By Riccardo Petrella*
On the European Parliament resolution of October 5, 2022 on water as a human right
According to UNICEF and WHO, 1 in 3 people do not have access to safe water. Today, nearly 2.2 billion people do not have access to water and 3.6 billion people worldwide live in areas where water is a potentially scarce resource for at least one month of the year. The right to water and sanitation means having access to an adequate amount of water, at least 20 litres of good drinking water per capita per day in “poor” countries, within a 15-minute walk from the place of residence. The quantity rises to 50 litres in “rich” countries (1).
In 1992, at a UN conference on the environment and water (2), the dominant system, with the help of predatory finance and conquering technology, reduced water to a commodity, an economic good. Moreover, in 1993, the World Bank proclaimed the need to base the management of the planet’s water resources on the principle of access to water via the payment of a price by users, based on the recovery of the total costs incurred by the capital invested (including the remuneration of the capital, i.e. profit). A principle that has since become the red line in the water policy of the dominant parties that must not be transgressed.(3)
The red line of the ruling class on water
The European Union established the red line in Art. 9 § 1 of the European Water Framework Directive in 2000 stating “Member States shall take into account the principle of recovery of the costs of water services, including environmental and resource costs, having regard to the economic analysis carried out in accordance with Annex III and in accordance, in particular, with the polluter pays principle”.(4)
This line has been consolidated and reinforced by the European Commission in its 2013 Water Blueprint, where it states that the main actors in European water policy are the “stakeholders”. Citizens, through elected public institutions, are not even mentioned. (5) In doing so, the European Commission has clearly positioned itself on the side of the financial, industrial and commercial interests of the dominant forces.
Any attempt by the European Parliament to deviate from this red line has failed. (6) The same fate befell the promoters of the important European Citizens’ Initiative (ECI) on “Right2Water” (7), which in 2013 succeeded in meeting the rather stringent conditions (1.8 million certified signatures in at least 7 EU countries) to be taken into account by the European Commission It was within the promoters themselves that the red line played out from the start of the ECI campaign. Some national federations of the European Public Services Union, the main promoter of the ECI, were in favour of the privatisation of public services, notably water, defined as SGEI (Services of General Economic Interest) instead of SGI (Services of General Interest).(8) Contrary to the former, the latter conception is more favourable to public management, with the costs of the right to water being borne by the State via taxation, as is the case with military expenditure. However, in the document explaining the aims and objectives of their ECI, the promoters specified that by the right to water they meant access to water at an affordable price. With this clarification, the ECI proposal was deemed admissible by the European Commission. The final result of the ECI was that the Commission did not follow up on the idea of a legal recognition of the right to water and sanitation in its legislation. It only reaffirmed that its choices and EU policies were effective in promoting the right to water and safeguarding water as a common public good! In other words, the ECI on water has remained in the European history of the struggle for the right to water as a huge mobilisation of European citizens for nothing, a sad example of the blatant disregard of the direct will of the citizens, of a theft of the people’s sovereignty. (9)
It should be noted that the red line of the principle of access to water at an affordable price as opposed to the principle of the right to water has also been incorporated into the principles of the UN Agenda 2015 (“The Millennium Development Goals” 2000-2015) as well as the UN Agenda 2030 (“The Sustainable Development Goals” 2015-2030) and extended to other “universal human rights”: health, food, housing, energy/electricity, education, knowledge… In the 2030 Agenda, there is never any mention of the right to water as a fundamental human right but of access to water on equitable bases and at an affordable price.
The latest European Parliament report
The EP report is another failure to challenge the red line, but also a re-launch of the European political debate on water, life and human rights on a deeper and more solid basis. (10)
Expectations were high for this new own-initiative report of the European Parliament on water. For the first time, it was no longer just about safeguarding the good ecological status of European water resources and their economic management. The report deals with the ‘external dimension’, i.e. the international, global dimension of the right to water and water as a global public good. This is a completely different perspective and a great novelty.
The initiative was taken by the EP Subcommittee on Human Rights, chaired by the Belgian Socialist Maria Arena, a well-known figure among her peers, and the rapporteur was Miguel Urban Crespo, leader of the ‘Anti-Capitalist’ group within the Spanish party Podemos. The debate was an important one, the result of collective and open work. Think about it: the initial draft submitted by the rapporteur contained 22 recitals and 22 proposals. The adopted report contains 35 recitals and 50 proposals, which shows the extent of the work carried out by the parliamentarians in terms of amendments and additions.
However, some of the rapporteur’s most striking points have, unfortunately, been either significantly modified or eliminated. I am referring to the points in which Urban Crespo defended the superiority, in the interest of the citizens, of the public supply model for water services, as well as his invitation to the European Commission to facilitate the processes of de-privatisation of water and sanitation. The majority of the parliamentarians did not follow him.
Neither the initial report nor the adopted report questioned the deleterious concept of replacing the right to water with the principle of access to water on equitable grounds at affordable prices (remember that equity is not justice). There is no substantial and well-argued denunciation of the way commodification and financialization of water amount to doing away with a global public good and a fundamental human right. There is only a short mention of long-term water contracts being put on the stock market. The heavy influence and domination of private financial powers deserve far greater attention and criticism than the EP resolution does. Think about the environmental global disaster. As the last 30 years of the fight against climate change have shown, the absolute refusal of the dominant to change even the slightest bit the rules of the current life-denying global financial system is the main bottleneck that has blocked and is blocking to this day the adoption of solutions that could stop the collapse of our world and life on Earth (see COP27 on climate change). The one flaw of those solutions is that they are unacceptable to the dominant economic, financial and techno-military powers. This is the sense of the great structural injustice of the existing system.
Another major reason for considering the glass half empty is linked to the weakness, or even the absence, of analysis and debate on the major issue of global water security and, in this context, of the strategy of resilience imposed by the dominant powers, particularly the West, at the global, continental and local levels. As conceived and proposed by the dominant powers, resilience in the face of water scarcity, which is already ravaging many countries in Africa, Asia Minor and South Asia, depends on two key factors: a high technological capacity, which is increasingly expensive, enabled by a high financial power. More than 80% of the world’s population has neither basic technological capacity nor financial power. If this situation is not changed, four fifth of humankind will be non-resilient, i.e. without a future. (11)
Finally, little space is devoted to the institutions and mechanisms of regulation, accountability, management, control and sanctions, on a global (not just international) scale, that are supposed to define and promote ‘global’ water and sanitation policies. Yet the weaknesses and limitations of the UN’s capacity to act at the global level are well known. It is said that this is because of so-called “national interests”, when in fact behind this alibi are the predatory interests of domination and enrichment of the most powerful private groups. Why did the European Parliament not take advantage of this resolution to denounce the fact that one of the embryonic but strong forms of “political” world regulation of water and sanitation is constituted by a private body such as the World Water Council and its two major instruments, the World Water Forum and the Global Water Partnership? The Council was founded in 1995 by the major private water producers, distributors and users. Today, under the guise of a so-called public-private partnership, we are witnessing a veritable submission of national and international public authorities to the commercial, utilitarian and technocratic approach to water.
As we can see, the glass is still half empty. Fortunately, it is also half full. I am thinking in particular of the report’s systematic emphasis on the principle of the universal right to water and of water as a global public good, an essential public good. This is in clear contrast to the attempts of the ‘water lords’ who, after the unexpected adoption by the UN General Assembly on 28 July 2010 of the resolution recognising the universal right to water and sanitation,(12) sought to make people forget that such a right exists! The report’s insistence on awareness of the value of water as a right and an essential public good is encouraging in the face of the continuing avalanche of commercial, productivist, extractive, financial, technocratic and competitive visions of water.
Another positive sign is the many references to the rights of indigenous and aboriginal populations and to respect for their specificities, values and ways of life. The same applies to the emphasis placed on the condition of women and girls, who are too often burdened with the chore of fetching water every day from a distance of several kilometres…
The humanist approach of the EP report is not rhetorical. It is fundamental in the fight against social inequalities and the predation of life. Thus, the denunciation of land grabbing by large private groups in rich countries, particularly in Europe, and the criticism of the World Bank and the IMF inviting them to stop applying the principle of conditionality, i.e. the obligation for countries requesting funds to privatise water and water services as a condition for granting loans for the development of national water management systems, are to be welcomed.
In this respect, it is also worth highlighting the references made on several occasions to strengthening the means and actions of cooperation at the level of international rivers and transnational basins.
In short, if the resolution does not touch on certain bastions of the red line of the dominant forces that today delimits the field of political correctness, (13) it must nevertheless be recognised that the neglected and even denied rights to water and life of billions of people (the impoverished, the excluded, the most vulnerable, the victims of racism and of wars) have found convinced defenders in the European Parliament.
They have reopened spaces for action and utopia. The struggle for the universal right to water and for water as an essential global public good continues.
(1) 1 in 3 people in the world do not have access to safe water – UNICEF, WHO (who.int)
(6) Cf. https://www.europarl.europa.eu/news/fr/press-room/20140214BKG36173/initiative-citoyenne-l-eau-un-droit-humain/2/l-eau-un-droit-humain-et-le-parlement-europeenU. In addition, a major unsuccessful attempt was made during the revision of the Drinking Water Directive in 2018.
Cf. https://europeecologie.eu/droit-a-leau-le-parlement-europeen-a-loccasion-de-defendre-une-position-forte-et-ambitieuseut.Ce was not the case!
(8) Cf. “The European regulatory framework for public services: legislation, financing and constraints”, https://www.ciriec.uliege.be/wp-content/uploads/2017/02/WP2016-10FR.pdf
(9) Riccardo Petrella, https://www.pressenza.com/fr/2020/06/des-attaques-persistantes-pour-ne-pas-reconnaitre-leau-comme-un-droit-humain-et-un-bien-public/ (available in French, Spanish and Italian)
(10) Cf. Report on access to water as a human right: the external dimension, https://www.europarl.europa.eu/doceo/document/A-9-2022-0231_FR.html
(11) Riccardo Petrella, Water and Resilience, 5 March 2020, https://www.meer.com/fr/61408-eau-et-resilience
(13) Among the “politically” incorrect proposals see Riccardo Petrella, “A World Water Security Council must be created”, https://www.lalibre.be ‘ Debates ‘ Opinions
*Riccardo Petrella, Professor Emeritus of the Catholic University of Louvain (B), Agora of the Earth’s inhabitants, author of The Water Manifesto” (1998)