The Privatization of Water and What May Change in the Life of Favela Residents

Many homes in Rocinha don't have formal connections to the sewerage network.

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For the original article by Michel Silva in Portuguese published in Fala Roça click here.

The law to privatize the State Water and Sewage Utility (CEDAE) was approved in a plenary of Rio’s Legislative Assembly (Alerj) on Monday February 20. There were 41 votes in favor and 28 against the proposal.

According to the state government, the sale of the company is one of the conditions of the Fiscal Recovery Plan, signed in January with the federal government, which foresees the suspension of payment of the state of Rio’s debt with the federal government. The government expects R$62 billion (US$20 billion) in relief over three years. The vote on the ALERJ bill caught many people by surprise.

The discussion on water supply and sewage treatment in favelas has been a subject of debate by community leaders for decades. In 2016, Governor Luiz Fernando Pezão (PMDB) began a study to give the private sector a concession to install sewage and water supply systems in Rio’s favelas with Pacifying Police Units (UPPs) through a Public-Private Partnership (PPP).

According to data from the PAC (Growth Acceleration Program of the federal government) Household Census, released in 2010, about 70,000 people live in Rocinha. CEDAE supplies 69.3% of the residents. The rest of the population has internal connections, an unofficial network, a well or spring in their home or seek water at public taps. Another important fact is the final destination of the sewage: 10.3% of the sewage goes into ditches, drainage networks (for rainwater) and into rivers, lakes and the sea. However, one just needs to walk through Rocinha, pass by a ditch and note that the sewage that comes out of the houses is not connected to the city’s sewage network. That is, the sewage goes to the sewage treatment plant in São Conrado, and then goes into the rivers, into the sea, etc.

Favela residents have realized how detrimental the privatization of public services is, one example being the distribution of electricity by Light (electric utility). Reports in different communities in the South Zone show that the company is charging prices that are incompatible with the incomes of residents.

According to CEDAE, communities and housing developments intended for low-income residents, who present documentation in compliance with Decree 25.438 /99, are entitled to the benefit of a special Social Tariff. The price of the Social Tariff for 30-day water and sewage service is in the total amount of R$28.72 (US$9.23). In an ALERJ plenary vote, deputies approved an amendment that favors maintaining the Social Tariff, one day after the approval for privatization.

Privatization worries residents

For 70-year old Rocinha resident and water rights activist, José Martins, even if there is a subsidy from the State Government for the favelas, the price will not be affordable for the low-income population. “With the sale of CEDAE, the residents of Rocinha will pay for water and sewage. I do not know if people will be able to pay. I imagine that the bill may come to about R$150 per house,” says Martins.

Aware of political changes that were happening, the leadership of favela residents’ associations in Rio de Janeiro came together and founded the Community Union in 2014, an inter-community association that brings together leaders from more than sixty favelas in Rio de Janeiro to defend better public policies in their communities. Reinaldo Reis, the 42-year-old vice-president of the organization, is a resident of Tabajaras, in Rio’s South Zone. For him, the crisis is only an excuse to justify the bankrupt state, involved in many corruption cases. The biggest losers are favela residents. “We believe that the favelas will suffer a lot because we have the experience of the privatization of Light, when the state government, through the UPP project, made Light its strongest partner. Today there are shacks in the community with a fan, a refrigerator and two rooms paying R$700-800 (US$225-257) in electricity. With the privatization of CEDAE, the model will be the same, causing gentrification in the favelas,” explains Reis.

Promoting regulation of public services in the favelas has always been guided by the struggles of community movements. According to the president of the Association of Residents and Friends of Laboriaux and Vila Cruzado, José Ricardo Duarte, 51, starting from the moment favela residents are treated similar to any other citizen, he has the conscience, rights and obligations to pay a fair price for services. However, public services in favelas are poor. “I always hear from the people of Laboriaux and there are times when we spend four or five days without water. Sewerage does not cover the whole favela. Because of the ditches and because you live with this situation, it discourages you from acting like a citizen paying your taxes for basic needs,” says Ricardo.

The mood in favelas is uncertain. Or rather, one thing is certain: the bill may increase, because nobody invests millions of dollars in a company without profiting on the service offered. Although the Social Tariff is being maintained even with the privatization of CEDAE, the prices may change. Social tariffs should be discussed with community residents because each favela has its dynamics and diversity.

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Light’s Abusive Billing and Questionable Service in UPP Favelas
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Fifty Years Fighting for Water Regularization in Rocinha