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Access to the blue gold of the future

On 22 March 2020 was World Water Day. Water is vital, which is why there are always new desires to economize the blue Gold of the future. Having the resource of water and access to affordable drinking water is essential for survival. Especially in times of crisis, this becomes even clearer. Critical network-based infrastructure such as water must therefore be available in high quality at all times. This works best under public control.

Desires of the industry

Industry is always looking for and finding new ways and means to assert its interests in order to gain access to vital resources and infrastructures.

Due to massive public pressure from the Citizens ' Initiative “right2water”, the EU Commission had to withdraw the liberalisation of the water supply during its negotiations on the concession directive-and water was excluded from the directive. This was the biggest success of “right2water” so far. This successful citizens ' initiative collected over 1.8 million signatures across Europe and called on the European Commission to submit legally binding proposals for the implementation of the human right to water and not to promote the liberalisation of water supply.

Now the EU Commission is making a renewed attempt to address the issue of administrative sovereignty over water as a resource. At the Initiative of a large European energy supplier, infringement proceedings are being initiated against Austria and seven other EU member states concerning water rights for (energy production from) hydropower.

The commission takes the view that hydroelectric power generation is subject to concessions, the Services Directive applies here and transparent award criteria are necessary. However, this is not a question of legal subtleties, but concerns a core question of the sovereignty of state government. When it comes to energy supply, public interests of security of supply come before the interests of private shareholders with the aim of maximising dividends. In times of climate crisis, Green Deal etc. electricity generation from renewable energy is becoming increasingly important and lucrative. It is simply about security of supply and affordability for people. As part of public services, energy production must be the responsibility of services of general economic interest and must not be subject to the internal market.

Right to drinking water in the EU

On average, 120 litres of tap water are consumed per person per day in Europe.

The right to access clean drinking water has been a recognised human right since the United Nations decision in 2010. Now, after six years, there is another success of the Citizens ' Initiative “right2water”. In the future, access to clean drinking water from the pipeline is to be improved throughout Europe, and this is enshrined in the new version of the drinking water directive. A political compromise was reached by the European Commission, the EU Council and the EU Parliament at the end of December 2019. After further negotiations at the technical level, this compromise has now been approved by the EU environment ministers at the EU Environment Council on 5 March 2020.

The target of the drinking water directive has been adapted accordingly, specifically it says:”… to improve access for human use”. In a new Article 13 of the Directive, member states are now required to set measures to improve access to water. For example, water fountains should be created in public spaces or tap water should be available free of charge or at a low price in Restaurants and canteens.

The restaurants feared that they would have to serve tap water to the guests for free in the future. This was often used as an Argument as to why there should be no mandatory access to drinking water. There can be no question of this, even if this is demanded by the trade unions and the Chamber of Labour (AK).

What’s new?

Overall, the new directive aims to make drinking water in the EU even safer and of higher quality. Therefore, the drinking water suppliers have to check even more substances than before. This also includes the hormonally effective Bisphenol A. other hormonally effective substances and microplastics are also placed on a so-called” Watchlist”. In the future, the member states will collect more data on these substances, and the appropriate measurement methods will be developed over the next three years. In the sense of the precautionary principle, these substances should not even enter the environment and be avoided. The application of the polluter pays principle would encourage industry and agriculture to circulate less chemicals. After all, the costs of drinking water purification are ultimately borne by consumers.

Information for consumers about drinking water will also be improved within the framework of their supply contracts. At least once a year, all water supply companies throughout Europe must now inform their customers about the water quality. In Austria, water suppliers already provide information once a year on drinking water quality, which can also be accessed online via the drinking water info. In addition, the price of the water (per Liter or per m3) and the consumption values of an average household must be announced, which is also new for Austria.

Large water supply systems must also publish information about their ownership and cost structure. We view this obligation to provide information critically, as it enables private investors to obtain sensitive data from well-functioning public water suppliers and thus promotes investment interest. We have brought this criticism into the negotiations.

No Access

Water is not a common commodity, but a sensitive and general commodity that must be protected, defended and treated accordingly. With the new version of the drinking water directive, the important requirements of “right2water” were partly implemented. We in the trade unions and the Chamber of Labour have called for much stricter obligations for member states to actually legally secure the right of access to drinking water. Now a first step in the right direction has been taken. At the same time, however, new desires of industry for the vital resource must be repelled. Because Private should not make profits with the basic need of water.