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Right to water and sanitation

Jerry van den Berge | 20 February 2013

Water is a public good, not a commodity. The ultimate goal after 2015 for water and sanitation is making it accessible to all citizens. 

Many efforts have been made to achieve MDG7c, halving the proportion of the world’s population without access to water and sanitation. This goal will be met partly, as access to water has largely improved, but the goal to improve access to sanitation is not even near being met. There can be no bargaining over a new reduction target. Water and sanitation are essential for all human life and a life in dignity. Everybody should dispose over water and sanitation services, in a quantity that is required for personal use and hygiene in order to prevent millions of diseases and deaths each year. 

A prerequisite to achieving this goal is the worldwide recognition and implementation of the human right to water and sanitation. That is what motivates the initiators of the European Citizens’ Initiative (ECI) for the right to water and sanitation. This was recognized by the United Nations in 2010 at the General Assembly on 28 July. However, since that date little progress has been made in implementing this human right into national legislation. Continuous demands on the European Commission are necessary to embed the right to water in European legislation. EU Member States should be forced to comply and make the human right to water and sanitation a reality for all people in the EU-27. 

Market mechanisms

The goal of water and sanitation for all cannot be achieved through the market. The European Commission is biased towards completion of the European single market, seeing it as its final goal. Nevertheless water is not a commodity that can be allocated through market mechanisms. It is a public (common) good and a natural monopoly in a sense that it has to be provided in the same region as where it is produced. We are talking about drinking water delivered to people’s homes through a tap, not about bottled water that can be transported over thousands of kilometres. The human right to water implies a responsibility for local or national authorities. They have to provide their population with water and sanitation services and safeguard water for future generations. They might decide to outsource service delivery to a company, but they cannot outsource their responsibility. The market has no incentive to deliver to the last percentage of people that are without water and sanitation, mainly because delivering water to the most remote and poorest areas is the most expensive. Market start from the point of view that people have to pay before a service can be delivered and that profits must be guaranteed. These profits can be made in wealthy urban areas but not in poor and rural parts. Therefore water operators must cross-subsidize water supply to rural areas through the gains they make in urban areas. This can only be done if the final control over water and sanitation service remains with governments.  

The second important aspect of the human right to water is affordability. Water and sanitation are relatively cheap services, compared to electricity, internet, or public transport and other kinds of public services. But investments to construct or extend a piped network are very high. Market-led companies will not invest in service delivery to the (rural) poor, as the return on these investments is simply too low. It must be cross-subsidized, but companies that have to compete in a market environment will not use the profits they make in urban areas to cross-subsidize services for the poor and rural areas. Profits are divided between shareholders. International Cooperation in water should therefore be on a NOT-FOR-PROFIT basis. 

Policy transformation

Knowing the preoccupation of the European Commission with the internal market the ECI challenges the liberalization policies in water services. Until now it is up to national or local authorities how water and sanitation services are provided in each country. In a few countries private enterprises play a role (mainly the UK and France), while in most countries governments have decided to deliver these services through an ’in-house’ water operator. Water and sanitation remain a government responsibility and essential for all people, and must be cross-subsidized from rich to poor in order to achieve the final goal of ’water and sanitation for all!’

Last but not least the ECI also addresses the global situation. As the ECI is limited in its reach, it can only propose a change in European legislation; it cannot demand that the European Commission ends the global water and sanitation crisis. However the European Union can make a bigger effort to ensure that water and sanitation for all becomes a reality for the poorest people in this world, living in developing countries. Investments and development aid  for water and sanitation have decreased in the overall EU budget and those of the Member States from 8% to 5%. This should be reversed. Water and sanitation are the most essential services for people and a prerequisite to achieve all human rights. The EU can make a bigger effort to reduce global disparities and alleviate the suffering of the global poor by making the final goal part of their development policy. The EU can promote international cooperation on a not-for-profit basis to help achieve this goal. 

With ONE MILLION signatures for the ECI before October 2013 we can make the European Commission take these three demands (1.Guaranteed water supply and sanitation for all inhabitants in the EU-27, 2.No liberalization of water services, and 3.More effort to achieve universal/ global water and sanitation for all) into consideration and in this way implement the right to water and sanitation in European legislation. www.right2water.eu

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About the author

Jerry van den Berge

Jerry van den Berge is coordinator of the European Citizens’ Initiative ’Water is a human right!’

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