Aug. 29, 2002
Vivendi Embarrassed at UN Sustainable Development Summit
Tough Questions About U.S. Record Spoil Water Giant?s Pro-Privatization Hype
JOHANNESBURG, SOUTH AFRICA ? Peppered with questions by Public Citizen and other civil society groups about why the world?s water supply should be privatized even as corporations are bungling the management of water systems they already operate, Vivendi Environnement today abruptly ended a meeting scheduled to promote a new corporate institute.
Vivendi Environnement, a subsidiary of the debt-choked Vivendi Universal, is one of a handful of corporations on the forefront of the push to privatize the world?s water supplies and systems. Privatization has come under heavy criticism during the World Summit on Sustainable Development (WSSD) from environmentalists and world leaders who believe water is a human right, not a commodity.
Vivendi gathered delegates and other WSSD attendees to a meeting Thursday to announce the creation of its new institute, billed as “a platform for thinking and interchange around the world.” But when pressed by civil society groups to defend the company?s track record, officials unveiling the institute balked.
In New Orleans, Vivendi?s subsidiary, USFilter, has exposed residents to several problems while managing the city?s wastewater system, including one instance in which raw sewage was diverted into the Mississippi River. Now, USFilter wants to take over New Orleans? water system and has made lofty promises of huge savings if only the private company could control the public?s water.
At the meeting in Johannesburg, Wenonah Hauter, director of Public Citizen?s Critical Mass Energy and Environment Program, tried unsuccessfully to obtain answers from Vivendi officials about Vivendi?s plans for its New Orleans operation. Rather than answer, Pierre-Marc Johnson, a former premier of Quebec tapped by Vivendi to serve on its new institute, said he was unfamiliar with Vivendi?s operations, and in the face of continued questioning, the meeting was brought to a halt.
“This so-called institute isn?t being set up to provide an independent assessment of sustainable development, as Vivendi would like people to believe,” Hauter said. “It was clear from Vivendi?s presentation that this is just another spin machine to support the corporation?s mission to seize control of and profit from the world?s water resources.”
Another Vivendi subsidiary, Water Company, was recently ousted from Puerto Rico after a history of neglecting and bungling operation of the water and wastewater systems. In Puerto Rico, Vivendi was criticized for failing to provide running water in many areas ? although the company didn?t fail to send customers a water bill. Puerto Rico awarded the water contract to one of Vivendi?s competitors earlier this year, effectively running the company off the island.
“In Puerto Rico, Vivendi really showed everyone that it exists not to get water flowing to people, but to get money flowing from people,” said Tony Clarke, director of the Polaris Institute. “Why should people in the rest of the world buy into Vivendi?s sales pitch when the company was wholly discredited and run out of Puerto Rico? The parent corporation is reeling under billions of dollars of debt and scrambling to sell assets to stay afloat. Don?t Vivendi?s financial troubles make it even more likely that the company will cut corners and shortchange customers to profit from water?”