Despite the fact that the UN declared water is a human right, across the world many people still cannot access it. Especially when it comes to water management and infrastructure, water is seen not as a commons, a common pool resource that should be accessible for everyone in society, or as a human right, but as a commodity that can be sold and profited from. Water management, quality, and accessibility have not been high up on the list of priorities for Tirana’s local government. But when the residents were made to pay the price for the mismanagement of the water supply company, they did not let the decision go quietly into the night. Decisions taken by Albanian politicians are becoming increasingly infuriating for citizens and slowly, growing numbers of people have become active in showing their dissatisfaction. Both those in the NGO sphere and outside of it have increasingly protested their own local, and national government in an ‘individual’ capacity, within a framework of collective citizen action. However, as citizens’ demands and actions intensified, the government is increasingly trying to punish individuals who mobilise the community to demand better governance and community services. This summer the government punished citizens with a lawsuit for protesting a controversial proposal to hike the communal water prices; the illegal actions of the government were ignored, while those who sought to challenge injustice, were deemed ‘criminals’.
The Background: ‘Cosmetic Developments’ at the Expense of Basic Human Needs
The local government of Tirana has prioritised ‘cosmetic developments’ at the expense of sound infrastructure and the provision of basic needs to its residents. The PR campaigns devoted to painting a picture of a ‘modern Albania’ at the international level seem credible but also expensive, without doubt, funded out of tax-payers’ money. But for the local residents, this is a massive injustice. While the mayor promotes ‘bike to work’ events the reality is that the streets of Tirana are very unsafe for cyclists, and devoid of bike lanes. Traffic jams bring the city to a standstill every time of the day, not just during rush hours. The outstanding number of cars also leads to high levels of pollution, beyond acceptable limits, and one of the reasons this happens is also due to another local government failure: public transport is inadequate, so people need cars. Frequent power cuts are a much too familiar occurrence for the city’s residents. Yet despite the fact that the buildings often have their electricity cut, they are painted in nice, vivid colours, well worth looking at. Recycling is also a priority for the Socialist Party and mayor of Tirana. They would love to build recycling plants and import waste to recycle in the country, going green and creating jobs. But the streets of Tirana are overflooded with the city’s own rubbish, too much to process. Access to clean water has always been an issue in the capital. Everywhere you look people carry 5,7-litre bottles of water because they do not dare to consume the tap water. Yet the government does not consider sound infrastructure and access to basic needs as a form of ‘modernity’, as if the conditions in which people live do not matter, but the priority is for the squares to look pretty, and the activities they organise to be ‘instagram’ worthy.
The Mystery of the Water Price Hike Developments
In July 2017, while people were mostly away from the capital, enjoying their holidays, the municipality of Tirana quietly announced a rise of 44% in water prices. In no way would such a decision be justified for various reasons. There is the fact that many families live below the poverty line. The decision would hit the city’s poorest and most deprived communities. The water management in Tirana has been characterised by serious financial mismanagement, as uncovered by a state-level audit. The municipality has not invested public funds in infrastructure, meaning that the taxes the residents already may have gone elsewhere, mostly for cosmetic renovations, and other non-pressing issues. The water quality in the capital is dire, with thousands of people opting for buying an incredible amount of bottled water, both for drinking and sometimes even for cooking purposes. Furthermore, a memorandum of understanding and cooperation with the municipality of Puglia in Italy was meant to address water issues, including identifying how the UKT (the water management company) could become more efficient, both in technical and financial terms. Since the signing of this document nearly two years ago, it seems no specific actions had been taken in that regard. When the decision was announced, the mayor of Tirana, Erion Veliaj, stated that the increase in price came down to the fact that 78% of Tirana residents do not pay their water bills, and this would help make up for the debt incurred. This was publically stated with confidence, as if this decision, in the given context and situation, would be justified.The decision could only increase the amount of non-paid bills, either due to financial difficulties or an even more extensive boycott against the dire provision of water services. To add to the controversy, some media sources who investigated the UKT’s finances stated that in fact, despite a large number of non-paying residents, the company had actually made a profit in 2016. The mystery which involved the water management company is augmented by the fact that there has been no transparency, studies, or evidence to support that the decision in the price hike was ‘reasonable’.
The Controversial Decision
On the 27th of July, mired in some very controversial circumstances, the decision to increase the water prices was adopted by the local council. This could hardly be achieved as the Socialist Party, who initiated the proposal, did not have a majority in the council and the opposition was going to vote against it. In total the minimum of 31 votes was achieved, followed by a very confusing situation: It turned out that two councillors belonging to the LSI had defied their party’s position and voted to pass the proposal. Soon after, the deputy chairman of LSI stated that the two councillors that had voted were ‘unknown’ to them, and they did not understand how they voted on behalf of the party. What is more, the decision was also claimed to be invalid, as 6 councillors who had not yet been installed, managed to cast a vote. As the councillors had not yet been sworn in, they were also devoid of voting rights.
The Civil Society Response
Activists, residents, and local political/environmental movements (which had previously opposed many other local government decisions) mobilised in response to the decision. Messages, studies, reports, fact-checking, and announcements quickly flooded the social media space. A protest was organised at the very time that the local council was voting on the water price hike proposal. In all, the protest was peaceful, with a small crowd of people. A representative of the council came outside, was given a microphone, and announced that the decision to increase the water prices had passed. Fast forward a few days, the press announced that the police will file a lawsuit against three of the organisers of the protests on two main charges: the organisation of a protest without authorisation, and incitement to violence. The accused had their personal details published in the media as well. All three were activists involved in civil society in various ways: a cultural manager, promoter of independent cultural projects and events, a person which runs a social media platform for like-minded activists, and an independent activist who decided they would not stay silent in the face of the government’s actions. It is unclear as to what the police constitutes ‘incitement to violence’, while the protest was in fact authorised to take place by the Tirana municipality. The protest itself was streamed live across several social media platforms and can still be watched retrospectively. Many sent messages of support and encouragement to the activists who took part in the protest, and some suggested this action followed in order to instil fear and suppress public dissent to the local government’s decisions.
Water Issues as a Result of Failed Local Governance and the Alternative
Blaming the shortcomings of the municipal water management company on non-paying residents is unjust. As a social good and human right, it should be made accessible to everyone, especially to the most disadvantaged in society. The UKT also is directly responsible for ensuring efficiency. Or so it must be, in the context of a country which aims to develop itself and ultimately, join the European Union. Tirana has failed to do so continuously, spanning years, and across many political parties that ran the local government. What many in today’s free-market dominance consider as an alternative is the privatisation of such public companies. The current mayor of Tirana has already begun talks with a Chinese company regarding the privatisation of UKT. However, in many cases, treating water as a commodity to be bought and sold has led to even more dire consequences: the quality of the water has decreased significantly, the infrastructure has suffered, while prices have become even higher. Another alternative has resulted from the failure of both local governments and private companies to provide accessible and safe water to residents: water cooperatives.
This management model has seen clear advantages over both public and private alternatives. First of all, all members of the cooperative are equal, and the main aim is the provision of adequate services and goods, rather than profits. The people who make up the cooperatives make decisions based on 1 member/ 1 vote, and the decision-making overall lies in the hands of the residents, not representatives who may or may not work on their behalf. Coops have strong incentives to become more efficient, as this ultimately lowers costs for everyone. It is in this context that we can finally bring into discussion water as a commons, as a social good, and as a universal human right. Around Europe, only in Denmark, Austria, and Finland, around 10 000 water coops manage their municipalities’ water supply, the reason being they have proven to be both efficient and respectable.
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