Drinking water: A human right only if everybody can afford it

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The European Citizens' Initiative 'Right2Water' is the first to be debated a public hearing in the European Parliament. But the debate risks taking a wrong direction by focusing on political considerations only, writes Jean-Thomas Lesueur.

Jean-Thomas Lesueur is the CEO of the Thomas More Institute, an independent European think-tank based in Brussels and Paris.

A true implementation of the Right to Water requires a system that allows every citizen to pay for its bill, not a discussion on ownership status.

In a perfect world, the core of politics should be the improvement of the life of all citizens. Full implementation of access to drinking water and sanitation as a Human Right by the European Union is such a matter where compromises aren't to be made. For once, all stakeholders, from producers to consumers, agree on this point: Clean water is too important for life, not only for drinking, but also body hygiene and to prepare food. Thus, the UN estimates that at least 20 litres per day are necessary to satisfy basic human needs. Furthermore, according to international law, the source of water has to be safe, accessible, acceptable, affordable and open for everyone without discrimination

Fortunately, Europe is a continent that mostly does not suffer from severe water stress. On the contrary, water often comes so plentiful that complaints are common, especially when it pours out of the sky. Tap water quality generally is good, and the great majority of buildings are linked to the grid. The stress, however, is elsewhere: it concerns the water bill at the end of the month. The reason is that rainwater as such is not safe for consumption: it has to be recovered, treated and brought to the households before being good for use. Eventually, all these procedures involve costs that need to be covered. At least some households may find it difficult to make ends meet and have to cut back on essentials like heating or water use, among others. As so often, the concerned also are the most vulnerable of the society: large families, mono-parental households, disabled persons that might have higher needs for water due to their incapacity.

This is where the current debate on drinking water and sanitation got it wrong. While the European Citizens' Initiative “Right2Water” deservedly put the issue on top of the European agenda, it focused on the old ideological difference between public and private services – and fell short on bringing some new arguments into the arena. How to guarantee safe drinking water while being cost-effective? How to identify those in need of assistance and forge strategies that improve their situation? How to pass information on reducing the use of water without having to cut back on essentials? Finally, how to finance necessary investments in the infrastructure in times of tight budgets? Certainly, the debate is not about that.

Meanwhile, European Union operators, both public and private, are already way ahead. Most countries have implemented strategies that provide cross-subsidies and allowances for households in need – both at national and local level. Sometimes they come within the framework of existing assistance programs, sometimes they are developed independently. This decentralised approach has the advantage of allowing of trial-and-error, as well as the merit of taking into account local specificities. In France, operators are working hand in hand with the local governments to develop a system of cross-subsidies that supports low-income households. Similar programs are in place in the UK, Spain, and Poland. The challenges are the same: how to help vulnerable households without hindering incentives to reduce overall consumption?

The citizens also have started to reunite in consumer groups, bringing forward their points of view; often they serve as intermediary between operators and households, and provide information on how to reduce the monthly bill – a better shower head sometimes does the job. Groups range from public entities such as the Consumer Council for Water (CCWater) in the UK to small, local associations. Eventually those groups do not solely focus on low-income households. In times of climate change, sustainable consumption is also a matter for discussion. a must. At the same time, consumer groups provide assistance when it comes to defend consumer rights and pass information on consumer concerns to the operators – which can adapt their services according to the expressed needs.

These measures to ensure affordability of water and to develop public participation might sound less sexy than playing the “inefficient public vs. profit-voracious private sector” game. But this is where the differences are made. As so often, the real, but durable improvements are small-scale.

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