Private vs. Public Reggio Emilia's Water war

A war between private companies and the will of the people has caused a power struggle over Reggio Emilia’s water system during the past decade, resulting in a unique, semi-private, semi-public system.


Prior to 2005, Reggio Emilia’s water system was a publicly owned company. It was owned by the municipality and its constituents. In 2005, three small companies combined to form one larger, still publicly owned, company.

In 2008, those companies merged with others in the surrounding province to create a much larger company that was no longer completely controlled by the municipality. This new company became 60 percent private and 40 percent public.

This is a public splash pad at Teatro Municipale Valli. Water is carried to the area via underground pipes owned by the municipality and a private company.

A change is made:

Six years of mismanagement, unhappy customers and unfair bills eventually led to the solution that we have today: a semi-private, semi-public water system that provides clean water to citizens at an affordable price.

LanFranco DeFranco, a city counselor and member of the environmental sector of the city’s government, said the old system wasn’t working for the city or its people.

LanFranco DeFranco, the youngest city counsel member at 24, is passionate about Reggio Emilia's water system and how if affects his constituents.
“The bigger company kept reducing investments in water pipes,” DeFranco said. “They weren’t keeping the infrastructure in a good state.”
Water leakage from rusty pipes is the number one problem with Reggio Emilia's water system, said DeFranco. A problem he claimed the large privately owned company was not addressing.

DeFranco said the majority-private company also managed a much larger area than its previous public counterparts. In turn, he said, this caused longer wait times for service, less money invested in to the city water’s infrastructure and higher prices for people would didn’t live in populated areas.

Another issue with one large company controlling a vast area of water infrastructure is that local knowledge about systems is lost, DeFranco said.

“Understanding of local [water system] prints is lost,” DeFranco said. “The workers originally had a small coverage area they were responsible for maintaining, but when the company became private and much larger these workers were forced to work in areas they were unfamiliar with.”

What it all means

Ultimately, the decision between private and public came down to a split in the local government. The left was for public ownership and the right was for private ownership.

In 2011 a national referendum showed that many citizens preferred public ownership of their water systems due to lower costs and better maintenance. In 2014, Reggio Emilia followed suit and implemented their current management plan for their water system.

"Who manages water, manages life."

DeFranco’s support for a publicly managed system ultimately stems from one main reason: equality among the citizens.

“Everyone should have opportunity for good water at a fair price,” DeFranco said. “Just because it costs more in the mountain regions than the city center doesn’t mean that a private company should be able to deny Reggio’s citizens a right.”

An attempt to contact a counsel member who was for the privatization of water was made via email and phone. The member never responded to the questions I sent via email.

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