500 million euros (769 million dollars) has been provided for initiatives
in African, Caribbean and Pacific (ACP) countries under the European
Union's Water Facility, which was proposed by Romano Prodi, then the
Commission's president, in 2003.
The way that this money has been allocated was called into question
in a study carried out at the Commission's request and published two
One of the main
objectives of the Facility was that poor people's access to water should
through increased support for private sector
involvement in water delivery. But the 2005 study stated that private
firms tend to shy away from water projects in ACP countries because of
uncertainties about whether they can expect "a reasonable return" on
This week, Commission officials confirmed they are willing to rectify
this situation by providing greater finance for water projects led by
publicly owned companies. Projects involving cooperation between public
firms based in Europe and their ACP counterparts could be prioritised
as a result. One suggestion being considered is that once the Facility's
funds have been replenished, up to 10 percent of them could be reserved
for projects with a public sector dimension.
"This is one of the elements we will study," a high-level
Commission official, speaking on condition of anonymity, told IPS. "If
it is recognised that some of the things we have been promoting are not
working as well as they should be, we will have to find out why and try
to correct them."
Anti-poverty activists have complained that no partnerships between
public water companies appear to have been financed by the Facility until
The activists are perturbed by the bias shown towards private companies
by the EU, given the considerable body of evidence that such firms have
often made clean water unaffordable for the poor. For example, when Suez,
a French-owned company, was given responsibility for delivering water
to some townships in South Africa during the 1990s, charges levied for
water services increased by 600 percent.
Olivier Hoedeman, a spokesman for Corporate Europe Observatory, which
monitors the influence wielded by business over EU policy-makers, gave
a qualified welcome to the indications given by the Commission.
"It seems like the Commission is open to change," he
said, while arguing that it would be preferable if a separate fund
is set up
to support partnerships between public firms.
"The Commission appears very cautious about making its support
for public-public partnerships very visible," he added. "It
would like to do this in a low-profile way. But if it wants to be successful,
it should show the world it is supporting this. Then public companies
will knock on its door and request access to funds."
The EU's water policy was debated at a conference held in the European
Parliament Mar. 6 and 7.
a journalist specialising in water issues, told the conference that
access to water are often serious, even within
About 140 million
people -- or 16 percent of Europe's population -- do not have clean
their disposal, he said. "People are
dying from bad water, not just in Africa but also in Europe and in some
of the EU's member states," he said.
The situation could worsen because of climate change, he warned. Over
the past 30 years, drought has cost the European economy between 85 and
100 billion euros. The drought which affected vast swathes of the continent
in 2003 was among the worst, affecting nearly 100 million people and
depriving the economy of nearly 9 billion euros.
Laimé cited estimates that agriculture accounts for 64 percent
of all water consumption in Europe. Yet the EU's common agricultural
policy (CAP) has not yet been modified so that the surrounding issues
can be grappled with. "As long as we have the CAP and water policy
completely unlinked, we'll not get anywhere," he added.
Christiane Franck, director-general of the Belgian publicly owned firm
Vivaqua, said that her country offers a model for how water services
can be delivered.
Households in Brussels,
she said, pay 25 percent less for water than those in Paris, with Vivaqua
aiming to provide water at affordable prices, "even
for the least well-off." The company's workforce has grown by 17
percent in five years, she added, because it has diversified into new
activities such as repairing leaky pipes.
a professor at the University of Manchester in Britain, said that the
is happy to become more involved in providing
water. "But it has to be profitable, which unfortunately water is
not," he said.
Andrea Tilche, a
European Commission official dealing with scientific research, acknowledged
that the EU has been promoting a greater role
for private companies in delivering water as part of its so-called Lisbon
agenda of turning the Union into the world's leading economic power. "Companies
do not want to be owners of water," he said. "They want to
be able to do business on the basis of providing services."
Juraj Kohutiar from
the Slovakian organisation People and Water said that even though the
past 12 years
have been some of the warmest on record,
addressing the impact of climate change on water seems to be viewed as "politically
He contended that
the 'harvesting' of rainwater so that it can be saved for use during
periods of low
precipitation "should be practised
on a massive scale."
An Italian left-wing member of the European Parliament, Roberto Musacchio,
said there is a reluctance by many governments to recognise that there
should be a universal right of access to clean water.
"We need to relaunch the idea that water must be declared a human
right," said Musacchio. "In Europe, water is still public in
nature. This is something we must hang on to. So not declaring it a human
right is a contradiction." (END/2008)