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A civil society call for the EU
to withdraw its GATS water requests

June 2003   --   pdf version of this document


The G8 meets this week on the shores of Lake Geneva, in Evian. Appropriately, the summit has identified water as one of its key themes, with talk of a 'global plan' to meet the Millennium Development Goal of halving the proportion of people without access to safe drinking water and sanitation by 2015.

Yet across the lake, in Geneva itself, EU trade negotiators are using the services negotiations of the World Trade Organisation (WTO) to open up other countries' water sectors for the benefit of Europe's private sector water industry. Under the 'progressive liberalisation' programme of the General Agreement on Trade in Services (GATS), the EU has targeted the water sectors of 72 other WTO member countries for liberalisation - including developed, developing and least developed countries alike.

The EU has made no secret of the fact that it sees GATS as "first and foremost an instrument for the benefit of business, and not only for business in general, but for individual service companies wishing to export services or to invest and operate abroad." Building on the EU's attempt to include 'water for human use' under the category of environmental services in the current GATS negotiations, an internal memo from the European Commission to Thames Water confirmed:

One of the main objectives of the EU in the new round of negotiations is to achieve real and meaningful market access for European service providers for their exports of environmental services.

European service providers dominate the global water market. The world's top two private sector water companies, Vivendi and Suez (both French), control 70% of all private water services between them. The third largest is Thames Water, now part of German utilities conglomerate RWE. For these companies and their smaller competitors (most also European), GATS promises access to new markets and enhanced rights.

Yet the liberalisation of water has caused grave problems in many countries, where the involvement of foreign multinationals has typically raised water tariffs far beyond the reach of poor households. Any country making GATS commitments in water would bind in such liberalisation for the future, making it effectively impossible for it to reverse the liberalisation - despite its negative impacts on the poor.

There has been massive opposition from across the world to the EU's GATS water requests. Several EU member states have criticised the requests, making charges of EU hypocrisy at a time when (quite rightly) the EU is not offering its own water distribution services for liberalisation under GATS. Even parts of the private sector water industry itself have spoken out against the inclusion of water in the GATS negotiations, and developing countries such as South Africa have called for water to be taken out of GATS altogether.

In view of the potential damage which GATS liberalisation commitments could cause to vulnerable communities worldwide, we call on the EU - and in particular its G8 members: France, Germany, Italy and the UK - to withdraw its water requests of other WTO members immediately.

We also call on the EU to withdraw its proposal to reclassify the GATS category of environmental services, by which it intends to bring 'water for human use' into the current GATS negotiations.


List of signatories

GATSwatch is a joint project of Corporate Europe Observatory and Transnational Institute
Paulus Potterstraat 20, 1071 DA Amsterdam, The Netherlands