By Michael Mortimer 

Mark Twain once might have quipped that “whiskey is for drinking; water is for fighting.” In his own way, he was diagnosing water security. But what is water security? It has multiple attributes, different facets (faucets too), and, of course, more than one meaning. One useful definition describes it as: “the adaptive capacity to safeguard the sustainable availability of, access to, and safe use of an adequate, reliable and resilient quantity and quality of water for health, livelihoods, ecosystems and productive economies.” It is, at the end of the day, a critical precondition for enduring human prosperity. How water security is provided or guaranteed, though, presents a basic choice: do we want the public or the private sector to assume responsibility for this fundamental human need?

Who owns water?
Over the decades, many communities have bought into a narrative that posits that because the reliable provision of water is a complicated, expansive, and expensive endeavor, the private sector is better suited than local governments to administer the supply of water. But that state of affairs is changing. Local governments across the globe are deciding to take back the control of their own water systems from the private sector in a process known as remunicipalization. This is a big deal; “Remunicipalization is one of the most significant shifts in water services policy in a generation,” according to current research. It is trending upward in communities across the globe. At the core of the movement are the synergistic ideas of safe drinking water, reliable and affordable supply, and social justice. These are both pragmatic and political perspectives that have put corporate water managers on the defensive.

Water to the people!
So, why would a municipality choose to embark on a remunicipalization journey? After all, it’s not easy or fun, and if something’s not broken, why fix it? The problem is that, in many cases, it is broken. The shiny promise of the private sector was that it could provide water more affordably than the public sector with its ready access to investment capital, economies of scale, and incentives to seek efficiency. This promise, however, has not panned out. Studies from around the world suggest that private ownership does not result in more affordable water—the opposite, in fact. And it does not address any equity issues, such as terminations of service. Civic-minded local leaders find their citizens facing higher water bills, ones that can disproportionately affect the poorest members of their communities. Citizens are concerned about rising water bills, lousy performance by the private managers, and loss of control by the local community. The solution is to take back their water systems. 

In the United States, the vast majority of water systems remain publicly administered. And the trend seems to be moving towards ever more public control. In recent years, some cities—really big cities—have chosen to not renew their contracts with private water services and have taken back the responsibility themselves: Atlanta, Stockton, and Pittsburgh are just a few examples.

Water politics
I want to focus on a much smaller example; an example that our students were able to learn from first-hand earlier this year*. This is the case of the town of Bellreguard, a beachfront community of about 5,000 people in Spain’s Valencia region. Bellreguard is notable in a few ways: it was the first town in the region to re-municipalize; it has developed a novel approach to public water management; and its efforts cast in high relief the transformation of water security as a human right versus a commodity sold by the private sector. Belleregraud remunicipalized the town’s water via the skillful leadership of its then mayor and his allies. Because even in small towns water is politically charged, it was no small feat for them. The private contractor also wasn’t pleased and actively worked against them. The private water supplier was a corporate monstrosity, able to overreach each of the 13 small municipalities in the region in turn. Each of these small towns faced a collective action challenge, where moving for water independence pitted them against a daunting opponent. The corporation was essentially predatory,not more efficient, and not more environmentally friendly (leakage in the water system was profound—more than half the water in the system was lost).

Bellreguard City Council Hall chambers; Photo: Michael Mortimer
Bellreguard City Council Hall chambers; Photo: Michael Mortimer

Water is a human right 
But town leaders saw the community benefits of re-asserting the town’s primacy over how water infrastructure is managed and how water policies are developed. Rather than getting bound up in the usual arguments about whether governments should or shouldn’t be in the business of certain things, or whether the private sector is more efficient at something, they asked the right question: what institution is best poised to ensure a human right? This shift to viewing water security as a human right rather than a consumer good was critical. Customers became users of a rights-based consumption of water.

The town’s leadership knew full well that private ownership removes both transparency and accountability to the community it serves. Long-term contracts are not nimble, don’t deal well with changes in technology or in circumstances, and are a poor substitute for direct control and oversight. Yet reclaiming control was not enough. They knew that for a rights-based approach to work, a new institution was necessary. 

Governance by collaboration 
Enter the Observatorio Ciudadano del Agua—or Water Observatory. This local government institution works to make water policy-making accessible to the community-at-large. By convening a broad range of stakeholders (including local social associations, technical experts, political parties, industry associations, and individual citizens) the town was able to impart a new approach in a time of what they emphatically describe as an “emergencia climática.” The diagram below outlines the functional aspects of the Observatory—aspects that no corporation is in the business of.

Graphic by Michael Mortimer
Graphic by Michael Mortimer

The efforts in Bellreguard demonstrate a key principle: governance matters as a tool for water security. In the case of Bellereguard, the new governance model: 

  • Provides exclusive control of water distribution to the community.
  • Deploys technologies to ensure more affordable and more sustainable service.
  • Allows for attention to environmental security/justice in the face of an emergencia climática.

Bellereguard has institutionalized water security as human security.

Pedacets, the town’s beloved mascot, is proudly displayed at the entrance to the municipal council building, Bellreguard, Valencia, Spain; Photo: Michael Mortimer
Pedacets, the town’s beloved mascot, is proudly displayed at the entrance to the municipal council building, Bellreguard, Valencia, Spain; Photo: Michael Mortimer

Meanwhile in the U.S., many view the government as the enemy, not as something that exists for the benefit of the people. The government is portrayed as an intrusion to be warded off, while we give the private sector the benefit of the doubt over and over again in our free market fetishism. We need to pause to reflect on this. 

Should each and every water system be remunicipalized? I don’t know. But I do know that we need to abandon the presumption that the private sector is always a better manager of public goods. We need to start considering water security as a human right, not as a consumer good. Because, make no mistake, we have an emergencia climática on our hands. And robotically letting the private sector just do what it does… well, that just leaves us with dirty deeds done dirt cheap.

*The Spain Global Study itinerary has been updated and no longer includes Valencia. 


Michael Mortimer

Dr. Mortimer is the Associate Dean, Washington, D.C. Area, and Founding Director of the Center for Leadership in Global Sustainability (CLiGS). He received his Ph.D. from the University of Montana and his law degree from the Pennsylvania State University. He teaches courses in Natural Resource Law and Policy, Environmental Conflict Management, and Global Issues in Environmental Sustainability. His research is published in Society and Natural Resources, Journal of Forestry, Environmental Impact Assessment Review, Environmental Management, Journal of Forest Policy and Economics, and other leading natural-resources journals. He is an avid photographer and traveler, having journeyed to more than fifty countries, camera in hand.