Dilute to Taste: EU Drinking Water Directive calls for universal access but fails to impose concrete obligations on Member States

By Bernard Rorke

Right-wing MEPs stand accused of ‘watering down’ the new improved EU Drinking Water Directive. The Directive calls for measures to ensure access for marginalized groups, but will Member States move to guarantee Roma their fundamental human right to clean water and sanitation? 

Members of the European Parliament voted on the Drinking Water Directive (DWD) on 23 October, some four years after 1.8 million citizens mobilized behind the first successful European Citizens' Initiative (ECI) Right2Water and called on the EU to recognize access to safe water as a basic human right.  

The ERRC strongly supported this ECI and in its 2017 report Thirsting for Justice revealed how deliberate discriminatory processes left disproportionate numbers of Roma without access to clean water and sanitation. Leo Heller, UN Special Rapporteur on Safe Water & Sanitation stated that the evidence of the ERRC report suggested, “that some European States have been failing to meet their well-established human rights obligations.” 

Reactions to the vote

The European Commission welcomed the vote as “part of a process that shows the EU is listening to citizens' demands for even better standards and for improved access to water.” 

The European Federation of Public Service Unions (EPSU), the driving force behind the ECI, were more circumspect: they welcomed the fact that a majority of MEPs supported a mandate for the human right to water to be included in the DWD, but expressed their disappointment “that a majority of the right-wing in the European Parliament put time and effort into watering down the demands of civil society”; and called it a shame that a majority did not support calls for a clearer recognition and implementation of the Human Right to water in EU legislation.

The Greens were less impressed and abstained. MEP Benedek Jávor called it “shameful that the conservative and liberal groups have watered down progressive changes to the Drinking Water Directive." 

The Socialists and Democrats coupled their welcome with strong regrets that Parliament did not support their call to introduce concrete obligations on member states to guarantee universal access to water. 

What difference does it make?

While the EU emphasis was on the quality of drinking water, this revision of the DWD bears the imprint of the 2017 European Pillar of Social Rights, which insists that, "Everyone has the right to access essential services … including water.” Article 13 calls for measures to ensure access, affordability and availability to water for vulnerable and marginalized groups.  

Welcoming the vote, Commissioner Karmenu Vella stated that, “thanks to EU laws, most people living in the EU already enjoy very good access to high quality drinking water.” The reality behind that blithe expression ‘most people’ excludes tens of thousands of marginalized and excluded ‘others’ across the European Union – and it’s not leaky pipes but racial discrimination that deprives Roma of the fundamental right to clean water and sanitation. 

The recent report from the Fundamental Rights Agency, A persisting concern: anti-Gypsyism as a barrier to Roma inclusion, found that one third of the Roma surveyed continue to live in housing that has no tap water inside the house; 38 % do not have a toilet, shower or bathroom inside their home – in stark contrast to the general population average recorded by Eurostat. “Roma in Romania – the country with the highest number of Roma in the EU – enjoy access to safe water in rates similar to those in Bhutan, Ghana or Nepal.” 

Tuesday’s vote in the European Parliament was a first faltering step to redress this injustice - A luta continua! As Jan Willem Goudriaan, EPSU General Secretary and Right2Water Vice-President stated “We will continue to advocate for the Right2Water with Member States and demand progress in implementing the Human Right to water in EU legislation”.

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