July 2014        

Clean water is a human right

What will happen when an unemployed worker, pensioner or single mother is unable to pay a water bill? Will our privatised water and sewage-disposal service, Irish Water, be willing to meet in full its obligations to all citizens? Or will it threaten to cut off the water supply of those who are behind with their bills?
      If they do the latter they will be in contravention of a UN human rights directive that dictates that states have the duty under international law to ensure that all citizens, irrespective of their ability to pay providers, have access to clean water and sanitation.
      In July 2010 the General Assembly passed Resolution A/HRC/RES/15/9, which recognises that clean drinking-water and sanitation are essential human rights. Further resolutions call upon states and international organisations to provide safe, clean, accessible and affordable drinking-water and sanitation for all.
      Thence the UN Human Rights Council affirms that the right to water and sanitation are part of existing international law and that these rights are legally binding upon states.
      The surge in water privatisations occurring globally is a barbaric social regression that infringes, in practice, the socialist spirit and letter of this binding UN legislation. Remember that publicly controlled water systems began to supplant private ones during the nineteenth century in response to the failure of private water companies to make necessary investments and provide services for all citizens. Sanitary urban conditions and access to water for the mass of urban workers became possible only on the basis of socialised ownership.
      However, in these harsh neo-liberal times, as the means of production become concentrated in fewer and fewer hands, new forms of private property are created through the transformation of formerly public and small-scale private services and industries into fiefdoms of the corporate sector. Thus, fields formerly excluded from the logic of profit—such as education, health, energy, and of course water supply and disposal—are privatised.
      Suddenly, here in the “First World,” the resource war becomes part of the class war.
      Since the 1990s, as part of the right-wing policy agenda, privately owned water systems have proliferated. In 1989 Thatcher’s government privatised the public water and sewage systems of England. Paris and Berlin privatised water infrastructure during the 1990s. The neo-liberal Spanish government, strapped for cash, has just announced the privatisation of 104 dams and reservoirs, all at knock-down prices.
      The privatisation of water is often a condition of IMF, World Bank and ECB loans. Pressures from this infamous troika led to the establishment of the privatised Irish Water in the Water Services Act (2013). Irish Water has already contracted for the installation of meters and will install an optimal 27,000 of them a month until their target of 1 million has been reached.
      How does the privatisation of water and sanitation fare in other corners of the neo-liberal “First World”? Let’s go to the United States, where the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department may become the largest water system to be privatised in American history. Privatisation proposals are coming in as this bankrupt city cuts off consumers from water every week, targeting many of the approximately 150,000 residents who are behind with their bills.
      To attract investors, almost 4,000 have already been cut off; a further 40,000 have been so threatened. People hit by the cut-offs were given no warning and had no time to fill buckets, sinks and baths before their water was cut. In some instances the cut-off occurred before the announced deadline. Sick people were left without running water and working toilets. People recovering from surgery cannot wash and change bandages. Children cannot have a bath, and parents cannot cook. Is this misery an omen of things to come in Ireland?
      The privatisation of water systems typically leads to large price increases and the deterioration of infrastructure. Around the world, transnational corporations seize control of public water resources and give priority to profits for their shareholders and executives over the needs of consumers. Poor and working-class districts in Detroit, where unemployment is almost universal, can expect to lose service if their municipal system is privatised. Water-for-profit pirates tend to avoid such areas.
      Any enactment of a threat by Irish Water to deny a citizen access to clean water and sanitation would be in direct contravention of international law, according to the United Nations. However, as this UN legislation clearly contradicts the Irish state’s current commercial ethos, it remains to be seen what effect an appeal to binding international legislation would have.
      In the meantime, as Irish Water’s metering proceeds, socialists must now press for free access by all individuals to an agreed weekly volume of water, based on reasonable domestic usage. Such a measure would eliminate the trauma of cut-offs and Detroit-like situations and would enable Ireland, unlike the state of Michigan, to meet its obligations under international law to all its citizens.

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