Is the right to water wrong?

The Republic of Ireland and Detroit in the US have both faced mass protests over water tariffs. How should utilities handle the issue?

By Tom Freyberg Chief Editor

The Republic of Ireland and Detroit in the US have both faced mass protests over water tariffs. How should utilities handle the issue?

It is impossible to disconnect water from politics. The very nature of water provision – utilities providing what is essentially a lifeline to their customers – is political. Here at WWi we always try to focus on the technology and hard engineering, project side of the industry. Yet, it's almost impossible to disentangle this from the controversial issue of cost further up the line. After all, what people pay for water has a direct impact on the technology used to treat it. And it's this issue of cost that has reared its controversial head in both Europe and the US recently.

In the Republic of Ireland, tens of thousands took part in nationwide protests against the introduction of water charges. Nearly 100 demonstrations across the country took place over charges introduced in October. Such a measure is being used by the government to pay back the international financial bailout granted in 2010. Protestors claimed they should not pay for something that was "already free" and "paid for out of general taxation", according to the BBC.

Meanwhile, across the Atlantic the US city of Detroit has also had its hands full (see case study on page 24). In the spring the city took matters into its own hands, at the price of attracting global negative press, spreading like wildfire. The city began disconnecting customers who had not paid their water bills. Around 3000 disconnections per week led to some 22,000 households being cut off between March and August.

A volunteer-led alliance called the Detroit Water Brigade argued that water is a human right. They campaigned for an affordability plan that would cap water payment at 2.5% of monthly income. Meanwhile, the utility argued that a lack of communication with customers meant it was difficult to distinguish between those that "can't" or "won't" pay.

With the United Nations recognising in 2010 the human right to water and sanitation, UN Water inevitably got involved in Detroit. It's an interesting example of how the relationship between utility and customer is carefully balanced, and cost is the overriding factor that can tip that very balance. The Ireland example highlights that it's extremely hard to put your hand out for money when people have come to expect the same service for free.

One spokesperson who also believes water and politics go hand in hand is Benedito Braga, president of the World Water Council. We spoke with him as part of the WWi Leader Series (page 12). Read how he's speaking with world leaders to address the issues such as price and one sure-fire way to convince politicians on the merits of improved water/wastewater infrastructure.

Also in the issue, IDA (International Desalination Association) veteran Leon Awerbuch provides an interesting article (page 20) addressing the growing trend for hybrid desalination plants. Combining both membrane and thermal processes, some of these projects in the Middle East are presenting some interesting savings.

One thing is for sure: despite its criticism for being conservative, the water industry is never short of a good debate or technology innovation! Enjoy the issue.

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