Right2Water 'landmark moment' for citizens' participation in decision making

European citizens have voiced their concerns over the liberalisation of water supplies, and EU policymakers must listen to them, says José Inácio Faria.

By José Inácio Faria

23 Mar 2015

The very first article of the charter of fundamental rights of the European Union states that "human dignity is inviolable." Without water, there is no dignity.

This assumption is shared by the united nations general assembly, which has recognised "the right to safe and clean drinking water" as a "human right that is essential for the full enjoyment of life". 

This is important given that, being a resource without which life is impossible, it should have the status of a human right. In addition to considerations about the moral and legal value of water, we should also note its economic dimension.

"Access to good quality water is a human right, and its supply and management is a service of economic general interest"

This was outlined the EU water framework directive, which reads, "water is not a commercial product like any other but, rather, a heritage which must be protected, defended and treated as such."

Access to good quality water is therefore a human right, and its supply and management is a service of economic general interest. Bearing this in mind, the first ever successful European citizens' initiative (ECI) inaugurated a public debate on the need to separate water supply from commercial logic of profit.

This was supported by a significant number of citizens, who submitted these views for appreciation by the European commission with a clear agenda in mind - to declare that water services do not fit into a purely market-based approach. This proposal also considered broad access to sanitation, affordability for the most disadvantaged and binding targets for member states.

The commission has failed to mention the issue of present-day liberalisation trends in many EU countries (such as my own, Portugal) and the uncertainties it brings about, namely if the costs of water supply reflect the management costs for private firms rather than the economic availability to access that good - at the end of the day, water is a natural monopoly. 

Instead of going down a one-way street mind-set, it should be up to us to call for more investment in water and sanitation. Member states should prioritise action in areas without essential levels of access to clean water. 

Instead, at the start of 2011, the commission established a new directive on concession contracts, adopted by the council a year ago. These new rules aim at facilitating public-private partnerships and may contribute to the privatisation of public services (with a larger expected incidence in peripheral countries, currently under strong fiscal constraints). 

At the same time, subsidiarity is used as a subterfuge to avoid reaching an agreement on coordinated targets on long-term water-policy goals.

Parliament has already taken steps to address this issue. The environment, public health and food safety and development committees will work together in order to present an initiative report, safeguarding water as a basic human right and launching the debate on concessions. 

I am parliament's ALDE group shadow rapporteur on the house's response to the ECI, and I understand the success of the initiative cannot be ignored, especially as a landmark moment for deeper participation of citizens into decision-making processes. 

In the end, what matters most here is that the people have spoken, and we must hear their voices if we want to remain a credible actor in representing the will of European citizens. 


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