Euro-wide citizen’s petition launched in Ireland amid fears that Irish water services could be privatised

Thursday 17th May 2012

A Europe-wide ‘right to water’ campaign, which aims to attract a million petition signatures including 30,000 from Ireland, was launched at the IMPACT biennial delegate conference in Killarney, County Kerry today (Thursday). The initiative was recently accepted under the EU’s European Citizen Initiative (ECI), a new legal tool introduced as part of the Nice Treaty, which forces European institutions to consider issues that win the necessary public support.

The ‘right to water’ campaign calls on the European Commission to recognise water as a human right, exclude water and sanitation services from EU internal market rules, and legislate to ensure water and sanitation assets remain in public control even where private companies operate them. The launch comes amid fears, voiced at the IMPACT conference earlier today, that the establishment of a new national water authority called Irish Water could eventually lead to the privatisation ofIreland’s water and drainage services.

Delegates at the IMPACT conference expressed strong opposition to water privatisation and unanimously backed motions calling for Irish Water to remain in public ownership. IMPACT national secretary Peter Nolan backed reform of water provision but said the best way to prevent privatisation was for local authorities to retain legal and operational control of capital assets. He said Irish Water should be established as a not-for-profit organisation with a strategic role in raising investment funds, developing infrastructure, and ensuring that local authorities met robust standards of water quality and value for money.

Despite Government assurances that it intends Irish Water to remain in public hands, unions believe plans to rationalise water assets in a single organisation will make future privatisation more likely, particularly once water charges trigger a lucrative income stream.

IMPACT national secretary Peter Nolan questioned the funding and charging assumptions underpinning the Government’s plans and argued strongly that local authorities should retain control of the water infrastructure. “Water is a human right and you don’t have to be suspicious of the Government’s intentions to see the obvious risk inherent in its plans. Once Irish Water is established, with an income stream from water charges, the temptation to privatise would be immense, particularly if economic circumstances change for the worse andIrelandcomes under international pressure to sell more State assets. In any case, Irish Water would be ripe for privatisation by any future Government that chooses not to make a commitment to continued public ownership,” he said.

The European Citizens’ Initiative was launched at the conference by Jerry Van Den Berge of the European Federation of Public Service Unions (EPSU). He said the European Commission currently favoured ‘marketisation’ of water despite international opinion shifting against privatisation, mainly because of concerns over quality, price and value for money. “Over two-thirds of the EU’s water is supplied by local authorities, water has returned to public ownership inParis,ViennaandHungary, andHollandhas passed legislation preventing water privatisation. Even in theUSA85% of water services are run by municipal companies,” he said.

Speaking at the launch, IMPACT deputy general secretary Kevin Callinan said: “The European Citizens’ Initiative can help determine the principles and values that underpin the Europe we want, not simply aEuropethat serves the interests of international finance and global capitalism. IMPACT is taking part in this Europe-wide initiative in order to deliver a strong message to the EU Commission and governments that citizens value water, and that public ownership protects water as a human right.”

Among other things, the campaign calls on the European Commission to:

  • Exclude water and sanitation services from EU internal market rules
  • Exclude water and sanitation services from trade agreements
  • Legislate to ensure that water resources remain in public control even where private contractors provide services
  • Put measures in place to help prevent disconnection of households unable to pay water bills
  • Ensure that protection of water services prevails over commercial priorities
  • Insist on transparency and openness where private companies provide water and sanitation services
  • Support companies that invest in water partnerships with developing countries and
  • Recognise water as a human right.

Earlier this year, the Irish Congress of Trade Unions (ICTU) pledged to resist any proposal to privatise the Irish water sector and called for investment and strategic planning in the sector. In a submission to the Government’s consultation on the establishment of Irish Water, ICTU said infrastructural problems withIreland’s water networks were a product of years of under investment by successive governments. “Given the disaster we witnessed following the privatisation of Eircom, the privatisation of the former state banks and the recent difficulties associated with the privatisation of the bin collection service inDublin, we believe that any attempt to privatise the water sector or any of its component parts will also be resisted by citizens,” it said.

The IMPACT conference also passed motions calling for jobs, pay and working conditions to be protected if the Government presses ahead with its plans to transfer water operations from local authorities to Irish Water.