“Water and Sanitation Services in Europe. Do Legal Frameworks provide for ‘Good Governance?’” is a recently concluded three years research project that analyses to what extent national regulatory frameworks provide for consumers to be completely informed, to take part in the decision-making of price and quality of service and to have the right to an expeditious redress procedure before the judiciary in England, France, Italy, the Netherlands, Spain and Scotland. The research, carried out by the IHP-HELP Centre for Water Law, Policy and Science of the University of Dundee, Scotland under the auspices of UNESCO deals exclusively with the governance mechanisms for delivering water as a service, that is to provide drinking water and sanitation to the population, and not for managing water as a resource. Its concern is to undertake the challenges and limitations of national institutional arrangements to voice the concerns of individual domestic water users.
Mónica García Quesada, Research Associate of the UNESCO Centre for Water Law, Policy and Science, University of Dundee, Researcher at the Institute de Science Politiques Louvain Europe, Catholic University of Louvain and an expert in comparative policy on governance in the water sector, was the project co-ordinator.
What brought you to do this research?
Personally I have always been interested in water resources management. The Centre contacted my service as a researcher once they had already found what they wanted to research on, which was water governance in water service regulation. The countries that I had already analysed in my doctoral research were England and Spain, so this research offered me the opportunity to look at other European countries. From international organizations and institutions people are talking a lot about governance in water service and they are saying that one of the main problems the world is facing right now is the lack of appropriateinstitutions for water resources and water management so what they wanted to do was to go a little further to try to analyse what is happening in six European countries. Our interest was to try to demystify the term governance that everyone is talking about, go further than saying that governance is important to analyse what it actually implies and how we can analyse it in water service.
The report highlights that even though the European Union has developed environmental and water quality standards applicable in all EU member states, no economic regulation has been developed and therefore the features characterising water service provision remain strongly national in character. Why is that?
Unlike energy there has been no consensus at European level on how to regulate water as a utility. There are extremely big differences in the way water is regulated at the national level. In some countries it is provided by the public sector while in others by the private. To try to impose on the member States a system that goes beyond national frontiers is something difficult to accept. For some countries it is important to control how water is regulated since it is fundamental for their economic development and it is also related to how people see their countryside. So I don’t think European countries are going to accept the opening up of their national frontiers in this sense because it would involve the creation of the same rules and probably the establishment of more liberalised practises.
Why is it harder to regulate water at European level than energy for instance?
For instance It is difficult to transport water, so competition rules are more difficult than for energy. Water needs a lot of infrastructures and therefore a lot of investments. In the energy sector it is possible for companies to compete in the same area for the same market while this is not the case for water, a sector that tends to be monopolistic. So it is pretty complicated to try to liberalize it.
In the conclusions you say that although ownership and delegation of water services provision are important factors in shaping the features of national water services governance, they do not determine what legal provisions a country develops to allow consumers to access information, to participate in decision-making processes and to access justice at the national level. Could you summarize which provisions a country should develop in this sense?
What we see is that there are a lot of similarities, for instance, in the way England and Scotland have regulated access to information, public participation and access to justice even though England provides water by private operators while Scotland does it through public companies. In a way what I wanted to say is that the fact that the service is provided by a public company or by a private one does not really determine to what extent people are going to be able to participate in its provision. There is a variety of elements which might determine it, such as the political culture of the country, to what extent the consumers organizations have been able to put their agenda forward and many more others but I do not have research done to support the actual relevance of the elements determining it.
In your opinion, what are the most relevant findings of your research?
There is one element related to the methodology which is a detailed account of the content of national regulations concerning access to information, consumers participation and access to justice in water services provisionand a comparison among the countries. Another one is the great diversity in regulatory arrangements for provision of water services in Europe. Despite this, we have found similarities in the mechanisms developed for water governance among countries depending on the type of approach they follow to set water tariffs and customer standards. Those who use a regulatory agency model, such as England and Scotland, where independent economic agencies are responsible for setting a price cap on the maximum bill increases allowed to providers while environmental and public health agencies establish customer standards that they need to comply with, those who have a delegated model (or bilateral contract approach), where local authority delegates provision to a third party – either a public or a private water company- e.g. in France, Italy and Spain and finally those who follow a self-regulatory model, that is responsible bodies supply drinking water and sewerage services directly, such as in France, Spain and the Netherlands. We have found that regulatory agency approaches have favoured more access to information and provide more opportunities for participation to water consumers than other approaches.
Your research has found that none of the countries have included an all-embracing obligation on public authorities to provide information on the reasoning behind their decisions. Do you think it should be necessary for this to be mandatory?
I think it would definitely be very good for consumers to have access to the reasoning behind the decisions public authorities make so they could understand why they make them.
Do you know of any other European country which has included this obligation and how has this improved its good water governance?
I do not know but I doubt very much there are other countries which have.
Despite the differences between the countries analyzed, water consumers have no real co-decision power to set water price and service quality standards in any of them. What are in your opinion some possible strategies so that water consumers could have more decision power in these issues ?
Create mechanisms for consumers to participate, like co-decisions committees for certain key issues, such as whether a particular structure needs to be built in the municipality and where.
Concerning water consumers’ access to justice, according to the report this has not been prevalent. What are the main possible reasons that could explain this limited access to justice by water consumers?
The experts I have interviewed from the different countries indicate that the costs and time needed to bring a case into court frequently outweigh the benefits of doing so (according to the report this is the case, for instance, in France and Italy).
What could be done to overcome these problems?
In England and Scotland, for instance, there is a list of guaranteed standards of service that water companies give to consumers, so if water is not properly treated or if there is a stop in the provision, the company automatically provides its clients a reimbursement, something that does not happen in France, Spain nor Italy where, if the company makes a mistake, consumers have to initiate procedures to get some kind of reimbursement. I think that could be an element.
You state in your conclusions that this research has focused on formal mechanisms for governance in water services provision and that future researchers may want to consider to what extent these national mechanisms take actual effect. Do you plan on carrying on this kind of research in the future?
I think it is extremely important to know first the regulations and rules that exist in a country and then equally important to study to what extent those rules take effect, which is actually my main interest as a researcher. So yes, I will certainly continue working on the actual implementation of the rules in the future.
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