Shortly before Christmas 2019, EU Parliament, Council and Commission reached political agreement for recasting the Drinking Water Directive. Six years after the first successful European citizens’ initiative “right2water”, a first step has been taken to convert a key demand of this initiative into European law.
In 2013, more than 1.6 million EU citizens signed the initiative “right2water”. The main demand of this first successful citizens’ initiative at European level, which reached the minimum number of one million supporters, is to enshrine a human right to water and sanitation, as well as access to both in EU law. Apart from that, it requests European legislators not to liberalise supply system in the water industry.
Following various communications on this group of themes, the Commission presented the recast of the Drinking Water Directive in 2018 to convert the demands of “right2water” in a first step into European law. Since then, EU Parliament and Council have been negotiating the final version of the Directive. Following the now reached political compromise, there are only a few last technical details to clarify, which has been scheduled for January 2020.
Better access to drinking water
Fortunately, the European Parliament was able to assert its wish to expand the target definition of the Drinking Water Directive in the concluding trilogue negotiations. It shall not only ensure good drinking water quality in Europe but also promote access to clean drinking water in future. The position of both Commission and Council had not insisted on expanding the objective of the Directive. From the AK’s point of view, it would have been desirable not only to “promote” access to clean and affordable water in the target definition, but to actually ensure it. However, there was no majority, which means that the human right to clean and affordable water for all Europeans has not been secured in accordance with the initiative.
However, within the scope of the Directive, Member States are now required to set measures to improve access to water. In particular, access to water for people at the fringes of society has to be recorded and improved. For example, water dispensers shall be installed in public spaces. Apart from that, drinking tap water should be encouraged by providing more information on quality. Member States should also be “encouraged” to set measures to ensure that tap water in restaurants and canteens is either provided at no or for a low service fee. Hence, there can be no talk of an obligation for catering businesses to provide tap water free of charge. From the AK’s point of view, it would have been preferable to install overall concrete legal obligations for Member States to actually guarantee people’s access to clean drinking water.
Information for consumers
In future, information for consumers on drinking water will be improved within the scope of their supply agreements. At least once a year, utility companies across Europe are obliged to inform their customers of water quality (which is already the case in Austria), the cost of water (per litre and m³ respectively) and the consumption values of an average household to increase people’s awareness of water.
Apart from that, in future large water supply systems must also provide information on their owner and cost structure. As this information might attract the interest of private investors to invest in lucrative systems, thereby demanding stronger liberalisation, this additional information must also be viewed critically; in the end, it would also be opposed to a key demand of “right2water”.
New specifications to examine water quality
The required test cycles for drinking water were also adjusted within the scope of recasting the Directive. The original proposal submitted by the Commission had been - with regard to test specifications - somewhat excessive, in particular for smaller water suppliers. However, the danger that water for some consumers could have been become significantly more expensive, without improving the quality of water in practice, was averted within the scope of the trilogue negotiations.
In future, water suppliers have to examine a greater number of parameters to ensure drinking water quality. This also includes the hormonally effective compound Bisphenol A. Further environmental hormones as well as micro plastic are put on a “watch list”. In case of micro plastic, the European Commission has three years to find a suitable measuring method; currently none is available. However, the question arises in case of contamination who will have to bear the cost of cleaning. Hence, from the AK’s point of view, these substances/compounds should not find their way into the environment in the first place to avoid the contamination of drinking waters right from the start, instead of having to remove them from the groundwater with great effort and at great cost.
The recasting of the Drinking Water Directive has only partly implemented the most important demands of the European Citizens’ Initiative “right2water”; hence, they continue to remain an issue at European level.