The purpose of this blog is to provide analytical commentary on formal and informal labour organisations and their attempts to resist ever more brutal forms of exploitation in today’s neo-liberal, global capitalism.

Monday, 30 July 2018

Holding on – The public water company Acqua Bene Comune in Naples.

In the ongoing struggles over public water in Italy, it is the municipality of Naples and its water company Acqua Bene Comune (ABC), which has played a special role throughout the years of conflict (see Privatisation by stealth). First, an attempt of privatisation was defeated in 2006, then it was the only water company, which was re-transformed into a fully public company with special status after the successful referendum on water in 2011. In this blog post, based on a set of interviews with Italian water activists, I will explore the possibilities but also tensions involved in this particular experiment.

Stopping privatisation

In 1998, the water company in Naples, then called AMAN, was transformed into ARIN SpA, a ‘Società per azioni’ (SpA) or joint-stock company. It was still fully owned by the public, but its status as a joint-stock company implied that it had to operate like a private company with the goal of making profit. It was, however, the plan to part-privatise ARIN SpA in 2004, which resulted in a broad alliance of resistance. This alliance consisted of local water committees around the well-known Catholic priest Alex Zanotelli on one hand, and a network of intellectuals on the other. While the committees mobilised broadly amongst the population, the network of intellectuals set up an assembly, which produced a publication for public water and drafted an appeal on 22 December 2005 against privatisation, which was signed by well-known public people.

After ongoing struggles throughout 2005, the mayor of Naples accepted on 30 January 2006 that privatisation was a mistake and cancelled the competition. On the basis of this success, activists from Naples became closely involved in the setting up of the Italian Water Movements Forum at the national level in 2006, which in turn was then behind the successful referendum in 2011.

Remunicipalising water: setting up Acqua Bene Comune.  

The 2011 referendum on public water had been successful in that the law by the Berlusconi government, which had forced municipalities to privatise their water companies, was abrogated. Nevertheless, while no further privatisations were implemented, those companies which had already been privatised, were not returned into public hands. Equally, the various public holding companies, operating like private companies, were not turned into public companies with a special status either. Naples was the only exception in this respect. After considerations had started in 2011 following the victory in the referendum, the new company Acqua Bene Comune was finally established in April 2013.

The most important aspect of this victory was, as one of my interviewees pointed out, that the transformation had been based on participatory democracy. As a result, the new statutes include a number of important novelties emphasising the importance of social solidarity, ecology, participatory democracy, sustainable development and good governance (see Unlike private companies or SpAs, which have the objective of making profits, ABC has the obligation to balance the books. This allows the company to spend any surplus generated on infrastructure improvements and good causes, including a social tariff for those families and users, who find it difficult paying their water charges. This also involves an international solidarity fund, which is used to provide development assistance to countries in Africa, for example, in securing access to water.  

The company covers new ground in many respects and especially introducing mechanisms of participatory democracy has not been easy. Article 41 of ABC’s statutes outlines its ambitions for the involvement of civil society in the running of the company. It sets up a committee, the Comitato di Sorveglianza, as an institution of control, which includes elected worker representatives and members from the water committees and environmental groups. Nevertheless, the committee does not meet regularly, it is not fully institutionalised and does not have a clear role. During the period of Maurizio Montalto’s directorship of ABC, water activists told me, positive steps had been made towards the involvement of society. A Consiglio Civico was established, open to anyone interested in public water. From this assembly, five delegates and one referent were elected, who had the direct right to participate in the administration of ABC. However, when Maurizio Montalto was dismissed in 2016 over a disagreement with the mayor about the future direction of the company, this experiment came to an end.

Challenges ahead

Capital never gives up, even when it has been defeated. As elsewhere in Italy (see Privatisation by stealth), there is continuing pressure on water privatisation and ABC is not necessarily in a strong position. At the moment, ABC is in charge of the water pipe network and the delivery of water to households, but waste water is handled by a separate public company, also owned by the city of Naples. The intention is that waste water will be shifted to ABC, but this still needs to happen. With general emphasis on organising water as an integrated service, ABC is in a weak position until this has been accomplished.

Photo by Marco Menu

Moreover, a new law in 2015 re-organised the five separate administrative areas into one administrative unit for the region of Campania, the so-called Ente Idrico Campano. In turn, this new unit wants to establish one water company providing an integrated service in each of the five regional districts in Campania. ABC, which provides water for Naples, is entitled to participate in this process, but this will involve that ABC has to take over the water services of an additional 31 municipalities in its regional area. Some of these water services are public, but some have been privatised. ABC has already attempted to take over several of the other municipal water services, but so far without success. In short, there are great uncertainties about whether ABC will be able to incorporate these 31 municipalities in line with the new law. If not, a private company may want to step in and control the water services of the region.

In view of these ongoing tensions and the continuing struggle over providing institutions for meaningful citizens’ participation in ABC, the alliance against water privatisation has started to fragment. There is a lot of mistrust between the administration of ABC and the mayor on one hand, and activists from the water committees on the other. In turn, workers at ABC question to what extent members of civil society would actually have the relevant knowledge to participate in the management of water services. Additionally, they argue that the mayor should show more support for ABC in its attempts to take over other municipal water companies. Finally, even within the water committees themselves, tensions have come to the fore. Unfortunately, as one activist told me, political parties have become involved in the committees trying to attach their electoral fortunes to public water, although the strength of the Italian water movement had traditionally been that it had not become involved in party politics.

‘Despite all these difficulties’, Constanza (not the real name) a water activist from the committees told me, ‘we need to retain Naples as a positive example for others, especially now when the pressure on privatisation is increasing again across Italy’. And Naples has demonstrated what can be achieved by a public water company without the main focus on making profit reflected in its social tariffs, its international solidarity fund and the generally highly progressive statutes. ‘I am proud to work for a company, which has as its main objective the provision of a high quality, affordable service to Naples’ citizens’ says Alessandro (not the real name), a water engineer of ABC. It is this kind of commitment combined with social objectives, which public companies nurture. It is in this respect that we can learn from ABC.

Andreas Bieler

Professor of Political Economy
University of Nottingham/UK
Personal website:

30 July 2018

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