Article | A water privatization project in Rio de Janeiro would leave the poorest population without public services

A project prepared by the BNDES intends to deliver the water services and the sanitation network of 64 municipalities in Rio de Janeiro to the private initiatives even this year. Rio de Janeiro will be used to test the waters before the implementation of this new sanitation model in the rest of the country

Tomaz Silva/Agencia Brasil

Since 2017, the Federal Government has taken great pains to facilitate the privatization of sanitation services in Rio de Janeiro. Initially, the attack was directed at the State Water and Sanitation Company of Rio de Janeiro (CEDAE, after its acronym in Portuguese), a public company that provides these services in most municipalities. It was always clear that their real interest was to privatize water in the state.

The Bolsonaro administration further intensified that process through the neoliberal offensive orchestrated by the Minister of Economic Affairs, Paulo Guedes. He maintains that the solution for the Brazilian economy is handing over the country’s wealth at any cost, including water.

For this reason, the National Bank for Social and Economic Development (BNDES) presented a project called Universalização do Saneamento (Universalization of Sanitation), which aims to grant municipal sanitation services to private and international companies for 35 years. According to the technicians who are coordinating the process, this project will advance the provision of services in the state of Rio, leading to greater access and rate reduction.

But the Brazilian workers who experienced the privatization of the electricity sector in the 90s know its contradictions, and say that “this is not how it works, exactly.” In particular, we, those affected by dams, know that profits always come first for private companies; the two crimes of Vale in Minas Gerais reveal this cruelty.

Who is served by the universalization of sanitation?

Just as with the power supply, sanitation consumers are “captives”, that is, the population does not have the right to choose who provides the service.

Therefore, profit is certain because, regardless of the price they charge, the population will be forced to pay. Otherwise, your services will be cut and you may be fined. For private companies, concerns over quality and universalization remain in the background

Although the BNDES project presents itself to the public with this proposal to universalize access, the contracts indicate that the concession companies will not have any obligations, at least for the next 20 years, in communities where there are not adequate levels of urbanization or public safety. Certainly, the poorest population from the most distant and rural regions or the favelas will once again be penalized and excluded as they have been since the times of slavery.

Probably the places considered “dangerous” by the companies will lose the few services that today are provided by the state CEDAE and, if they are maintained, the population will pay very high prices without any improvement to the service.

This shows how irresponsible the privatization of a service would be given that it is essential for the life and health of the population ( if the current federal and state governments even consider the poorest workers as part of the population, that is).

The price will increase

The BNDES plan foresees investing R$ 35.5 billion reais on the companies that win the concession. According to the plan, these resources will be used throughout the 35 years.

The fact is that someone will foot this bill. By examining the example set by electricity sector, which receives loans from public banks and collects electricity payments from the population, we do not doubt that this expense will also be paid by the people. That makes the business even more lucrative; since the private company will earn the concession services as a gift, it will not need to turn to its coffers for investment, and in the end, the people will pay for the loan that the company received from BNDES.

There is no universalization without popular participation

We cannot believe that problems as serious as the lack of accessibility to sanitation will be solved from an office. The population needs to plan solutions for their problems. In the end, we are talking about services that are provided directly to people’s homes and, in addition to that, have a direct connection to health.

Solutions defined within cabinets without popular participation will always harm the people, since the interests of those who make them will always be a priority. In this way, the sell-outs inside the government sign off on absurd policies behind the scenes.

They will deprive the people of the favela of sanitation due to State negligence for the people’s safety. They will carry out million-dollar works, such as the dams of the Tanguá River and the Guapiaçu River. They will invest in sanitation as if it were enough to do only do public works, without taking into account the health problems faced by the population of Rio de Janeiro. They will disregard the innumerable land ownership problems encountered by farmers, problems which make sanitation works in their communities unfeasible, excluding them from the project.

And so goes the list of situations that the population will face as long as the government and the BNDES does not listen to it, both which plan the concession as a trial run for Rio de Janeiro, serving as a model for the sanitation concession in the rest of Brazil.

As if this was not enough, this concession model was approved during virtual public hearings, greatly limiting the possibility that the people would know about the project and its proposals, adding to the impossibility of demonstrating against it.

For the MAB, public hearings—mainly the ones done virtually, but also those done face-to-face—which decide the destiny of millions of people, cannot be considered legitimate. It is a total disregard of the population and of democracy. For those who want to sell Brazil, the presence of the people is unbearable.

They will open the door to the privatization of water in Rio de Janeiro, they are benefitting from the distraction the pandemic affords during the pandemic, and they want to continue doing so in the rest of the country.

What to do?

In the face of such absurd proposals, we have no other path than to organize and fight for our rights.

The fight for water is strengthened in Brazil, and with the approval of the new regulatory framework for sanitation, the sell-out governments have the law in their favor,  from the population something that cannot be understood as merchandise; water.

There is an urgent need for the construction of a policy that guarantees the rights of the population in relation to sanitation services. A great movement is urgent so that:

  • A legal framework is created that prevents companies from acquiring concessions
  • Companies are prevented from increasing the price of the water bill;
  • They are required to bring sanitation for all;
  • They are prevented from disrespecting the environment;
  • Establish a direct channel of communication between the population and the service provider, through a popular institution;
  • Make popular participation essential for any change in the service. This also applies to state-owned companies, which unfortunately also leave much to be desired.

We need to organize, fight and defend our water, defend the health of the population and not allow private capital to steal this right from us, a right recognized even by the United Nations: the human right to water and basic sanitation.

Translation: Ciro Casique Silva

Translation revision: Selene Rivas

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