French-based transnational corporation Veolia agreed in principle to acquire Suez, its main rival, for $15.5 billion on Monday, setting the stage for the creation of a water and waste management juggernaut that critics warn would be a "dangerous corporate monopoly" destined to "hurt consumers and enrich shareholders."
"Water privatization has been a disaster for communities across the United States and around the world."
—Mary Grant, Food & Water Watch
The Wall Street Journal characterized the deal between the two largest private water corporations in the world, which is not expected to be finalized until May 14, as a profit-seeking attempt to "soak up a global surge in infrastructure and climate-change spending."
But progressives say the consolidation of corporate power in the for-profit water industry threatens to further intensify the commodification and privatization of one of the world's most precious resources.
"Veolia's plan to dominate public water services all across the globe is becoming a terrifying reality," Mary Grant, the director of Food & Water Watch's Public Water for All campaign, said in a statement. "The merger of the world's largest water corporations will erode any semblance of competition for water privatization deals. This lack of competition will worsen our water affordability crisis, eliminate good union jobs, and open the door to cronyism and corruption."
The world's biggest water privatization companies have agreed in principle to merge. Competition in the water utility sector is a joke.— Mary Grant (@MaryGrant_Water) April 12, 2021
Water should return to public control. #StopWaterPrivatization https://t.co/GZzT0TRvX1
"Water privatization," Grant continued, "has been a disaster for communities across the United States and around the world."
According to the international watchdog group Corporate Accountability, both Suez and Veolia "have a long track record of human rights, labor, and environmental abuses" throughout the world.
Lauren DeRusha, water director at Corporate Accountability, said in a statement that "after decades of failed water privatization deals that put profit over people, communities around the globe—from Pittsburgh, U.S. and Osorno, Chile; to Gabon and the halls of the United Nations—have soundly rejected the corporate control of water."
And further corporate consolidation will only intensify the perils of water privatization, said Grant, who suggested the threat looms especially large in the context of the coronavirus-driven economic downturn. "Municipalities struggling with budget crises linked to the Covid pandemic may consider selling off their valuable water systems as a short-term response to plug budget gaps," she said. "This would create long-term harm."
"The best way to make sure all people have access to water, is for people—not corporations—to control it."
—Lauren DeRusha, Corporate Accountability
DeRusha agreed. The pending merger "would not only result in more consolidated corporate control of water by Veolia in Europe, but also leave behind a 'new Suez,'" she said. "'New Suez's' apparent focus on water privatization promises many of 'old' Suez's abusive practices in the places it will operate, including many Global South regions."
"If history is our guide, the results of this merger will undoubtedly be unjust," DeRusha added. "The best way to make sure all people have access to water, is for people—not corporations—to control it."
As the Journal reported, "The deal comes at a time when governments worldwide are boosting spending on infrastructure as part of efforts to recover from the pandemic and overhaul their economies to meet commitments under the Paris climate accord."
"Water and waste management services are grappling with a transition to greener technologies that will require an overhaul in the operations of local services ranging from trash collection and water treatment to recycling and the production of energy from industrial waste," the newspaper noted. "Veolia estimates this transition will create a global market of nearly €1 trillion [$1.19 trillion]."
According to Barron's, another "rationale for a potential merger is that the pair, bitter rivals since the 19th century, would be better able to compete with global challengers from China."
Pushing back against the corporate behemoths' opportunism and triumphalism, Grant stressed that "communities must revert all privatized water and sewer systems to public control to ensure safety and affordability for all."
As DeRusha put it, "People will fight every step of the way to not only prevent the consolidated corporate control of water, but also for a future where access to water is guaranteed—not bought and sold."