Citizens' participation in the management of water services in Europe : Berlin

The European Water Movement asked associations and collectives, who acted for the return of public management of their local water services, to describe the citizens' participation mechanisms in service management (implemented, being implemented or desired mecanisms), and to analyze their strengths and weaknesses. In this article, Dorothea Härlin from the Berliner Wassertisch presents the case of Berlin.

First Remunicipalization - then Democratization!
An interim report on the democratization status of Berlin’s water management

Berliner Wasserbetriebe (BWB) has been 100% back in public ownership since 2014, after 24.9% shares had been sold to both Veolia and RWE following the familiar PPP model. As with all PPP contracts, this scandalous contract was secret. In 2011, however, after the first people’s initiative referendum to be won in Berlin (“Our Water”), the contract had to be disclosed. This placed Berlin’s politicians under such pressure that they bought back RWE’s shares in 2012 and Veolia’s shares in 2013. BWB has thus been remunicipalized since 2014.

The price was based on the contractually-agreed profit which was guaranteed for 30 years. The two corporations were therefore paid in cash ahead of schedule for profits up to 2028 financed by a loan taken out by BWB for a further 30 years. We now have to pay back this loan every month with our water charges. So Berlin’s population continues to suffer from the earlier privatization (more about this later).

Nevertheless, remunicipalization of BWB was a great success and an important first step towards our actual goal, which is to manage water as a common. Why is this just a first step? Because, after remunicipalization, a company which was once sold under PPP is never the company that it was before. Corporations only buy into our public services for one reason: to make the highest possible profit. The entire structure of the company is geared towards this logic and the mechanisms used are always the same:

  • Reduction of operating costs, i.e. staffing cuts and consolidation of the work.
  • Scaling back of investment
  • Increased prices for consumers

This structure does not disappear after remunicipalization automatically and can only be changed if there is sufficient political will. But this is missing from Berlin. The interest of the Senate and all the political parties, including the coalition of SPD, Greens and the Left currently in power, continues to make the maximum possible returns from water in order to balance Berlin’s highly indebted budget (1999: debts amounted to 35 billion €, today they are 60 billion). Against this is our clearly stated demand, as set out in the “Berlin Water Charter”: Water pays for water. This means that all the money that we pay with our water charges must be used only for water and effluent. What happens today is that a part of our water money flows into the general budget; we are thus paying a sort of water tax for things which should be covered by our general taxes. This can only be changed by pressure from below, from the people of Berlin who, back in 2011, clearly stated their will in our referendum. For this reason, ever since the buy-back, our slogan has been “First remunicipalization - then democratization”. 

But what does the democratization of Europe’s largest water company (roughly 4 million customers) mean?

The Berliner Wassertisch (Berlin Water Table) does not yet have a definitive answer to this question and we know that we still face a very long road ahead of us. This is why we can only present a few aspects of the general framework and unresolved questions here:

  1. Our demand for no profit from water is contrary to the Berlin Public Utilities Act which states that the public utilities in Berlin must make a profit. This means that we need to amend the Public Utilities Act, but how can we explain this to the general public?
  2. So far, none of Berlin’s parties have demonstrated the will to open up BWB’s structure to allow more participation by the population.
  3. Unfortunately, this demand is not yet supported by the trade unionists within the utility.
  4. Many Berliners who voted Yes in the referendum in 2011 believe that the goal was achieved with the remunicipalization.
  5. We are delighted that tap water in Berlin is very good. But this means that the population has no specific problem that will encourage them to campaign for water Other problems, such as the horrendous rent rises, are much more pressing for many people at present.

These are just a few points that make it difficult for us to turn water into an urgent topic for discussion among the public. This is an essential condition for any model of democratization, however.

But this does not mean we are doing nothing. We have been discussing a number of different approaches within the Berlin Water Table and on the Berliner Wasserrat (Berlin Water Assembly) which was established after remunicipalization in 2014. To reiterate, water is still a long way from being a common, even after remunicipalization. Even though good water comes out of our taps, Berlin still has massive environmental and sustainability problems associated with water. Here are just a few examples: The tap water has to be obtained from bank filtrate since the groundwater is already too contaminated. Berlin’s rivers and canals are far from conforming to the European Water Framework Directive and are threatened by the brown coal mining in the South East of Berlin. There is no forward-looking rainwater management. 

So there is much to do with Berlin’s water beyond profit-oriented structures. We are trying out various approaches to develop ways to achieve greater participation:

  1. Restructuring the decision-making structure in BWB. One-third parity representation (company/employees/population) in a new Supervisory Board to be constituted.
  2. Setting up citizens’ councils, based on the model of Future Councils developed by Professors Leggewie and Nanz.
  3. Encouraging awareness of water’s importance among the population with the aid of the “Blue Community” project initiated by Maude Barlow.

All of these approaches should be regarded as complementary and should no longer be discussed as though they are in competition. Our discussion processes are far from over, so we are grateful for any suggestions from outside.