Water, an essential good in private hands

Come rain, snow or shine, the supply of water consumed by more than 80% of Catalans is still in the hands of totally or partially private companies. Despite efforts to recover the public management of this service, the multinationals in the sector are reluctant to lose a very lucrative business.


Through the public company ONAIGUA, the Osona county council took over the management of water supply in the county in April last year, serving 11,400 consumption points and more than 25,000 inhabitants. It became the first county council to take such a step.

We could say that this is a market anomaly, as water supply in Catalonia is mostly in private hands. A small number of private companies manage and profit from this precious commodity in our country thanks to concessions that are often questioned. And yet, in the world, public management supplies 90% of the population and the United Nations recognises water as a human right.

According to data from the Water is Life platform, more than 80% of Catalans obtain their water through a fully or partially privatised service, while those who receive it through a public company do not even represent 20% of the population. This imbalance is explained by the dominance of the private model in the municipalities with the largest population, which are the most profitable.


Pressure to municipalise a basic service

Faced with this reality, there is growing pressure to recover the public management of this service. The Association of Municipalities and Entities for Public Water (AMAP) already has 68 members and represents 47% of the population of Catalonia. It recently published a report with proposals for legislative reforms to change this situation.

Six municipalities, the Association of Microvillages of Catalonia and a newly public company joined this entity in 2022. Of the new municipalities, only Mieres (La Garrotxa), Collbató (Baix Llobregat) and Torroella de Montgrí (Baix Empordà) manage water directly. Castelló d’Empúries is in the process of municipalizing the service, while Manlleu and Sitges are still tied to concessions for more than a decade with Sorea and Agbar. As for the Association of Microvillages of Catalonia, it should be noted that 70% of municipalities with less than a thousand inhabitants already manage their water supply directly.


Almost a monopoly

Although the private companies that manage water in Catalonia go by different names depending on the municipality, most belong to the Agbar group, which is valued at around 3 billion euros.

This group fully controls the company Sorea and owns almost 80% of Companyia d’Aigües de Sabadell (CASSA), 68% of Aigües de Rigat (Igualada) and 49% of Empresa Municipal Aigües de Tarragona (Ematsa). In addition, it owns around 35% of Mina Pública de Terrassa and 31% of Girona SA.

Its profits come not only from the sale of water, which last year it intended to make 7.4% more expensive in Barcelona. They also come from subcontracting services to its subsidiaries. This means that in Barcelona, for example, the cost of water meters for the end user ends up more than tripling the original cost. We are talking about 17 million euros of additional profit per year.


Prosecution strategy

Faced with a business of this size, it is not surprising that Agbar would take to court any initiative aimed at recovering the public management of the water supply, as detailed by the ctxt portal. In Barcelona alone, this multinational and its related entities have filed around forty legal actions

Its strategy of bogging down these processes in court to delay or dilute them has even led it to file a lawsuit against a simple agreement between Barcelona City Council and the Metropolitan Area for the exchange of information between institutions.

One of the most notorious cases has to do with the consultation that Barcelona City Council wanted to promote in order to find out the opinion of the citizens on the possible public management of water. Various entities, including Agbar, lodged appeals. Finally, the High Court of Justice of Catalonia (TSJC) suspended the regulation on citizen participation in the part relating to consultations and prevented the initiative from going ahead.

The case that affects the largest number of municipalities is the one that Agbar brought against several councils in the Metropolitan Area of Barcelona. Initially, a ruling by the TSJC in 2016 annulled the concession to Aigües de Barcelona for the water supply in several municipalities in the metropolitan belt, with which the company ensured the service to almost three million inhabitants for 35 years and revenues of 3.5 billion euros. The court saw “grounds for annulment due to defects in the contracting process” when the joint venture in which Agbar participated was set up. However, the Supreme Court overturned this ruling in 2019, considering that the procedure used by the Administration to award the service without a public tender was endorsed by the Public Sector Contracts Act.


Shady practices

As denounced by Eloi Badia, councillor for Climate Emergency and Ecological Transition of Barcelona City Council, Agbar’s shady practices to obtain concessions have led it to be indicted in three macro legal cases (Pokémon, Punica and Petrum), in addition to being expelled in 2017 from water management in Girona after its links with the 3% scheme were demonstrated.

The reports of the latter case found that, for more than two decades, the people of Girona paid more than 1 million euros in overcharges for the water service. In addition, the Tax Agency warned that the company’s directors had charged personal expenses to the company and concluded that Girona SA had charged hundreds of thousands of euros for services not rendered. 

As we explained in the article “Public services, increasingly privatised”, the privatisation of essential services has been advancing relentlessly in Europe since the 1980s. And this is having an unquestionable price for the citizens as a whole. 11Onze agent Jordi Coll points out that this process has meant subjecting the provision of these services “to the logic of market criteria and, therefore, of private profit”.


If you want to discover how to drink the best water, save money and help the planet, go to 11Onze Essentials.

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  1. Francesc Estafanell PujolFrancesc Estafanell Pujol says:
    Francesc de Borja

    Gran article sobre la situació de privatització de l’aigua. Un dret universal sovint en mans privades.
    Agraït pel compromís d’aquest article.

  2. Joan Santacruz CarlúsJoan Santacruz Carlús says:
  3. Jordi MorenoJordi Moreno says:

    Totalment, cal remunicipalitzar l’aigüa

  4. Manuel Bullich BuenoManuel Bullich Bueno says:

    Hi ha certs serveis, q mai haurien de ser privatitzats i així ens va.

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