Water is a vital resource. However, it is becoming increasingly scarce due to the climate crisis. Not only humans and nature, but also sectors such as agriculture, energy and the textile industry need large quantities. To find solutions to the major challenges we face, the European Economic and Social Committee (EESC) is calling for a Blue Deal for the EU. Modelled on the EU Green Deal, the intention is to create a European strategy to ensure good management of the "blue gold" for people, the economy and our planet. An event organised by AK EUROPA, the European Office of the Austrian Trade Union Federation ÖGB and younion _Die Daseinsgewerkschaft took up this important topic on 21 September 2023.
After a brief welcome by host Michaela Kauer, Head of the Liaison Office of the City of Vienna to the EU, Marthe Wens, Assistant Professor at Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam, opened the event with a rousing keynote. Wens' research focuses on the interactions between nature and humans and how these interactions affect water balance and scarcity. She emphasised the importance of water security, i.e. access to water of high quality and quantity. If this is not guaranteed, one speaks of a water crisis. In order to also take into account the global impact of our consumption patterns and the associated inequalities in water use, proactive water management is required, which also takes virtual water consumption into account, the latter referring to water consumption in the production of food, clothing and industrial goods.
This was followed by a comment by Jan Willem Goudriaan, General Secretary of European Public Services Union (EPSU). Goudriaan called for a holistic approach with trade unions at the negotiating table and an end to all discussions about possible further liberalisation of the water sector. The Right2Water Initiative was the first Europe-wide citizens' initiative to successfully campaign for the human right to water. It underlines the urgency of sustainable and inclusive water management. Water is a common good, Goudriaan said, which is why an EU Blue Deal is needed to preserve this asset for people and nature. The EESC should play a leading role in shaping this Blue Deal. Instruments such as a golden rule for investment are a key part of this to encourage sufficient investment in public water infrastructure.
The Green Deal is not complete without a Blue Deal
Thomas Kattnig (EESC) is one of the main promoters of the EESC’s Blue Deal Initiative. At the beginning of the discussion, he once again emphasised the high relevance of the subject of water and the key role of public water provision. There must be a functioning infrastructure that is prepared to deal with the effects of climate change, such as flooding, and which puts the focus on consumers.
Gudrun Winkler (HAMBURG WASSER) emphasised the need to prepare water management for future challenges. Society had already recognised many of these problems, it was now the turn of the legislator to act. She located many gaps in the current water management. Often, measures taken at different levels were working against each other. These gaps could be closed with an EU Blue Deal, which promotes a holistic approach and creates holistic framework conditions.
The issue of water affects us all
Later in the discussion, Ben Lennon (ETUC) argued for an early involvement of trade unions. To give an example, he mentioned the situation of firefighters who already face the dilemma of water shortages. This example shows how important it is to involve local workers in the decision-making process. He stressed the need to learn from the mistakes of the Green Deal. One approach could be to reform fiscal rules to encourage investment in public water systems.
In her contribution to the debate, Claudia Olazábal (DG ENV, European Commission) referred to the natural disasters that have occurred in Europe this summer and how we are already feeling the impact of climate change. This has many consequences, especially for the water cycle, as water quality and quantity are linked. She pleaded for a Europe-wide flood protection plan. This issue concerns us all; it was vital to raise our voices for water security for people and nature across party lines from EU institutions to international organisations such as the UN.
What is the next step?
Thomas Kattnig concluded by stressing that we must use all instruments from local to European level to advance an EU Blue Deal. The EESC has already adopted seven reports on this topic and will continue to work on the issue. In her recent State of the Union Address, Commission President Ursula von der Leyen identified a water resilience initiative as one of three priorities for a future Green Deal. Hence, the issue remains on the political agenda..
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