There is a major contradiction at the heart of the Right2Water campaign, the latest protest of which takes place in Dublin today. Though Paul Murphy TD, speaking as a spokesperson for the campaign, has stated that the objective is to overthrow the government and force a general election, and marchers speaking on Morning Ireland this morning seemed more focused on marching against austerity, the stated objective is to force a total abolition of water charges and of Irish Water itself. This is being done in the name of a right to water.
A right to water has been enshrined in international conventions and it is certainly a most important right worth fighting for. Yet, as the UN has clarified, the essence of the right is the provision of water, namely a universal entitlement 'to sufficient, safe, acceptable, physically accessible and affordable water for personal and domestic uses'. On the basis of numerous reports from around the country about the poor quality of domestic water supplies and of sewage infrastructure in many areas, there is good evidence to show that this right is not sufficiently guaranteed to many Irish people. Furthermore, large amounts of water are being wasted due to leaks in the system, indicating the lack of sufficient investment in the system over a long period.
A campaign around the right to water is therefore long overdue and badly needed. However, the paradox is that the current campaign, with its aims of abolishing water charges and the public utility established to invest in and improve our water supply and infrastructure, is on the face of it actually undermining the right to water. Apart from vague mention of funding water supply out of general taxation, a policy has has proved ineffective in guaranteeing our right to water, no spokesperson for the campaign has offered any convincing proposal designed to vindicate in a credible and practical way the right for which it claims to be mobilising.
Three basic approaches to providing water are evident around the world today. The most traditional one, which still lives on in many communities including group water schemes in rural Ireland, is that a local community takes charge of its water supply and maintaining the necessary infrastructure. This is a demanding task and not always successful. For this reason, the state took responsibility for supplying water in most parts of the world, particularly in urban areas. Yet, as happened in Ireland, a lack of adequate investment often meant that both the supply and quality of water was far from adequate.
For this reason, in some parts of the world over recent decades, water supply was privatised. This caused much publicised protests in some countries, most famous among them the Water Wars in Bolivia that led to the nationalisation of water and to the collapse of the then government. This satisfied most of the protesters in Bolivia, though some wanted a return to a community-controlled system that had existed previously.
In Ireland, however, we now have a mass mobilisation that is offering no clear proposals as to how our grossly inadequate system is to be reformed and improved, thereby offering a means to vindicate our right to water. Instead, it is seeking a return to an obviously failed system. If this campaign succeeds, those many communities around the country which do not have a guaranteed right to water can only blame the so-called left-wing leaders and parties which have mobilised this campaign.
Choosing to campaign on this issue raises some important questions for these leaders and parties. If they are left-wing as they claim, then they should be espousing a strengthening of state capacity and resources to guarantee good quality public services and to regulate the private sector so that it serves the good of society. These are the core values of the left. Yet, here we have left-wing groups which do the very opposite, further weakening the state and depriving it of badly needed resources to seek to guarantee people's access to a social right.
Indeed, this campaign plays directly in to the hands of neoliberal interests that want to weaken the tax base, undermine the authority and capacity of the state, and see politics dominated by short-term self-interested issues designed to promote the electoral support of those promoting them rather than the wider good of society, particularly the most vulnerable. It is a disastrous politics that shows just how enduring is the poisonous legacy of decades of Fianna Fáil rule. With a so-called left like this, it no longer matters what happens to Fianna Fáil.