Turin: The long march towards water remunicipalisation

On 9 October 2017, the Turin City Council turned back privatisation and took another step towards the remunicipalisation of its metropolitan water system. And so the city entered the next phase of its long march towards water sovereignty, begun in the aftermath of the Second World War on the ruins of a town half-destroyed by allied bombing and by Nazi/Fascist retaliations against the democratic popular resistance.

A performing and profitable public water system (1945-1990)

In 1945, a large part of the Turin's civic aqueduct had to be reconstructed. Today, some of the water pipelines dating back to that period are still in operation. From 1945 to 1990, the Turin Water Service was directly owned and operated by a department of the Turin municipality. During this long period, water and sewage systems were implemented and modernised to keep pace with the growth of the city from 700,000 to 1.2 million inhabitants. The first Italian sewage treatment plant was also created during this time to serve Turin and its Metropolitan Area; it remains the most advanced and efficient plant in the country. Of course, the highly performing, profitable and publicly managed water system of Turin was highly coveted by private companies. They lobbied national governments (both centre-right and left) and gradually obtained laws and regulations supporting the privatisation of national and local public services.

The period of privatisation (1997-2001)

In 1997, the Turin City Council also succumbed to the wave of privatisations. Both the name and mission of the Turin Water Service were changed: it would no longer operate as the municipal department in charge of providing water and sewage treatment to inhabitants. From that time onwards, water was more or less considered as a commercial product. Its management was awarded to SMAT SpA (the Turin Metropolitan Water Company). While Turin and the 306 small and medium-sized municipalities of the Turin Metropolitan Area hold all of the company's shares, SMAT’s legal status as a SpA (or ‘joint stock company’) is subject to private commercial law so that profits are generated and distributed to the shareholders. In the following years, Turin Metropolitan Area municipalities also agreed to incorporate their water systems into this new company. The Turin Metropolitan Water Company started operating under private commercial law, with the goal to starting to make profit on 1 April 2001.

The problem of managing water for profit

Although the Turin Metropolitan Water Company’s shares are 100% owned by municipalities, the Italian water movement does not consider this as a public form of management. For example, in a for-profit enterprise, maintenance costs are reduced so as not to eat into the profits. In Turin, more than 500 kilometres of asbestos cement pipes still need to be replaced in order to ensure human and environmental safety. Moreover, the amount of time that lapses before intervention in the event of a failure or malfunction is too long.

In the smaller municipalities, water service is occasionally interrupted due to pollution from old pipes, poor maintenance or missing safeguards at collection sites. Most pipes date back to the post-war period and should have long ago been replaced, but their renewal and replacement is expensive and will reduce profits. This situation contributes to considerably high rates of water loss.

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