Water is a Public Collective Good

By Kathleen Lynch, Professor of Equality, UCD School of Social Justice

The existence of water is not owed to any human accomplishment (Risse, 2014: 196). Humans do not create water. If it stopped raining and if our rivers and springs (and seas) ran dry, we could not produce water ourselves.  While the state (via Irish water) may claim ownership of the network that delivers water, neither Irish water nor the State produces water. Water is a given from nature and is a collective good that is collectively owned

Humanity collectively owns the earth; in the sense that no individual or group produced the earth, so it is collectively owned. Water is produced by the earth and in that sense it is not owned by persons or institutions. It is a public good that cannot and should not be commodified, commercialised or privatised. And it is the duty of the State to protect people’s right to safe, secure, accessible, affordable water.

What I am saying here is that, what is a public good cannot and must not be turned into an investment (profit-making) opportunity for multinational corporations.

Yet, the introduction of a market relationship in the delivery of water in Ireland is a step in the direction of privatisation and commercialisation. It redefines water from being a public good, provided and protected through general taxation, to being a personal service that can be removed if one is unable to pay. It represents the first step in diminishing a person’s human right to water.

The EU and the Privatisation of Water

What many Irish people do not know is that the commercialisation of water is very much part of European Commission policy (Competition Commissioner) The Concession Directive states that ‘the market for water supply should be opened up’.  This is a clear statement of intent to commercialise water and undermine people’s human rights to its usage.  

Moreover, under the bailout programme set up by the Troika in Portugal, the commercialisation of the water supply was a requirement. Similar demands were made for commercialising water supplies in Athens and Thessaloniki in Greece. If the ECB and IMF can force Portugal and Greece to make hand over water to commercial interests, what is to stop them making it happen in Ireland at some future time? Indeed what is to stop the Irish government from selling off Irish Water as a revenue-making option? 

The privatisation of water has happened already in England, where most water is owned and delivered commercially. In France as well, some 70% of the water supplied is commercially owned. However, it is interesting that the City of Paris re-municipalised (returned it to public ownership and control) its water supply in 2008 due to rising costs from commercial operators. The cost of water had increased in real terms by 265% over a 23 year period (from 1985-2008). In the first year of re-municipalisation, the City Council of Paris itself saved approximately €35 million in water charges and the overall costs of water were reduced by 8% for householders. Buenos Aires and Kuala Lumpur are also major global cities that have re-municipalised their water supplies due to the rising costs of water with commercialisation.

[The Cochabamba Declaration (In Bolivia) late 1990s was made as a result of the privatising and subsequent re-municipalisation of water due to the rising costs after privatisation in that city of almost 2 million people.  It declared that ‘water is a fundamental human right and a public trust to be guarded by all levels of government. Therefore, it should not be commodified, privatised or traded for commercial purposes’.]

This article is part one of a series of three from Professor Kathleen Lynch. It formed part of her contribution at the press launch of the Right2Water campaign.