EU Blue Deal – the right to water and sanitation should be its fundament

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(14 April 2023) Global warming leads to climate change and causes problems for water resources and water management. Water quality needs to improve and water pollution addressed. Water poverty is to be eliminated. Infrastructures need to be renewed. To respond to these challenges the European Economic and Social Committee (EESC) agreed to work on water as a cross-cutting theme in 2023. It is preparing several opinions from different perspectives. EPSU argues that recognising the human right to water and sanitation and working from a human rights and public service approach should be the fundament for this work. Together the opinions should lead to proposals for a comprehensive approach to water policies.  The aim is to summarise these in a Declaration to be handed over to the European Commission, the European Parliament and the Council of the European Union. This will happen at a high-level conference “Call for an EU Blue Deal” 26 October 2023. It will be organised with the Spanish EU Council presidency.

EPSU participated as expert in two hearings. The first concerned Sustainable and resilient water infrastructures and distribution networks 29 March. We addressed the importance of a human rights approach, public funding, the growing movement of remunicipalisation of water-operations as private provision is often more expensive due to the extraction of profits from local communities and more. The second concerned Access to water: tackling water poverty and its implications for social policy 13 April. This was an opportunity for the EESC and EPSU to recall the success of the European Citizens Initiative Right2water. 10 years ago EPSU lead the first ever successful ECI which collected nearly 1.9 million signatures. To this date it is one of the view ECI’s that have had a ral impact on legislation.

The EPSU General Secretary drew attention to the demands of people for the human right to water and sanitation being recognized in the EU. People do not want their (Water) public services being run by private operators if they are asked. He asked the EESC to ensure that all water policies start from a human rights approach. Will the policies of the EU contribute to realizing this human right for all, or will they put it at risk. He referred to the work of the UN Special Rapporteurs on the human right to water and sanitation. Several have pointed out that the provision of water and sanitation services by private operators is conducive to a particular set of human rights risks, grounded in a combination of three factors: profit maximisation, the natural monopoly water services are and power imbalances between the private sector and public authorities. Rapporteur Leo Heller has done extensive work on the risks of financialisation of water services to realising the human right to water. The EESC could learn from the experience of municipalities that have joined the Blue Communities Project which promotes a human rights, public service and environmental sustainability approach to managing water services.

He drew attention to the need for qualified staff to deliver high quality water services. The EESC should address the need for training, respect for occupational health and safety (think of working in confined spaces in sanitation), social dialogue and collective bargaining. The EESC should be wary in its approaches for the proposals of the Commission referring to innovative finance, blending of finance etc. These usually mean to guarantee private sector investments by taking on the risks, or “privatising the profits and socialising the risks”.   Other speakers included the Commission, OECD and SGEI, the cross-sectoral European employers organisation for public services. Its representative recalled the success of the ECI which included that the Commission kept water services outside of the concessions directive. And this should remain, which EPSU shares.

A background note of the EESC

For the work of the UN Special Rapporteurs on the human right to water and sanitation  

For the ECI Right2Water (Commission website overview)

For the follow up to the ECI by the European Commission

The work of the EESC links with the work and follow up of the UN Water Conference which took place in New York 23 March 2023. For more information  Many unions and social movements came together in a People’s Water Form  and adopted a water justice manifesto  -  PSI represented the voice of workers in the forum