Water: a Commodity AND a Human Right

The European Union has established a procedure for citizens’ initiatives.  The first such initiative to meet the threshold of 1 million signatures asks the EU to legislate to implement the human right to water, and to promote the public provision of water by dropping proposals to include water supply within the EU’s internal market (1). 

Under the procedure, the European Commission must carefully examine the initiative, meet with the organisers (in this case the European Federation of Public Service Unions), arrange for the organisers to present their initiative at a public hearing in the European Parliament, and adopt a formal response stating what action, if any, it proposes, and its reasons (2).

In total this initiative is supported by some 1.7 million valid signatures, of which more than 1.2 million are from Germany (3).  Only 7,104 are from the UK, where the water industry was privatised in the 1970’s.

Below is what I have written to Charles Tannock, one of the Members of the European Parliament for the London region.

Dear Mr Tannock

I am writing to comment on the European Citizens’ Initiative entitled ‘Water and sanitation are a human right! Water is a public good, not a commodity!’, which is the subject of a public hearing at the European Parliament on 17 February.  I write as an individual with an interest in natural resource economics, and am addressing this to you particularly in view of your membership of the European Parliament’s Human Rights Sub-committee.

The Initiative states three objectives, sandwiching a bad one – opposition to the inclusion of water supply within the EU’s internal market – between two broadly good ones about implementation of the human right to water both within the EU and globally.  It argues that the extension of the internal market to water supply would undermine fulfilment of the human right to water.  Against this view I would make the following points:

1. The human right to water is generally taken (eg by the United Nations Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights) to refer to a minimum adequate quantity of water for drinking, cooking, personal hygiene and sanitation (4).  The amount of water needed for this purpose is only a small proportion of total water supply, perhaps 20 litres per person per day (5).  Much larger amounts of water are used by many households for less essential purposes, and by industry and agriculture, the total in the UK being of the order of 500 litres per person per day (6).  Any policies to ensure fulfilment of the right to water should target that specific objective, rather than driving arrangements for the whole of water supply.

2. Water is a scarce resource.  So far as England is concerned, this point was highlighted in the Walker Review 2009 (pp 39ff) (7).  Moreover human use of water can conflict with the maintenance of aquatic ecosystems which not only support wildlife but also provide a variety of environmental services important to humans.  The capital needed to provide water supply infrastructure is also a scarce resource.  For both water and capital, therefore, there is a need to manage demand and to allocate the resource between uses and users.  As with other goods, markets – including the EU’s internal market – have an important role to play because they can allocate resources to the uses in which they have the most value.

3. An important role for markets does not mean a completely free market.  In the UK, we have private, profit-seeking water companies which make charges to users.  We also have the Environment Agency to protect rivers and lakes from excessive abstraction of water for human use, the Drinking Water Inspectorate to set standards for the quality of drinking water, and OFWAT to limit the prices which the companies can charge to users.  The right to water is effectively protected by the last two regulators, by income support via the social security system for those who may have difficulty paying their water (and other) bills, and by requirements on water companies to use measures other than disconnection in the event of non-payment of bills.  None of this need change if the internal market is applied to water services.

4. Some other member states rely more than we do in the UK on public funding and control of the water industry.  Across the world there are a wide variety of forms of organisation of the water industry, and experience does not point strongly to any one as being best in all circumstances.  However, it is important to recognise that public funding and control can co-exist with private provision via various contractual arrangements.  This can in some cases improve services and reduce costs, just as contracting-out of other services has for many local authorities in the UK.  At the same time, public control can be used to ensure that contracted-out water services are delivered and charged for in a way that respects the right to water.  Any concerns that the internal market would in practice force full privatisation, meaning the complete removal of the water industry from public control, could be addressed by changes of detail, rather than by rejecting the internal market altogether in the case of water.

One of the most important pronouncements ever made about water was the Dublin Statement (so-named because it was made at an international conference held in Dublin as part of the preparations for the Rio de Janeiro Earth Summit in 1992).  Principle 4 of the Statement asserts (8):

“Water has an economic value in all its competing uses and should be recognised as an economic good.  Within this principle, it is vital to recognise first the basic right of all human beings to have access to clean water and sanitation at an affordable price.”

This gets the balance – between water as a commodity and water as a human right – exactly right.  It could well be a guiding principle for any action which the EU may take in response to the Initiative.

Yours sincerely

Adam Bailey

Notes and References

  1. The European Citizens’ Initiative, Official Register:  Water and sanitation are a human right! Water is a public good, not a commodityhttp://ec.europa.eu/citizens-initiative/public/initiatives/finalised/details/2012/000003
  2. The European Citizens’ Initiative, Official Register:   Basic facts http://ec.europa.eu/citizens-initiative/public/basic-facts
  3. As 1 above (near bottom of page)
  4. United Nations, Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights,  Frequently asked questions on the rights to water and sanitation  See especially the question: Is there sufficient water to ensure enjoyment of the human right to water in all countries? http://www.ohchr.org/Documents/Issues/Water/FAQWater_en.pdf
  5. As 4 above.  See especially the question: Is 20 litres per capita per day sufficient for the full realisation of the right to water?  Note that even 50 to 100 litres per person per day would still be a small proportion of total water supply in the UK and most developed countries.
  6. DEFRA Estimated abstractions from all sources except tidal https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/266837/v2iwtb23e-ab-allsource-201313_all.csv/preview   This shows annual abstraction in England and Wales for 2012 of 13,747 million cubic metres.  The population of England and Wales is c 55 million, implying abstraction per person per day of 13,747 / (55 x 365) = 0.685 cubic metres per person per day, equal to 0.685 x 1,000 = 685 litres per person per day.  I rounded this down to 500 litres per person per day as ‘use’ is a complex concept in relation to water, with some water used being recycled and available for re-use.
  7. DEFRA  The Independent Review of Charging for Household Water and Sewerage Services (the Walker Review), Final Report 2009  http://archive.defra.gov.uk/environment/quality/water/industry/walkerreview/final-report.htm
  8. World Meteorological Organisation The Dublin Statement, Principle No. 4  https://www.wmo.int/pages/prog/hwrp/documents/english/icwedece.html#p4
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