Do Pipelines have Politics?

The re-municipalization of water in Barcelona

Written by Susanne Hirschmann


In her vignette for the Master’s Blog, Susanne Hirschmann, student of the M.A.-program Responsibility in Science, Engineering and Technology (RESET) at the MCTS, discusses the recent political challenges for Barcelona’s water supply. Social movements and politicians criticize the role of formerly purely private actors who provided water for too long without even having a legal contract for doing so. In 2019, after much political pressure, there is hope that, due to public dialogues, the water supply in the metropolitan area can be democratized (“re-municipalized”) in the near future.

Water leaks from a rusty water pipe that runs next to me. Water drops hit the bottom, I step into the small puddles and my sandals get damp. It is only the three of us in the illuminated tunnel that connects the two buildings of the museum “Casa de l’ Aigua” (engl. “House of Water”) which located on one of the hills of Barcelona: me, the rusty water pipe and the sound of leaking water. In the past, the House of Water, built in 1919, was used as a water treatment station that provided water for Barcelona. Today, it is a museum that shows Barcelona´s history by taking into account the essence of life and, subsequently, the essence of city development: water and the infrastructure that makes water accessible for the population. Some posters about the history of water supply in the Barcelona metropolitan area guide us to the other end of the tunnel. One particular poster which reads “Democratic management of water and the possible remunicipalization of Barcelona’s water supply” catches my attention. I start to ask myself: does water have politics and how can its management be democratic?

The water supply of Barcelona is limited and a never-ending fear of running dry makes the secure supply of water one of the city’s main issues. The rivers Llobregrat and Ter provide more than 70 percent of Barcelona’s drinking water, with the remainder coming from other rivers and a desalination plant. Together they provide more than 200,000 m3 per year for the citizens in the metropolitan area of Barcelona. The supply of water coming from rural areas to the metropolitan area of Barcelona (AMB) is in the hands of a public entity called “Agencia Catalana de l’Aigua” (ACA). The management of potable water within the AMB is outsourced to the private-public company “Aigües de Barcelona” (AGBAR), with a private share of 85 percent and a public share of 15 percent.

Social movements like “Aigua es Vida” and political parties such as the “Candidatura d’Unitat Popular” (CUP) and “Barcelona En Comú”, among others, campaign in order to remunicipalize Barcelona’s water management and create a public company that would in charge of Barcelonas water supply. The main claim is that water is both a human right and a common good. For this reason, it has to be managed by public entities which serve only the citizens. These movements not only question the very technical issue of water supply, infrastructure and quality management, but also strive for democracy, public ownership and participation. For instance, this can be archived by creating a citizen observatory on water. It will not only assist in the initial process of remunicipalizing water, but also will be useful once remunicipalization has been put into practise. Specifically, democratic processes and participation are required for the infrastructure’s design and construction phase. Once put into practice, this infrastructure requires maintenance, supervision and transparency. Overall, members could decide on tariffs, get access to the new public company’s data and decide as well on new investments on infrastructure.

However, the water supply remains in the private hands of AGBAR for now. The privatization of water is often criticized as it turns water into a business and only maximizes economic benefits. There is an inherent conflict between providing a basic good for the public and the goal of making a profit. Apart from general arguments against privatisation of water, AGBAR is criticized for two principal reasons. First, the company lacks transparency. In 2013, a public-private company was created in order to solve the problem that AGBAR had a monopoly on providing water management service for 150 years without a valid contract [1]. By creating the public-private company, AGBAR declared active assets of 476 million euros, whereas another report indicated the real value to be closer to 130 million euros. The municipality of Barcelona is still waiting for a court order to uncover the truth. Second, AGBAR is not only a local company but acts as a subsidiary company of the multinational Suez in more than 24 countries worldwide [2]. AGBAR focuses on urban water management [3]. The dense population in cities guarantees a large profit margin, whereas the rural, less dense, areas are served by public entities.

I leave the tunnel behind me and thousand thoughts about public and private ownership of water join me on my way out of the museum. Fresh air enters my lungs and my eyes observe Barcelona lying in front of me. Fog hangs over the city, which in turn covers the pipelines, taps, and subterranean water providing the essence for the city’s life. In 2019, a public consultation on the remunicipalization of water in Barcelona will take place; let’s see if the fog will clear up.