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AK EUROPA: The human right to water must be implemented without delay!

On Monday, 10th September 2018, the European Parliament’s Committee on Environment, Public Health and Food Safety will vote on the recast of the Drinking Water Directive. This revision has been triggered by the Citizen’s Initiative “Right2Water” - supported by the Chamber of Labour - , where in 2013 over 1.8 million EU citizens demanded for water to become a human right. At a joint event, hosted by the Austrian Federal Chamber of Labour (AK), the Austrian Trade Union Federation (ÖGB) and the European Public Service Union (EPSU), a high-calibre panel will discuss whether the Commission’s proposal will indeed secure access to water for all population groups or whether it will be too preoccupied with technical details. Both initiators and supporters agreed: the human right to water must be even more firmly enshrined in the new Directive.

By showing many photos of campaigns all over Europe, Jan Willem Goudriaan, General Secretary of the European Public Service Union (EPSU) and Vice President of the Citizen's Initiative “Right2Water” explained how the initiative had developed over many years with the help of countless local groups and movements. Three demands have been developed in the end: (I) guaranteed access to water for all EU citizens (II) no further attempts to liberalise water management and (III) support by the EU that also the 800 million people worldwide without access to water will be able to make use of the human right to water. The organisers were disappointed that it took the Commission so long to come forward with a legislative proposal to respond to the most successful Citizen’s Initiative in the EU. However, there were hearings in Parliament in the meantime and a concrete Directive proposal by the Commission to recast the Drinking Water Directive was submitted in February 2018. Apart from that, it must be seen as a success that since the successful end of the Initiative there has been no liberalisation of water nor has water management become part of any trade agreements.

Matjaž Malgaj, Head of Unit, Marine Environment and Water Industry - Water management - of the European Commission, remarked that the Initiative had had a positive effect on the debate on water management. Nevertheless, the Commission is focussing on the subject of water quality. He justified this approach by explaining that one had first to establish where people did not have access to water and the kind of water quality that existed in individual countries. Once these facts had been determined, it would be possible to have a more meaningful debate in future. Apart from that, he sees a great potential to promote the consumption of tap water by transparency of water prices und water quality.

With regard to the Directive proposal, Michel Dantin, Member of the European Parliament (European People's Party) and rapporteur of this Directive, sees three key aspects, which require clarification: determining the number of people without sufficient access to water, the issue of the quality of the water and the question who bears the costs for a better supply. He calls for general formulations within the scope of the Directive to ensure that Member States have room for its implementation. Apart from that, he endorses the statement made by Matjaž Malgaj that very good tap water quality exists in many countries; however, due to a lack of information, people would buy expensive mineral water. Providing consumer-friendly information would make it easier, in particular for people on a low income, to access to high-quality water.

However, regarding this thought, Iris Strutzmann, expert of the Federal Chamber of Labour points towards a contradiction concerning the Directive submitted. Many EU countries, for example Austria, boast an excellent quality of water, which 2 of 3 consumers rate as very good and which is provided by over 500, partly very small suppliers. Based on the control frequencies proposed by the Commission, relevant costs would rise 70-fold; moreover, they would probably be passed on to the consumer. At this point, the representative of the EU Commission agreed and assured that solutions had to be found, as a rise in costs based on water controls for small suppliers had not been intended. Apart from technical details, Iris Strutzmann emphasises that the human right to water has to be enshrined in the target formulation of the Directive to do justice to the Citizen’s Initiative. She calls on the representatives of the institutions to enshrine the right to water as firmly as possible to ensure that its implementation in the Member States does indeed represent value added for the citizens.

Thomas Kattnig, Member of the Federal Executive Board of younion emphasises the importance of enshrining the right to water before the next EU elections in May 2019. It would be a fatal signal for all committed signatories of the Initiative, if the EU institutions would not manage to transpose the most successful Citizen’s Initiative into European law during an entire legislative period. He says with regard to the Member States that he would expect an exchange between countries to ensure that a high level of water supply would be guaranteed in all countries in future.

The Attachée responsible for the Drinking Water Directive, Austrian Federal Ministry for Sustainability and Tourism, explains that due to the various new aspects, which the Commission proposal comprises, Member States in the current working groups would need time to evaluate the specific impact. However, as the Council Presidency regards it as vital to give Member States as much room as possible, results are not yet foreseeable.

What is clear is that time is almost running out for adopting the new Drinking Water Directive before the EU elections in May 2019. The vote on the Drinking Water Directive in the European Parliament’s Committee on Environment, Public Health and Food Safety has been scheduled for 10th September, followed by the vote in the plenary in October. Only once the negotiations in the Council are complete, it will be possible to start the trilogue negotiations. The Chamber of Labour will continue to make sure that the key demands of the successful Citizen’s Initiative “right2water” will indeed be transposed into European law.

Further information:

AK Position Paper: Directive on the Quality of Water for Human Consumption (Drinking Water Directive)

AK EUROPA: Human right to water not sufficiently enshrined in the draft proposal on the Drinking Water Directive

European Commission: Clean drinking water for all Europeans

Citizen’s Initiative „Right2water“

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Julie de Bellaing