The privatisation of water in Ireland may be imminent. In its correspondence with the International Monetary Fund, the Irish Government has stated its intention to “move towards full cost-recovery in the provision of water services”. This involves the introduction of water charges, metering and the establishment of a State agency, Irish Water. The Department of the Environment, Community and Local Government say Irish Water is a public utility, and that “there is absolutely no intention to privatise water services”.
Nonetheless, the centralisation of water provision from local authorities in one entity would certainly make privatisation easier. As does the introduction of a customer-supplier relationship by way of charges and metering, as Ryan Meade has noted. The Irish Times ran an article in February 2013 with the headline ‘Dail warned legislation will open floodgates for new Irish Water to be privatised’. Former Green Party Minister John Gormley sees the establishment of the water authority as the first step to privatisation. However, according to Minister of State for Natural Resources Fergus O’Dowd last month:
there will be a legal guarantee to give an absolute assurance as best we can that there will be no question of privatisation arising as an issue.
A qualified commitment from a Government under pressure from the IMF and the EU (with its controversial proposed Concessions Directive). In light of the introduction of water charges, legislation is reportedly to be adopted addressing exemptions, including for those who might not be able to afford the charges.
What does international human rights law say about water and its privatization? None of the major treaties refer to a right to water, although it can be taken as implicit in the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights. It was only in 2010 that the United Nations General Assembly adopted a declaration on the right to water. The declaration recognizes “the right to safe and clean drinking water and sanitation as a human right that is essential for the full enjoyment of life and all human rights”. Ireland abstained from the vote on the declaration.
The Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights does not seem to oppose the privatisation of water per se, or that it be paid for, provided it remains affordable:
Any payment for water services has to be based on the principle of equity, ensuring that these services, whether privately or publicly provided, are affordable for all, including socially disadvantaged groups. Equity demands that poorer households should not be disproportionately burdened with water expenses as compared to richer households.
The Committee has noted the increase privatisation in various areas affecting human rights (e.g. here, here and here), but does not treat privatisation itself as inherently contrary to the protection of those rights. That said, in its 2011 Concluding Observations on Israel, the Committee recommended “a scaling down of the privatization of social services”.
In the global economy, water is now treated as a tradable commodity, and privatisation of the supply is an intrinsic part of this development. Water was designated as “an economic good” at an international conference of government experts held in Dublin in 1992. The Dublin Principles emphasised the economic value of water:
it is vital to recognize first the basic right of all human beings to have access to clean water and sanitation at an affordable price
Privatisation of water does not absolve the State of its human rights obligations, or those of companies either. While the international human rights machinery is mostly addressed to States, the human rights responsibilities of the private sector are being recognised. The Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights has even called on States “to prevent their own citizens and companies from violating the right to water of individuals and communities in other countries”.
When the debate on privatisation in Ireland happens, there were be talk of increased efficiency, reduction of waste, and savings to the taxpayer. Short-term financial gain will likely hold the day. Dr Frank Groome predicts that privatisation will not take place until after public funds have covered the upgrade of the water supply network – “an irreversible and costly investment that no private company could afford or would be willing to pay for”.
The most likely eventual buyer would be one of the major multinational water companies such as Veolia, Suez or Thames Water. Veolia already have a sizable water operation in Ireland. The other likelihood is retaining Irish Water in public ownership, but allowing for competition from private companies. PriceWaterhouseCoopers, who conducted an independent assessment of Ireland’s water provision in 2011, suggested that:
… once Irish Water is well established as a self-funding utility the Government and Regulators may wish to assess international experience of the introduction of competition in water and sewerage services to identify whether Ireland could benefit from competitive markets in the water sector at a later date.
The privatisation of water has had disastrous results in other countries. Two Irish filmmakers, Muireann de Barra and Aisling Crudeen, have made a documentary Water Rising on the impact of privatisation of water in Bolivia. The Bechtel corporation was effectively forced out of the country following a popular revolt against its water policies in the city of Cochabamba – a licence was required to collect rainwater – and the water supply was returned to public ownership. In 2004, the people of Uruguay voted in a constitutional amendment to ensure State ownership of water. This is a suitable but unlikely candidate for consideration as part of Ireland’s current Constitutional Convention. A constitutional commitment would offer far more legal certainty than legislation as to the future of Ireland’s water.