EU parliament softens on water pricing

Environment committee rejects full cost recovery, stays firm on deadlines, hazardous substances

MEPs in the European Parliament's environment committee have dropped a demand for EU countries to implement full-cost water pricing policies within a decade. But the parliamentarians have endorsed calls for the draft water framework directive to contain stricter rules on hazardous substances than approved by EU governments.

The parliament's earlier insistence on full recovery of all water-related costs in service charges by 2010 was one of several sticking points in a dispute with EU environment ministers last year (ENDS Daily 3 February 1999). This week, however, MEPs rejected an attempt by their rapporteur Marie-Noëlle Lienemann to reintroduce the demand as an amendment to the Council of Ministers' common position (ENDS Daily 26 October 1999).

Instead, the MEPs call for policies which provide "adequate incentives for users to use water resources efficiently" and a charging system which "encourages rational use of water resources". However, they also call for an "adequate contribution" from different economic sectors, including at least industry, households and agriculture, to the recovery of the costs of water services.

This amendment will disappoint southern EU countries such as Spain which use large amounts of water at artificially low prices in agriculture: in her original proposal, the rapporteur had dropped the demand for cost recovery in individual sectors. Moreover, a provision to relax the water pricing rules to guarantee supplies to water-users facing financial hardship has been limited to domestic consumers only.

On one of two other big blocking points between the two institutions, the committee voted to maintain a demand for a range of standards relating to surface and groundwaters and protected areas to be achieved within 10 years instead of the 16 agreed by ministers. MEPs also want derogations from the standards to last a maximum of 12 rather than 18 years.

Also approved by the committee was a demand that ministers enshrine in the directive a pledge made in 1998 under the Ospar convention to endeavour to end discharges of hazardous substances to the marine environment by 2020 (ENDS Daily 23 July 1998). MEPs call for member states to "move towards the target of their cessation" by this deadline. However, they held back from demanding an intermediate reduction in emissions of 75% by 2015.

The water framework directive will introduce river-basin management of water resources and will be followed by several more detailed directives. The committee's report will now be considered by the full parliament on 15 February before being resubmitted to the Council of Ministers. Sources predict the final wording of the law will only be resolved after lengthy "conciliation" negotiations.

Follow Up:
European Parliament, tel: +32 2 284 2111.

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