Flood of controversy over new water law

NEW RULES regulating the sale of Slovak water abroad, which are part of a bigger amendment under discussion in parliament, have provoked a wave of reactions, with activists alleging the Environment Ministry is clearing the way to commodify and export a natural resource. The ministry calls the claims “nonsense”.

Drinking water, illustrative stock photo Drinking water, illustrative stock photo (Source: SME)

NEW RULES regulating the sale of Slovak water abroad, which are part of a bigger amendment under discussion in parliament, have provoked a wave of reactions, with activists alleging the Environment Ministry is clearing the way to commodify and export a natural resource. The ministry calls the claims “nonsense”.

“The aim of the proposed amendment is to prevent the uncontrolled and unlimited export of this strategic raw material, to the maximum possible extent,” Environment Ministry spokesman Maroš Stano told The Slovak Spectator.

The amendment to the law on water, passed by the government on June 4, stipulates that water is of strategic interest for the security of the state. It, among other things, prohibits the construction of pipelines through protected areas, introduces new fines for polluting water, imposes fees for irrigation water and changes fees for using surface water and groundwater.

The biggest attention, however, went to the new rules over selling and exporting water abroad. Under the proposed rules, people and companies willing to sell and export water will have to ask for permission from the state-run water management company. The company will then send the request to the ministry that will submit it to the government session in 90 days. The government will either approve or dismiss the request.

If approved, the water management company will issue a permission containing, among other things, the amount of used water and the time of the validity of the permission. This cannot exceed five years, according to the draft law.

If passed by the full parliament, the new rules will come into force in October.

The amendment significantly changes existing water legislation, Elena Fatulová from the Global Water Partnership Slovensko think tank said, adding that it “legalises the exports of water abroad, while the water also becomes a commodity – goods”.

She also said that under the current legislation, it is not possible to export water abroad, and that it can be used only in the public interest, to supply citizens, industry and agriculture.

“Based on our information, no other EU country allows exports of water for commercial purposes,” Fatulová told The Slovak Spectator. She noted that neighbouring states do sometimes exchange small amounts of water, although not with profit as a motive.

The ministry claims that with the amendment it only responds to the Right2water petition. Its aim was better protection of water by the public and understanding of access to water as a human right, not a commodity.

Petitions underway

The opposition parties, however, have also criticised the new rules for exporting water. They will allow some small groups to earn money from selling Slovak water abroad, according to the extra-parliamentary NOVA movement. It casts doubt on the transparency of permissions to export water abroad, said MP Martin Chren, as cited by the SITA newswire.

“There is a loophole where only selected and befriended subjects of the [Environment] Ministry would sell Slovak water abroad,” Chren added, as quoted by SITA.

The MP also said it should be the state, not private companies, that should benefit from sales of water.

Meanwhile, two petitions against the regulation were launched. Igor Hraško, MP for Ordinary People and Independent Personalities (OĽaNO), said on June 17 that the new law allows exports of water from Slovakia in tanks and in pipelines, which is not allowed by the current law.

“Though we are talking about extra water, we have not seen any relevant study about extra drinking water,” Hraško said, as quoted by SITA, adding that the water sources belong to everyone.

Activists in Banská Bystrica started collecting signatures on June 17.

“We are afraid the state does not know how much extra drinking water we have,” said activist Richard Tokušev, as quoted by the TASR newswire, adding that they also disagree with the definition of water as a commodity. “Water is not a commercial product, but a natural inheritance which should be protected, defended, and based on this we should use it.”

The ambition is to collect at least 100,000 signatures, forcing parliament to discuss the issue.
The Environment Ministry, however, called the criticism “an untruthful campaign full of nonsense”.

“The Environment Ministry warns that the authors of the petition against the amendment deliberately mislead people and spread hysteria,” reads the statement sent to media.

Regarding the privatisation speculations, the ministry pointed to the constitution, which prohibits any privatisation of water that belongs exclusively to Slovakia. Moreover, it stressed the law will be transparent. While currently a regional office worker can decide over the potential export of water, under the new rules the public would be allowed to comment on the request, which will also be checked by the government and the Environment Ministry, according to the statement.

The ministry also denied claims that the law was prepared in secret. Conversely, the ministry had been discussing it with activists for more than a year, and it had even appeared in the media, they said.

“The current hysteria suits the speculators with water who would like to plunder our water resources,” the statement reads.

Environment Ministert Peter Žiga meanwhile admitted there is an interest in exporting Slovak water, but the ministry cannot identify it more closely. “There is information, but we do not have any levers,” he said, as quoted by TASR.

Though no water management companies have been interested in exporting water so far, the minister has not excluded the possibility that this would happen in the future.

When asked by TASR whether he did not consider complete ban on exports of water, Žiga said it would not be possible in the EU.

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