By Elle McKenzie

Actual water barons: executives of Thames Water and RWE share a glass of water to celebrate their partnership. Credit: UPPA/Zuma

A report by the International Consortium
of Investigative Journalists

When you run your kitchen tap and fill a glass with water do you ever wonder who it is that owns and controls this most essential of commodities? You probably imagine that it is a local company. Most likely that is how it appears when you receive a water bill. However, wherever you are in the world, you may well be wrong. It is most likely one of the following three companies: Suez, Vivendi and Thames Water. The first two are French and the latter, British. Since 1990, supported in their efforts by funding from the World Bank, these three companies have been assiduously working to privatize water supplies on every continent. 

This ten-part report discloses the alarming growth in water privatization over the last decade and points to a not too far off future when 75% of public water will be in the hands of a virtual monopoly. It also discusses the key issue against privatization -- the loss of accountability -- demonstrating, via case studies of nine countries, the risks to public health when the ownership of water is concentrated in the hands of large, for-profit, corporations. 

The full report is at

Summary of Report Sections 

Introduction: Cholera and the Age of Water Barons

Overview of the growth in water privatization, the key companies involved, the role of the World Bank and other financial institutions and the race to drive up the price of water as the gap between the world's rich and poor widens.


Water and Power: The French Connection

Private companies have run water in France since the Napoleonic era. In some ways it could be said to be the birthplace of water privatization. The French government has a protectionist approach to water; no foreign companies have concessions in France. This section investigates the scandals and allegations of corruption against its leading companies, Suez and Vivendi.

South Africa

Metered to Death: How a Water Experiment caused Riots and a Cholera Epidemic

In this country ravaged by AIDS, tuberculosis and malnourishment, one of the biggest problems is the cost of water. In 1999, South Africa initiated five water privatization programs as part of a government policy aimed at making people pay for the full cost of having running water in their homes. The South Africans call it "total cost recovery." Few can afford it, forcing millions of South Africans to seek their water from polluted rivers and lakes. The result: one of the largest outbreaks of cholera.


The 'Aguas' Tango: Cashing in on Buenos Aires' Privatization

In 1993, under pressure from the World Bank, the IMF and the U.S. government, Argentina sold off its Buenos Aires water utility to a consortium controlled by Suez and Vivendi. The World Bank declared the privatization an overwhelming success and used it as a model in other countries. However, as this investigation shows, it is a model riddled with greed and deceit, and while investors have made substantial profits, 20% of infant deaths in Argentina are caused by intestinal bugs from untreated water.


Loaves, Fishes and Dirty Dishes: Manila's Privatized Water Can't Handle the Pressure

In a country with long-term water supply problems, the privatization of Manila's water supply in 1997 seemed like a miracle. However, six years later much of the shine is off with the system struggling under the weight of debt, broken pipes and water theft. Now the price of water is rising again, as much as 86% in one area, and the government claims it is powerless to act on behalf of its citizens.


Water and Politics in the Fall of Suharto

When Indonesian dictator Suharto resigned in 1998, turning Jakarta into a war zone, the executives of Thames Water and Suez fled the city. This report is an investigation into how these two multinationals, again backed by the World Bank, gained control of the water supply in Jakarta without public consultation, and what happened when they abandoned the city leaving only three days supply of chemicals needed to clean the city's drinking water.


A Tale of Two Cities

Cartagena took a World Bank loan and became one of the first Colombian cities to privatize its water supply. Whilst many more people have water, the enterprise has been marred by allegations of contract irregularities that are now under investigation by the World Bank. By contrast, Bogotá, where they believe that water belongs to the people, refused World Bank funds and its attempt to impose privatization and transformed its public utility into the most successful in the country.

United States

Low Rate, Needed Repairs Lure 'Big Water' to Uncle Sam's Plumbing

With an aging water system in need of repair, foreign private companies have been gearing up to control the market for upgrading it. In order to achieve their aim they have spent millions of dollars in a bid to sway the Congressional vote on privatization laws. At the moment Americans have the safest and cheapest public water systems in the world. However, with the substantial financing these foreign companies are promising, America's drinking water may be neither cheap nor public for long.


Hard Water: the Uphill Campaign to Privatize Canada's Waterworks

In Canada water is public and that's how they like it. When investment gurus predicted that water would be the boom industry of the 21st century, the city of Hamilton decided it would get in at ground level and privatized the water utility. The plan was that this would reassure people that the free market model could work. It was supposed to change public opinion. In a way it did. But not in the way expected.


The Big Pong Down Under

When Adelaide signed a contract with a consortium controlled by Thames Water and Vivendi to privatize the city water system it was unaware that within 15 months it would become the city famous throughout Australia for what became known as 'the big pong'.  For three months of 1997, the city was drenched in the smell of sewage, which officials and the water company attributed to weather patterns that prevented the odors from dispersing. Meanwhile people suffered nausea, asthma, headaches and mood swings. The 'pong' was finally tracked down to a treatment plant where the consortium's drive to minimize costs was identified as the real culprit.

Water Industry Database

Corporate information on the major companies and their subsidiaries.

About ICIJ

ICIJ was launched in 1997 as a project of the Center for Public Integrity to extend globally the Center's style of watchdog journalism in the public interest by marshaling the talents of the world's leading investigative reporters to focus on issues that do not stop at the water's edge. [aq]