalities had assumed the cost of these standpipes and they were particularly vital for the poor – especially poor women – who relied on this source to meet their household needs. However, after the private companies assumed responsibility for water provision in Maldonado, they pursued a policy of systematically eliminating community standpipes. Instead, the private companies encouraged people to install household connections, even when this required paying hefty fees.

The situation was particularly tense in the district of San Antonio III, an area located slightly to the North of the city of Maldonado, where corporate takeover of water provision was almost immediately followed by the cessation of water to community standpipes. This was in turn followed by water connection cut-offs as a result of people's inability to pay the high water rates. With approximately 90 families in the area, 60 per cent of which were headed by women, the community standpipes were a crucial source of water for many households – particularly in the face of connection cut-offs. In protest, the neighbourhood commission of San Antonio III, which was primarily run by women, mounted a successful campaign to maintain the community taps.

As a result of these and other campaigns, as well as a private sector track record of inflating water tariffs and poor service quality, the government of Uruguay passed a constitutional amendment in October 2004 prohibiting private sector participation in the water sector, thus making it mandatory for all corporations in the water sector to be state-owned. This resulted in the withdrawal of the concession to major private companies that same year, followed in 2005 by legislation to ensure the participation of users and civil society in the planning, management and control of activities in the water sector.