Organisers of a European Citizens’ Initiative that seeks to halt sales of public water utilities say they have gathered one million signatures from across Europe, becoming the first such group to do so since the grass-roots efforts were launched last spring.

The Water is a Human Right initiative calls for water supply and management to be exempt from European Commission liberalisation policies on the grounds that water is a public good.

The initiative also wants EU states to enact laws ensuring that everyone has a right to safe water and sanitation, and that the EU increase it development aid efforts to achieve universal water access and sanitation.

The initiative process, or ECI, was launched in 2012 under a provision of the 2009 Lisbon Treaty to encourage citizen action. ECI organisers are required to have one million signatures collected from at least seven EU states before they can submit the proposals to the European Commission for consideration as draft laws.

But the system has been hampered by technology failures and legal hurdles over online privacy, since most of the signatures are collected through websites. The 14 other initiatives launched in the past 10 months are a long way from reaching the threshold requirements.

“Today we have reached an important milestone - one million EU citizens agree that water and sanitation are human rights,” Jan Willem Goudriaan, vice president of the committee organising the water initiative, said in a statement on Sunday (10 February).

“The Right2Water ECI is a success, despite the legal and technical barriers forced upon us by the European Commission and member states. We appreciate the support of so many and will continue campaigning to pass a strong message," he said.

Trade unions boost water ECI

Carsten Berg, who heads the ECI Campaign representing more than 120 NGOs, told EurActiv that the water initiative has been buoyed by support from trade unions that have actively campaigned for signatures. He said it has gained most support in Germany and Austria.

Last March, trade unions and environmentalists opposed to the sale of Spanish, Portuguese and Greek water utilities organised an alternative to the World Water Forum in Marseille, claiming the forum was dominated by corporate interests. The protest event, known by its French acronym FAME, or Forum Alternatif Mondial de l’Eau, billed itself as offering a “democratic” choice to the other Marseille gathering.

At the previous water forum in Istanbul in 2009, police battled protestors opposing private management of water utilities.

FAME organisers sought to add weight to their cause with the citizens’ initiative on water rights.

Carsten said he recommended that initiative organisers aim for collecting an additional 200,000 signatures, or 20% more than the figure required, to account for invalid signatures or errors in processing. He expected the water initiative could top that total by April.

Other ECIs include a call to ban genetically modified crops and an anti-abortion measures.