EU Washout


May 18, 2005 9:00 | by Dave Watson

Dave Watson sets out the alternatives to the exploitation tied to EU privatisation of water.

TRADE unions in Scotland are calling for a change of course in the European Union's approach to the crisis in access to clean water and sanitation in Europe and developing countries.

There is a growing coalition of campaigning groups and unions concerned about the way in which European aid money and political influence is being used to promote water privatisation, rather than meeting real development needs in water and sanitation.

This is mirrored by competition policy that is promoting privatisation of water in European countries that maintain public water services, including Scotland.

Water privatisation in the last decade has failed. Experiences in developing countries have shown that multinational water corporations are ill-equipped to deliver clean and affordable water to the poor.

Even the companies themselves have acknowledged that their need to make profit means that they only invest in the larger, richer cities. Private-sector investment has not brought expected financing for water and sanitation for the poor.

A recent report published by the World Development Movement highlighted major price rises, failure to extend networks to the poor, "cherry picking" of profitable developments and the requirement put on governments to finance handouts to private companies as the products of privatisation of water in developing countries.

In contrast, working public water delivery options range from reform of existing public utilities to community-based management schemes.

Faced by experiences of what works, combined with the failure of the global private sector, the time has come to refocus the global water debate on the key question. How can we improve and expand public water delivery around the world?

In contrast to the European Parliament's support for democratic control of water, the EU water initiative is overly preoccupied with private-sector expansion.

Internationally, the EU must stop exercising pressure on developing countries to liberalise water services through trade negotiations. Instead, the EU should promote the human right to water and champion a different approach to water and sanitation in Europe and developing countries.

The Internal Market Strategy 2003-6 indicates that the European Commission is also promoting water privatisation within the EU. This could undermine Scotland's public water and sewage system. Trade unions argue that the EU should define water as a basic human right with drinking and waste water services as part of public health policy.

A legal framework on services of general interest should cover water services. The focus on competition is not appropriate for water services.

Water is not a commodity for trade and neither are water services. The economic advantages of competition in water services have not been proven. An extensive body of research now exists that underlines this.

No-one is against modernisation of water services. This is important to provide Europe's citizens with high-quality water services and ensure long-term sustainability.

Scotland and the Netherlands have rejected privatisation of water services while at the same time engaging the water authorities in a modernisation exercise that has resulted in improved efficiency.

The European Commission is promoting competition in water services for theoretical or ideological reasons - competition for competition's sake without due regard for the implications on citizens.

Dave Watson is the Scottish organiser (utilities) at UNISON Scotland, a major public sector union. The World Development Movement's report Dirty Aid, Dirty Water - the UK government's push to privatise water and sanitation in poor countries is available from Dave Watson can be contacted at This article first appeared in the UK socialist daily the Morning Star on Monday 18 April 2005. Find out more about the Star by visiting its website

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