Coincidentally commemorating the date that the United Nations declared safe and clean drinking water and sanitation a human right, Atlantic City’s activists have won their case against privatizing the city’s public water. According to the UN declaration on July 28, 2010, water and sanitation facilities and services must be available and affordable for everyone. “The costs for water and sanitation services should not exceed 5 percent of a household’s income, meaning services must not affect peoples’ capacity to acquire other essential goods and services, including food, housing, health services and education,” the declaration reads.
“Atlantic City has a strong culture of civic associations,” the New Jersey Organizer for Food and Water Watch, Lena Smith says. Smith is responsible for reaching out to South Jersey community groups and organizations that work to ban fracking and keep water publicly owned. In 2015, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie pushed to take over Atlantic City’s affairs and signed a statewide law making it even more profitable for struggling municipalities to sell their water services. Having already privatized the sanitation department and reduced benefits for firefighters and police officers to decrease spending, the city’s entire public water was gradually falling into the laps of private corporations. To fight this, Smith began campaigning in 2015 to to raise awareness about the importance of a public water supply, and two years later, her campaign has finally paid off.
“When you give the water to a private corporation, they become accountable to their shareholders, not the public,” she argues. “And they raise rates, because it becomes a commodity.” From a population of 38,000, they set a goal of 1,300 signed petitions and got over 2,400. They visited church groups, went door-to-door, spoke with people on the streets, and trained those that showed interest in getting involved to campaign among their neighbors and colleagues.
During the 1800s, private companies had full control of water systems in several large cities across the U.S. Consequently, cholera outbreaks were common in poor neighborhoods and water pressure was sometimes too low to stop fires, taking its toll on both homes and businesses.
Nowadays, U.S. cities struggling with their debts often consider selling their water systems to private corporations to bail them out. Atlantic City’s tax base has dropped from $20 billion to less than $7 billion since 2010; selling the water system could pump an additional $100 million into the city. Food and Water Watch found that residents in New Jersey who are served by private water companies can pay an average of $230 per year – up to 79% more than people enjoying public water.