Brazil’s Senate passed a bill Wednesday paving the way to privatize state-owned water and sanitation companies and attract more private investment to the badly languishing sector.
The bill, which President Jair Bolsonaro plans to sign, aims to bring better service to the 35 million Brazilians who lack clean drinking water and 100 million whose sewage gets dumped raw, without ever being treated, its sponsors said.
Opponents argued it would put a vital public resource in corporate hands at a time when many countries or cities that have privatized their water systems are regretting it.
The bill, which cleared the lower house in December, passed by a vote of 65 to 13 in the Senate.
“Nearly half the population of this country lacks basic sanitation. They have cell phone coverage, but they’ve been left with their feet in an open sewer,” said its chief sponsor, Senator Tasso Jereissati of center-right party PSDB.
“There are multiple benefits to universalizing water and sanitation services by 2033. Sanitation has a multiplier effect that creates jobs, health, education and improves people’s lives.”
The government estimates 700 billion reals ($130 billion) will be needed to meet that goal.
The bill aims to attract private investment to the sector by eliminating the ceiling on government spending on public-private partnerships and facilitating the privatization of state-owned sanitation companies.
It was voted on via remote session because of the coronavirus pandemic, which has highlighted the urgency of addressing sanitation problems for Brazil’s poor.
The country has the second-highest caseload and death toll in the pandemic, after the United States, but many Brazilians lack access to the most basic thing needed to prevent the spread of the virus: clean water to wash their hands.
Sanitation is the last major infrastructure sector in Brazil that has not been privatized.
Bolsonaro, who has pushed a sweeping agenda of free-market reforms, had said passing the bill was a top priority.