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The human right to water and reform of the Irish water sector

Owen McIntyre

Keywords: human right to water; water sector reform; privatization of water services; constitutional rights; bodily integrity; dignity

The austerity measures imposed upon Ireland under the terms of the 2009 EU/IMF financial bail-out package include the introduction of charging for domestic water and sanitation services, which has led to the establishment of a new national water utility and plans to roll out a nation-wide programme for the installation of domestic water meters. The introduction of such a charging scheme raises a range of, as yet, unanswered questions concerning, for example, the use of social safety nets for those unable to pay, safeguards regarding disconnection or reduction of service in the event of non-payment, the accountability of the new utility for any failure to supply adequate water, and arrangements for meaningful public participation in decision-making concerning water services. While one would normally expect such key policy choices to be guided by the emerging human right to water and sanitation, no applicable provision of Irish law expressly supports the concept. However, policymakers might want to take account of the good governance values inherent to this emerging human right, as there exists the possibility that certain provisions of Irish law, and applicable provisions of European human rights law, might be interpreted so as to impose such values. While much of the current discourse on the human right to water and sanitation concerns its possible application in developing countries, Ireland might hold lessons for other developed countries facing austerity-driven water sector reform, including arrangements for the privatization of water and sanitation services.

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