Free Trade Fears Halt Water Plant Privatization

The rabble, 5 July 2001

The Greater Vancouver Regional District (GVRD) has shelved its scheme to privatize a planned water filtration plant. More than 1,000 citizens attended consultations in June to oppose handing the plant to any multinational corporation. Many argued that global trade agreements could erode the community's control over privatized water services.

Explaining its reversal, the alliance of 21 municipalities echoed concerns about trade agreements like NAFTA and the GATS:

We will ... seek assurances that the Federal Government will absolutely protect the ability of local authorities to provide services without suffering repercussions from private companies, other nations or the government of Canada as a result of international treaties.

—GVRD Press Release, June 29, 2001

Greater Vancouver's decision is timely. On May 2, a court upheld a US$16 million NAFTA Tribunal ruling against Mexico in favour of Metalclad Corporation. This was an early test of NAFTA's Chapter 11 rules. Those rules allow corporations to sue nations for violating their investor rights. Metalclad argued that Mexico had expropriated its property—by allowing a local state governor to issue an ecological decree barring the multinational from operating a hazardous waste dump.

Metalclad's victory sharpened critics' concerns over local communities' ability to regulate privatized services. Two rabble partners were especially vocal in the campaign against the private filtration plant for the Vancouver area.

Canadian Union of Public Employees

Canada's largest union represents more than 65,000 public employees across British Columbia. CUPE commissioned an independent legal opinion on how trade agreements could impact the water privatization plan in Vancouver. The union also staged an opinion poll showing public opposition to the scheme. Last week, the GVRD credited CUPE's campaign as a catalyst its decision.

Council of Canadians

This persistent advocate for public services spearheads the Blue Planet Project—an international coalition of groups defending the world's fresh water from risks posed by trade and privatization.