Water rights and wrongs: the European experience

Nearly two million Europeans say water is a human right

“The right to safe and clean drinking water and sanitation is a human right that is essential for the full enjoyment of the right to life”.  
-    United Nations resolution, 2010

Unfortunately, the Irish Government abstained from the vote on this resolution.  Water is not defined as a right either in the Irish Constitution, or in the various laws pertaining to water supply – most recently, the legislation setting up Irish Water.

The Irish Government may not view access to water and sanitation as a basic human right, but nearly two million European citizens disagree. 1,884,790, to be precise.  That is the number of Europeans who signed up to a European Citizens’ Initiative spearheaded by the European Federation of Public Service Unions in a bid to have the European Commission introduce a legal right to water in the EU while also excluding water services from liberalisation moves.   

European Citizens Initiatives are a relatively recent innovation, enabling one million EU citizens to demand that the European Commission propose legislation in an area where national powers have been transferred to the European Union.

The Right2Water Initiative was the first to hit the required number of signatures.  In December 2013, the Initiative was submitted to the Commission, and a hearing was held in the European Parliament in February of this year. 

The Initiative demonstrated the power of civil society groups working across borders – and the importance attached to water rights by citizens throughout Europe.  Although the EFPSU and individual public service unions, including IMPACT in Ireland, played a central role, the Initiative was also supported by a wide variety of organisations ranging from the European Anti-Poverty Network to environmental organisations such as Greenpeace. 

They were all determined to ensure that the right to water is not merely recognised but implemented, both at a national and at a European level.  Rights cannot be guaranteed if they are subject to market forces, and it was becoming increasingly clear that the European Union’s stated aim of creating a single market in goods and services – including water and other public goods – ran directly counter to the UN Resolution.  

The European Citizens Initiative was not an unqualified success:  the signatures were gathered, the European Parliament hearing was held – but the European Commission has failed to deliver the legislative guarantees required to implement the right to water.  Nevertheless, the Initiative set an important precedent and put water rights firmly on the European political agenda.

The issues surrounding access to water – the ‘right2water’ – differ between Ireland and other EU countries.  In most EU countries, water charges have long been a fact of life:  there, the battle is against liberalisation and privatisation.  Here in Ireland, the battle must be waged on two fronts:  against the proposed charges, which (like all consumption taxes) will have the greatest impact on those with the least – and against any threat of privatisation down the road.

Public goods, public hands

In other EU countries, campaigners have succeeded not only in opposing privatisation – but in reversing previous privatisations.  

‘Re-municipalisation’ is not a word that trips off the tongue, but that is precisely what happened in Paris four years ago.  Rising prices and poor accountability led the municipality to cancel its contracts with two private companies which had jointly operated Paris’ water supply system since the 1980s.  Instead, a new public company – Eau de Paris - was established in 2010, unifying the production and supply services which had previously been outsourced.  The decision to re-municipalise resulted in cost savings of almost 15 per cent in the first year – and in an eight per cent reduction in water charges in the second year.  In addition, the new company has been increasing investment in water conservation, water resource protection, research, innovation, and awareness-raising – issues which (shades of Eircom) were not priorities under privatisation.

Public goods are best in public hands.  And, in Paris, people power achieved just that.

In Ireland, the challenge is to mobilise people power to ensure that water remains a public good free at the point of use.