Water is Not for Sale: A Look at Italy’s Water Movement

All over the world, communities are engaged in struggles to protect their water supply from harmful corporate activities. In some cases commercial activities contaminate rivers, lakes or groundwater; in others, businesses such as gold mines pollute water sources and use so much water that they literally suck the groundwater dry.

Water privatization is increasing. Transnational corporations are gaining more control of water supplies, and are selling them back to local communities for profit, often with the backing of global economic institutions such as the World Bank. These kinds of conflicts have become increasingly visible in both the developing and the industrialized world – even as the United Nations has affirmed the human right to water in 2010.

This past summer, I was able to observe an amazing nation-wide grassroots movement against water privatization in Italy. Italy has a strong tradition of guaranteeing publically held local water utilities. However, its congress passed a law in 2009 mandating the privatization of all community water services. While the right-wing Berlusconi government claims that this was necessary because of European Union mandates, Italian water advocates assert that the government is just using that as an excuse to promote its own privatization agenda.

The groundswell of opposition and push-back has been electrifying. Thousands of people from all over the political spectrum in every region have organized to overturn the privatization law. Over a thousand local water committees were formed, as well as a strong national coalition, the National Forum for Water Movements. The movement’s slogan is direct and straight to the point: Water is not for sale; remove water from the market – remove profits from water.

Dozens of municipalities large and small have passed resolutions to recognize water as a publically held common good with no commercial significance. One of the many to do so was Fabriano, a small town in the Marche region where part of my family lives, and where I have visited regularly and even lived since childhood. When I interviewed leaders of the Fabriano’s water movement their message was explicit: Our local water must be administered for the common good of the community - il bene comune – and not treated as a market commodity.

Thousands of activists spent months in the spring and early summer doing outreach at local markets and public spaces, handing out information, and registering people in a petition to demand a series of national referenda to overturn the water privatization law. Over 1.4 million people signed the petition – almost a million more than needed – and more than any other referendum petition in the nation’s history. Although the request still has to go through a political process to be determined, organizers hope that the referenda restoring Italy’s water as a public good will take place in spring, 2011.

Italy’s struggle is seen by many as part of a larger, global struggle for the rights of people against corporate power and the local water movement has linked up with water activists all over the world.

Lael Parish is the project director of Promoting Resource Rights in the Global Economy at the Institute for Policy Studies. The project promotes the rights of people and communities over their own natural resources, and supports efforts to change global economic institutions that currently favor transnational corporations in resource conflicts.