Looking back on 2013 I realise that, professionally, it has been one of my most interesting and diverse years yet: two major Climate Gathering events, half a dozen new clients for my public policy consultancy, lots of writing and even a few speaking engagements. Policy topics covered include climate, water, waste and resource efficiency, as well as technology, copyright, privacy, taxation, citizenship and government. Certainly worthy of a short blog post. Continue reading
The Institute of International and European Affairs has published my policy brief on water efficiency in Europe. The paper can be downloaded from the IIEA web site.
It is just over one year since UNICEF and the World Health Organisation (WHO) announced a significant milestone in progress towards meeting the UN’s Millennium Development Goals. The goal of halving the proportion of the global population without access to safe water had been met, and several years ahead of the target date of 2015. Naturally this bit of good news merited celebration, especially as several other MDGs remain stubbornly resistant to progress, for example in the areas of hunger, maternal mortality, and employment. United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon was upbeat: “Today we recognise a great achievement for the people of the world. This is one of the first MDG targets to be met. The successful efforts to provide greater access to drinking water are a testament to all who see the MDGs not as a dream, but as a vital tool for improving the lives of millions of the poorest people.”
It wasn’t long, however, before some wondered whether the celebration was premature. The main sour note, acknowledged in the announcement, was the fact that the related goal of ensuring that 75% of the population has access to improved sanitation was still far from being met, and is not likely to be met by 2015.
Another issue raised by water NGOs was whether the achievement of the headline goal masked the reality on the ground. Ned Breslin, CEO of the US NGO Water for People, took issue with the fact that achievement of the goal was based on the metric of “access” to an improved water supply, rather than on the functionality of that supply. In other words, populations might be reporting that a handpump was available to them but the data was silent on whether this supply was actually working. Breslin cited examples of studies in Mozambique, Liberia and Malawi where detailed data collected on the ground painted a less rosy picture: in the case of the Sanga district of Mozambique, Breslin estimated that 21.91 per cent of the population had access to a functional improved water supply, in contrast to the 72.9 per cent reported by UNICEF/WHO’s Joint Monitoring Project (JMP).
The JMP, however, would deny that their figures take no account of functionality. Their access estimates are based on extrapolating from household surveys or national censuses the number of people who “use” an improved water supply, implying that respondents would only report use of a functional supply.
The other measurement issue is whether access to “improved” water supplies is really a valid proxy for access to “safe” water supplies. The only way to get an accurate figure for the proportion of the global population using safe water would be to undertake water quality testing everywhere, which is not currently practicable. The assumption made by the JMP is that an improved water supply, i.e. piped water or water from a protected well, is safer than water drawn directly from unprotected or polluted rivers and ponds. However it acknowledges that access to an improved supply does not necessarily mean access to safe water. Nobody knows precisely how many people lack access to safe water, with estimates falling in the range one to four billion, compared with the JMP’s estimate of 783 million without access to an improved resource.
The main message from all this wrangling over metrics is that measurement is difficult, costly, and contentious. Everybody wants to be able to monitor impact, but national governments and international donors are sensitive to costly research projects using up money that could otherwise be directed to providing infrastructure. Nonetheless there are efforts underway to improve the quality of data available on progress towards universal access to safe water. The WASH Monitoring Exchange is the initiative of a group of NGOs, funders and academics to find the best balance between cost and reliability in monitoring the sustainability of water projects undertaken by development organisations. While it is aimed primarily at tracking NGO projects, if a reliable and cost-effective set of indicators emerge it could have wider applicability. Others are making use of multiple data sources to model the likely discrepancy between “improved” and “safe” water supplies.
Measurement matters, but it has to be acknowledged that the Millennium Development Goals are not primarily about selecting the most accurate indicators of global development: they are about rallying the global community around a series of agreed common objectives which are specific enough to be tracked but general enough to be easily understood. With the 2015 target date now close, it is less useful to argue about the right indicators for tracking progress up to that point than to learn from the MDG experience to set out the most effective goals for the post-2015 period. As well as balancing cost and reliability of data collection, the UN must ensure the chosen indicators encapsulate a vision of improved quality of life that is broad enough to be widely accepted.
This process of developing a post-2015 framework got underway in earnest at the start of 2012. A UN “Special Event” will be held in September 2013 to review progress towards the MDGs and it is hoped that this session will also consider the post-2015 framework. The Irish Presidency of the EU has an important role in the unfolding discussion, as it works to bring together the Union’s common position on the future of development policy in advance of the Special Event.
The broader issue is that the MDGs are a snapshot: they are based on capturing the status of indicators at a set point in time, as well as tracking progress towards that target date. The goals set out for the post-2015 period should encapsulate sustainability over time. This is particularly true in the case of water, given the high failure ratesof water systems, not to mention the multiple stresses that might threaten or reverse progress towards universal access to safe water, including climate change, population increase and conflict. The post-2015 vision must be of development progress capable of being sustained into the future: this might mean integrating development and environmental goals.
The Irish government is currently in the process of centralising the State’s water services into a single entity to be known as Irish Water. The new authority will be structured as a utility company, and will be housed within Bord Gáis, the state-owned gas and energy provider. Its first task will be the nationwide roll-out of water meters, in advance of charges for domestic water supply being introduced in 2014. The reforms have led opposition spokespeople to raise the spectre of privatisation of water services in Ireland, although current Irish law guarantees that water supply will remain in public hands. The Minister responsible, Fergus O’Dowd, has strongly denied that privatisation is on this Government’s agenda. However the utility model and the introduction of charges have led some to suggest that privatisation will in the future become a logical next step. It could be said that most of the difficult work that would be involved in privatising water is now being done: moving water services from municipal and central government control into a commercial enterprise, albeit state-owned; installing meters in 1.3 million households to allow for domestic charging; creating a customer-supplier relationship between the water utility and every water user in the state. Once all of this heavy lifting is out of the way, a change in the ownership of the utility could be effected relatively easily.
The Minister is right to point out that across Europe public ownership of water services is the rule rather than the exception, although this is not to say that there isn’t significant private involvement in water and sanitation. The system in place in England and Wales stands out as an example of a completely privatised approach. In France about 70 per cent of the population are supplied with drinking water by a private operator, and French water companies also have a significant role in water services in Spain. Water systems in Europe have evolved over the centuries with the public and private sectors taking the lead to a greater or lesser extent at various times in different countries, so it’s no surprise to find heterogeneity in ownership models across the EU, and even within Member States. Although the EU is ostensibly neutral on the question of water ownership, there has recently been a debate on whether the European Commission is promoting privatisation through the back door, through its role in framing bailout programmes for financially distressed Member States, and through its proposals for a new Concessions Directive governing certain types of public-private partnerships.
In the case of bailout agreements, the Commission has been accused by campaigners (including labour unions and environmentalists) of insisting on privatisation programmes that include the sell-off of municipal water companies. In Greece the bailout agreement requires the selling off the State’s majority stakes in the already part-privatised Athens and Thessaloniki water and sewerage companies, while Portugal is under pressure to dispose of its state-owned water company. The Commission does not admit to actively promoting water privatisation for its own sake in these bailed-out countries, but campaigners point to its history of favouring privatisation in development aid agreements and international trade negotiations. The Commission can maintain its officially neutral stance on ownership of water services by pointing out that the privatisation measures are being carried out by the insolvent national governments themselves in order to raise money to keep other public services running.
More recently, the proposed Concessions Directive has become part of this debate. The Directive is seen as necessary to regularise the way public authorities in Member States enter into partnerships with the private sector to provide services of general economic interest. A contract to operate public water infrastructure is a good example of a concession, and other examples include toll roads, waste disposal and energy generation. The Commission sees as a loophole the fact that there are no specific rules governing the award of such contracts, giving rise to risks of fraud, favouritism and lack of transparency. While the proposed text restates that, in keeping with Article 345 of the Treaty, nothing in the Directive will prejudice Member States’ own system of property ownership, it also talks of “a real opening up of the market” in respect of water, energy, transport and postal services. It is not only this language but also fears about the practical operation of the Directive which have led campaigners to class it as another attempt to promote privatisation of water.
The general concern is that the conditions imposed by the Directive will result in a situation where public authorities find it easier and less legally risky to tender out concessions for water supply rather than providing the service themselves. As with Minister O’Dowd in Ireland, Internal Market Commissioner Barnier has been on the defensive against such claims, denying that the Directive will have any such effect. In a statement on 23 January 2013 he affirmed that the proposed Directive will “not lead to forced privatisation of water services. Public authorities will at all times remain free to choose whether the provide the services directly or via private operators.” This clearly did not settle the matter as a month later he took the somewhat unusual step of issuing a joint statement with Environment Commissioner Potocnik to the same effect. This followed a meeting of the European Parliament’s Internal Market and Consumer Protection Committee (IMCO) at which he pledged to make changes to the proposed text to clarify its intentions:
In response to certain false accusations, allow me to be perfectly clear, precise and formal: the Commission is not seeking in any way whatsoever to privatise water management – neither today nor tomorrow. This directive does not aim and will not have the effect of bringing about a forced privatisation of drinking water supply services. I am willing to make the necessary clarifications to the text in the three-way talks.
The Committee, having at an earlier meeting rejected a proposal to remove water from the remit of the Directive altogether, voted to get the trialogue underway. It remains to be seen what clarifications the Commissioner is willing to offer as part of this process, but IMCO’s rapporteur, Phillipe Juvin (EPP/France), is hoping for agreement that the text will include a solemn statement that water privatisation is not intended.
The political pressure that has caused the Commissioner to take such pains to clarify his intentions demonstrates the importance placed on public ownership of water in many parts of Europe. A civil society group led by the European Federation of Public Services Unions (EPSU) and comprising labour unions as well as public water operators and environmentalists is leading a Citizens’ Initiative which has attracted more than 1.2 million signatures since September 2012, calling for guaranteed water and sanitation for all citizens and an end to liberalisation of water services. The vast bulk of these signatures have come from Germany, but the campaign is not far off reaching the required numbers in seven Member States. Campaigns are also underway to “remunicipalise” private water services, particularly in France.
What does this debate about water ownership mean for water policy, particularly the resource efficiency agenda that is central to the Commissions’s Blueprint to Safeguard Europe’s Waters? Ensuring the full implementation of water pricing with incentives for efficiency is a key objective of the Blueprint. The current experience in Ireland is a demonstration that in many cases the policies required to promote efficient use of water are often the same as those required to prepare public water systems for privatisation. Public fears that metering and full cost recovery are Trojan horses for selling off of water services cannot be lightly dismissed, given the history of similar policies in the waste sector, for example, and the less than convincing claims by European authorities to be entirely neutral on the question. However by the same token there is nothing to suggest that, with the right policies, resource efficiency cannot be maximised while keeping water services in public hands. The efficiency agenda will in any case require a great deal of public goodwill – this often scarce resource might be maximised if populations can be convincingly reassured that they will retain choice in the ownership model of their water services.