Making peace with (the) water !

Lisbon, 21 March 2024


At a time when humanity is experiencing great dangers, where new conflicts and military aggressions persist and emerge and the predatory action of the great powers in the dispute over natural resources is increasingly aggressive, the theme chosen by the United Nations to celebrate World Water Day, which is celebrated on 22 March, "Water for Peace", could not be more topical.

Of course, it's not water itself that creates peace or triggers conflicts, but rather its unequal distribution and control, the root of co-operation and conflict over it. By prioritising the interests of multinationals and financial groups, and the consumption of those who can afford it, rather than the needs of the people, workers, small farmers and the poorest, global water management is failing to fulfil the UN's vision of "Water for Peace".

The injustices in this area continue to be manifold: more than two billion people do not have access to drinking water at home; 3.6 billion do not have access to sanitation; 80 per cent of all wastewater is disposed of without treatment.

One of the most blatant contemporary examples of water injustice is the situation in Gaza. Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza have long been denied their right to water. Water, an essential commodity for life, has become an instrument of war. For more than five months, Palestinians have had no access to drinking water sources and continue to face threats to their health and dignity. We condemn the ongoing genocide in Gaza committed by Israel, the human rights violations, including the denial of access to basic human needs such as drinking water and food.

We reaffirm that water is a right and should not be a business, even more attractive in situations of scarcity or drought. We need to guarantee that access, use and safeguarding of water resources are committed to public management and ownership and the corresponding investment, if we want to avoid conflicts arising.

At a national level, where three out of four families are struggling to make ends meet, what successive PS, PSD and CDS governments have done is turn water into a commodity and an instrument for accumulating profit.

This is what has determined the increasing withdrawal of responsibilities from the state and the weakening of public water administration services.

This is why, despite the risks, we continue to see the proliferation of intensive and super-intensive crops that consume more than 80 per cent of the water, as can be seen in the perimeter of the Alqueva Multipurpose Development.

This is the reason for using the drought, particularly in the Algarve, as an argument to justify price rises, trying to pass the burden of the problem on to municipalities, families and small farmers. But the underlying problem is not the drought, but the fact that we are consuming more water than is feasible to feed a growth model, both agricultural and tourist, that is unfair and unsustainable.

This is what explains why the private groups that own the dams continue to seriously damage ecosystems and the various uses of water, making it clear that the Albufeira Convention, designed to favour large economic interests, must be urgently changed.

This is what is forcing the "aggregations" of municipal water systems, blocking access to EU funds for municipalities that don't give up municipal management, in other words, excluding 72 per cent of mainland municipalities, disrespecting local autonomy and failing to respond to the main needs posed by the management of networks and their urgent rehabilitation.

The fight against privatisation in recent years has been strong and has achieved victories: Mafra, Fafe, Paredes and Setúbal have even regained public water management, resulting in lower prices and better quality services.

However, the threats remain and could increase with the victory of the right in the legislative elections, given their history and objectives, and with the increasing pressure from big business for control and ownership of water resources.

An example of this is the use of public-private partnerships for water desalination plants, such as the one planned for the Algarve, a highly energy-intensive activity with considerable environmental impacts - for every litre of drinking water created through water desalination, there are around 1.5 litres of polluted liquid waste. If this toxic brine is pumped back into the sea, it depletes oxygen and affects organisms along the food chain.

Recalling that universal access to water in Portugal is a right won with the April 1974 Revolution, which celebrates its 50th anniversary this year, STAL and Associação Água Pública reaffirm that water is a public good, a fundamental human right whose ownership, management and provision falls entirely within the public sphere and democratic deliberation. What is required, therefore, is to build quality public services, close to the people, equipped with the appropriate means to guarantee universal access to water and sanitation and to ensure better working conditions.

It is with public water that red carnations and peace are watered !

STAL / Associação Água Pública