The purpose of this blog is to provide analytical commentary on formal and informal labour organisations and their attempts to resist ever more brutal forms of exploitation in today’s neo-liberal, global capitalism.

Friday, 7 July 2017

Fighting for Public Water in Europe.

The first European Citizens’ Initiative (ECI) on ‘Water and Sanitation are a Human Right’ was an enormous success. Between May 2012 and September 2013, an alliance of trade unions, social movements and NGOs succeeded in collecting close to 1.9 million signatures across the European Union (EU), thereby reaching the required quota in 13 EU member states. In my open access article ‘Fighting for public water: the first successful European Citizens’ Initiative, “Water and Sanitation are a Human Right”’, recently published in the journal Interface: a journal for and about social movements, I analyse the underlying dynamics of this struggle and its impact on EU policy-making in detail. 

In this blog post, I will discuss the main factors underlying this success: 1) the long history of water struggles; 2) the unique quality of water; and 3) the broad alliance of participating actors.

Long history of water struggles
The ECI did not emerge out of the blue. Since the increasing push for the privatisation of water services from the early 1990s onwards, struggles over water had erupted around the world. Most well-known is the so-called water war of Cochabamba/Bolivia. When the price for water increased by 200 per cent or more as the result of privatisation, local resistance erupted. Peaceful protesters were met by police and soldiers and violent clashes ensued with one 17 year old protester being killed. Eventually, in April 2000 the Bolivian government revoked the concession to Aguas del Tunari, a consortium around the US construction giant Bechtel.

Another key moment, inspired by the success of the first European Social Forum in Firenze/Italy in November 2002, was the first Alternative World Water Forum in Firenze in 2003. It was intended to provide opposition to the official World Water Forum and its emphasis on public-private partnerships for the organisation of water distribution. The objective of the Alternative Forum is ultimately to de-marketise water and to democratize the government of water as a resource. A first major success was the adoption of a resolution by the UN in 2010 recognising water as a human right, sponsored by several governments from the Global South and here in particular Bolivia.

EPSU General Secretary Jan Willem Goudriaan, Photo by CEO

Other noticeable struggles were the successful Italian referendum against the privatisation of water in 2011 (see The Struggle for Public Water in Italy) as well as the re-municipalisations of water services in Paris in 2010 and Berlin in 2013 amongst many other cities around the world. In short, the ECI has ultimately been the coming together of different struggles from local, national and global levels, concretised in a European-level effort by the European Federation of Public Service Unions (EPSU) co-ordinating the overall campaign.

The unique quality of water

Three key objectives were stated at the launch of the ECI in May 2012: ‘(1) The EU institutions and Member States be obliged to ensure that all inhabitants enjoy the right to water and sanitation; (2) water supply and management of water resources not be subject to ‘internal market rules’ and that water services are excluded from liberalisation; and (3) the EU increases its efforts to achieve universal access to water and sanitation’ ( These three broad objectives of the ECI incorporated well the various dimensions of the symbolic power of water, with different concerns being of more importance in different countries and for different types of movement partners.

For catholic groups universal access to water and sanitation, demanded in Point 1 of the ECI, proved important as an issue of social justice. The theme of water has significant symbolic power with water being understood as a fundamental source of life. This discourse, for example, resonated with the Catholic Social Doctrine, ensuring strong support from Catholic groups in the Italian referenda against water privatisation in June 2011 (see Catholics in the Italian water movement).

In Germany, by contrast, the opposition to the liberalisation of water services, Point 2 of the ECI, was crucial and directly linked to discussions around the concessions directive. While the ECI was ongoing, the Commission had also published the draft concessions directive, liberalising water services and forcing public entities to tender contracts openly across the EU. Liberalisation does not automatically imply privatisation. Considering the complex procedures and capital and technology intensiveness of such public tendering, it would, however, have been inevitable that these contracts would have been snapped up by large, private TNCs such as Veolia and Suez.

Environmental groups including, for example, the Italian Legambiente or the German Grüne Liga equally participated, because when water becomes privatised and the sector is dominated by the profit motive, the protection of the environment generally comes second, it was argued.

Point 3 about the EU pushing for water as a human right globally was relevant for development NGOs such as the Comitato Italiano Contratto Mondiale sull’Acqua (CICMA) in Italy, which is part of the World Water Contract movement, or German groups such as the Forum Umwelt und Entwicklung or the church related organisation Brot für die Welt, arguing that Europe had a responsibility for the whole world.

Broad alliance of actors at European as well as national level

The fact that the ECI had been based on and supported by a broad alliance of trade unions, social movements and NGOs was also crucial for its success. At the European level, it was EPSU, which initiated the campaign and also sustained it with its administrative and financial resources. It formed a European level alliance together with other organisations such as the European Environmental Bureau (EEB), the European Anti Poverty Network (EAPN) and the Social Platform (see EPSU’s organisational structure bringing together representatives of its national federations in the organising committee provided the crucial backbone and leadership of the campaign.

Photo Waltraud Wolff
Even more important, however, than the European-level alliance were the various alliances of unions and social movements at the national level. National quotas had to be reached in at least seven countries and the collection of signatures, therefore, had to be organised at the national level. Unsurprisingly, the success of the ECI was not equal across all EU countries. Germany stood out as the country with the most signatures. 1,341,061 signatures were collected, of which 1,236,455 were considered valid. Making the link between the ECI and the concessions directive proved to be crucial for the high number of signatures. Moreover, there was a tightly organised campaign around the services trade union ver.di, supported by the German trade union confederation DGB, together with a whole range of local water movements such as the Berliner Wassertisch, the Wasser Allianz Augsburg, or the NGO Wasser In Bürgerhand, environmental movements such as the BUND, the Grüne Liga and the feminist group EcoMujer, as well as development NGOs including the Forum Umwelt und Entwicklung.

In Italy the water movement had already successfully collected signatures on a number of occasions. This time too, they had no problem at reaching the national quota with 65223 validated signatures. In the end, 13 countries including Austria, Belgium, Finland, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Italy, Lithuania, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Slovakia, Slovenia and Spain collected the required amount of signatures.

In sum, the fact that the issue of water covers both the sphere of production and the way drinking water is produced as well as the sphere of reproduction in the way safe access to water is ensured for everyone in daily life provided the basis for a successful alliance across different spatial scales. 

Andreas Bieler

Professor of Political Economy
University of Nottingham/UK
Personal website:

7 July 2017

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