World Water Day. Don’t take our public service for granted

Today is World Water Day. An opportunity to focus on this essential service that we take for granted, but many people worldwide still don’t have access to. We should also remember that there are still those waiting for an opportunity to privatise Scotland’s water.

Most of us take clean water for granted, but a sixth of the world’s population aren’t so lucky. Over a billion people worldwide cannot reach or afford clean water. Nearly two million children die every year because they do not have regular, safe water to drink, while the lives of many more people are blighted by the illness and preventable diseases that result from unsafe water and poor sanitation.

Water should be regarded as a human right. This week the European Commission (EC) published its official response to the first successful European Citizens’ Initiative (ECI) that asks “to implement the human right to water and sanitation in European law. Water is not a commercial product”.

Sadly, the reaction of the EC falls short of what 1.9 million people across Europe asked for. In particular, there is no proposal for legislation recognising the human right to water. The Commission has also not committed to explicitly exclude these services from the trade negotiations such as on the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) in this Communication.

There are some positive aspects of the Commission response. For example the recognition that the provision of water services is generally the responsibility of local authorities that are closest to citizens. This confirms the trend towards remunicipalisation across Europe which according to the EC is the safest way for water to be kept out of the internal market rules. There is also a commitment to promote universal access to water and sanitation in development policies, including the promotion public-public partnerships.

Campaigns against water privatisation have had remarkable success across the globe. Major water multinationals such as French groups Suez and Veolia have retreated from much of their business in developing countries as a result of campaigns. They have also suffered the humiliation of losing their home city, Paris, to a new municipal service in 2010. Paris has inspired other towns and cities in France and elsewhere in Europe, including Berlin and Budapest, to terminate private water contracts. The Reclaiming Public Water Network estimates that more than 85 cities have switched from private to public in the past decade. Globally, more than 90% of water services are in public hands.

Private companies in England are now celebrating their 25th year of lucrative exploitation of their natural monopolies. Extracting profits of around £2 billion a year above the cost of a public service funded through low-cost public debt. This means renationalisation would save the average household £83 per year, cutting bills by more than 20%. The most recent poll on the issue found more than 70% of people favour renationalisation of the water sector – almost exactly the same as the proportion which opposed privatisation 25 years ago.

All of this should make us exceptional grateful that Scottish Water is still a public service. That policy is supported by the SNP and Scottish Labour, while the Tories and LibDem’s propose privatisation. Somewhat surprisingly given SNP policy, there is no mention of Scottish Water in the White Paper – Scotland’s Future. No commitment to retain it as a public service should Scotland vote for independence later this year.

Scottish Water has been told it can raise its prices by 1.6% per year, well below inflation, while spending £3.5bn on improving infrastructure in the water and sewerage networks.

Customer Forum for Water in Scotland chairman Peter Peacock said this “is in stark contrast to what customers have seen from other utilities, and recognises the circumstances of many customers facing difficult economic pressures right now.”

That’s what a public service can achieve compared with privatised utilities. Yet there are still many who would privatise Scottish Water. On World Water Day we should remain vigilant to protect our public service. It’s Scotland’s water and it’s not for sale.

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