Suez's Attempts to Silence Critics on Par with its Water Management: A Failure

Water justice advocates around the world cheered recently when a French court rejected a defamation lawsuit brought by Suez Water against the makers of the documentary film Flow. A multi-national private water provider, Suez had sued due to the film's focus on its role in profiting from (and often curtailing consumer access to) essential water resources.

It's hardly a surprise that Suez would aim to silence its critics -- the company has left a trail of sewage overflows, contaminated drinking water, decaying infrastructure, political scandals and other examples of botched management in the wake of its attempt to profit off of local water systems around the globe.

In January 2005, the government of Bolivia initiated the termination of its contract with the Suez subsidiary Aguas del Illimani in El Alto and La Paz due to the company's contractual incompliance, pitiful service record and dismal environmental performance. An audit found that the company had failed to make promised investments in local water systems and had also failed to meet its obligations to expand drinking water and sewage service.

The audit also found that one of the company's wastewater treatment plants had discharged contaminants into the Rio Seco, posing serious environmental and public health risks. Moreover, the company also failed to meet specific drinking water quality standards established by the contract; in 2005, sulphate levels were found to exceed levels acceptable for human consumption.

In addition to these violations, it seems that the company had been more than a little creative in establishing the terms of its contract with the government of Bolivia -- cherry picking the areas where it would deliver water service, leaving many low-income areas without drinking water. Some 200,000 people were stranded without water service, while another 80,000 were effectively denied water as well because they could not afford to shell out the equivalent of 450 U.S. dollars for the connection fee.

Similar problems have plagued Suez's ventures in other countries. In 2006, Buenos Aires terminated its 30-year contract with the Suez-controlled Aguas Argentinas claiming that the company had failed to make promised system investments and that nitrate levels in the water in some areas of the city exceeded legal limits.

Atlanta, Georgia cancelled its 20-year contract with Suez just four years into its service agreement after the company slashed water system jobs in half and accumulated a maintenance backlog of 14,000 work orders. The company was also linked to a local political scandal in Atlanta, allegedly making questionable payments to then-mayor Bill Campbell, who was eventually sentenced to 30 months in prison for tax evasion.

The French court's decision to deny Suez's claims upholds the rights of the media to scrutinize the activities of multinational corporations, especially when those activities compromise the ability of millions of people around the world to access a vital natural resource. With 1.2 billion people lacking access to safe, clean, affordable water, it is unconscionable that a company as powerful as Suez would choose to use its considerable influence to obscure the facts behind this crisis.

Yet despite Suez's attempts to the contrary, momentum to ensure affordable access to potable water continues to escalate. On July 28 of this year, the United Nations General Assembly passed a resolution to recognize water as a human right. Some 122 countries representing more than five billion people supported the measure.

Last month, the director and production company behind Flow released an open letter to Suez CEO Jean-Louis Chaussade, calling for a joint collaboration to develop new water delivery methods to people in developing nations who currently lack basic water service. The letter urges Chaussade to harness Suez's considerable capital to help fight water-related health problems, while supporting local economies and increasing social stability in many parts of the world.

With Suez itself boasting of its commitment to "the challenge of protecting resources and ecosystems" the proposition offered by the makers of Flow could be an opportunity for the company to finally live up to its own marketing hype. It remains to be seen if facilitating affordable water access is a realizable mission for a company that has so far made its fortune profiting from the exploitation of a natural resource. In the meantime, water warriors around the world will continue to help build the capacities of local governments everywhere to deliver safe, clean affordable water to all.