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August 9, 2020



World Water Day: Let's talk about Roma in Europe

22.3.2015 18:42, (ROMEA)
The only source of water for Roma in a Slovak town (PHOTO: ERRC)
The only source of water for Roma in a Slovak town (PHOTO: ERRC)

Most of us take clean water for granted. It is abundant, provided directly in our homes, and checked continuously to ensure it meets quality and safety standards. Images of long treks to access water, sometimes through difficult or dangerous terrain, are associated in our minds with other continents, where we imagine that this time-consuming and labour-intensive task is a part of daily life for some people. Yet all across Europe there are people living without access to clean water and many of them are Roma.

Every day Roma living on the outskirts of an industrial town in central Slovakia have to climb up a steep forested hill to reach their closest water resource - a natural spring running through a corroded pipe on the side of the road. The climbtakes them about 15 minutes up, and at least the same with the full canisters back down. It is difficult terrain and getting water for the household becomes especially challenging in winter.They have to climb up one after another,(joking that they are in single filelike soldiers);the first one up throws ashes on the icy road without which it would be tooicy to walk on. They cannot save themselves with their hands if they slip, as both hold water canisters. The water regularly freezes during winter and it is often covered with snow – there is even a ski resort situated a few hundred meters away. In such situations they have no way to defrost the spring and have to walk about 40 minutes to a neighbouring village where a public tap is located in the school yard. The locals in the village, however, do not like to see them getting water there and often argue with them.This picture is far from unique - the ERRC is currently conducting research on access to water in seven European countries drawing attention to the situation like this one, repeated daily by many Roma all across Europe.

According to the Atlas of Romani Communities (2013), there are more than 150 Roma neighbourhoods and settlements in Slovakia where not one house is connected to a public water supply, and more than 370 without sewage systems in place. Apart from the totally segregated settlements that are not connected to public utility infrastructure, there are 65 Roma neighbourhoods with no household connected to the water system of the municipality, even though the non-Roma households are otherwise fully connected.

In general, there is very little information available about the access to safe drinking water and sanitation of Romani communities in Europe. Those few available sources however suggest that many Romani households experience significant difficulties in accessing clean drinking water and adequate sanitation. According to the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) Regional Roma Survey (2011), in many European countries a large proportion of Romani households are still not connected to a piped public water supply and remain dependent on water, the quality of which is not tested by responsible public authorities:

  • Romania (72%)
  • Moldova (66%)
  • Slovakia (38%)
  • Croatia (35%)
  • Hungary (30%)
  • Albania (30%)

These numbers are unsettling if you consider that access to affordable and clean water has been recognised as a human right to which each person, regardless of her nationality, ethnicity, housing conditions and financial situation is entitled. Access to water was for the first time recognised as a right during the first UN Water Conference held in Mar de Plata in March 1977. In 1993, the UN designated March 22 as the first World Water Day. In 2008, Catarina de Albuquerque, a Portuguese legal scholar, was appointed the first UN Special Rapporteur on the Human Right to Safe Drinking Water and Sanitation. Finally, in July 2010, following almost 40 years of high-level negotiations and discussions, the UN General Assembly’s Resolution A/Res/64/292 formally established access to safe drinking water and sanitation as a human right and opened the door for UN Committees to scrutinise and penalise countries denying clean water to their people.


But what does it mean to consider access to drinking water and sanitation a human right? The (former) UN Rapporteur has pointed out five criteria in this regard: water should be available, safe, acceptable, accessible, and affordable. Water should be available in sufficient quantities for personal and domestic needs. The World Health Organisation (WHO) estimates that 100 litres per person per day meets all needs and 15 litres is an absolute minimum; this minimal amount however already raises health concerns. Water should be safe for drinking and free from contamination (from industrial and agricultural pollution, natural groundwater pollution, inadequate sanitation, and improper handling and household storage) and kept away from animals, including insects. Water should further be acceptable in terms of colour, odour and taste for people drinking it. It should not be located a long distance from people’s homes and the path to its source should be safe and convenient for all users. Finally, water should be available at a price that is affordable to all people, including the poorest. Moreover, the cost of water should not be so high as to limit people in acquiring other basic goods and services.

Access to drinking water and functioning sanitation is not nowadays considered a serious problem in Europe. Plenty of environmental monitoring reports suggest that a majority of Europeans are connected to safe public water.The European Union (EU) adopted two water-related Directives, the “Drinking Water” (1998) and the “Water Framework” (2000), which outline related obligations for all member states and states under accession negotiations. Despite the fact that these directives prescribe that access to water should be guaranteed to all European citizens, many member states have nevertheless failed to adequately implement them and thus to guarantee access to safe, good quality and affordable drinking water and adequate sanitation to all of their citizens.The European Commission (EC) has so far been hesitant to take visible steps in the face of such non-compliance and violations. This can be contrasted with the EC’s active approach to non-compliance with free trade laws.

In November 2012, a European Citizenship Initiative: Right to Water was created to petition the EC to ensure that EU law protects water as a human right. Through its online petition, within one year this campaign attracted more than 1.8 million people. The EC established the Citizenship Initiative platform in April 2012 in order to foster direct participation of European citizens in European politics. Once a petition meets the threshold of 1 million signatures from at least seven EU member states, the EC is obliged to deal with the issue and develop a legislative proposal. The Right to Water campaign is the first, and to date the only, successful Citizenship Initiative.


The Initiative highlighted that many people in Europe remain without adequate access to water and sanitation, and that increasing numbers are being disconnected nowadays as they are not able to pay for water services. It has three main demands:

  1. EU institutions and Member States should be obliged to ensure that all inhabitants enjoy the right to water and sanitation.
  2. Water supply and management of water resources should not be subject to ‘internal market rules’ and water services should be excluded from liberalisation.
  3. The EU should increase its efforts to achieve universal access to water and sanitation.

The EC responded to the Initiative with policies ensuring that water is not to be treated as a market commodity in Europe. However, they failed to provide any concrete measuresas to how the EU will realise the right to water for all. Due to the lack of tangible measures, the Initiative continues advocating with EU bodies and on March 23 will again holda public gathering in Brussels.

There is no doubt that Roma suffer disproportionately from these EU failures to secure access to water as a matter of right.In the absence of a public water supply, Roma often have no other choice but to rely on untreated and unprotected water resources like self-made wells, natural springs and rivers that can be breeding grounds for pathogens. Ground water in shallow wells can be contaminated by agricultural pesticides, high levels of natural arsenic, boron, fluoride or manganese, pit latrine faeces, animal corpses and insects. Often, the only water resource is located a considerable distance from dwellings and Roma sometimes have to walk kilometres to supply their households. In this regard it is most often the role of women and girls to provide households with water and they spend large parts of their day bringing the water home and assisting others to use it for personal and domestic purposes where otherwise this time could be used for getting education. Moreover, if water resources are distant and the path leads through unprotected terrain, women and girls can be harassed by stray dogs and other animals. These distant public pumps or fire hydrants are managed by reluctant and often hostile authorities, who frequently cut them off as soon as they find that Roma are using them every day. Sometimes there is no other possibility left to get water, so one has to walk to the nearest shop and buy bottled water. This is clearly a significantly more expensive solution, which most of the households without water can hardly afford.Ironically, the poorest Roma, who cannot afford to be connected, thus end up paying the most for water.

In some European countries, problems with public water supply and sanitation are experienced equally by Roma and non-Roma; in some other countries Romani households remain without water due to discrimination. Roma, especially those living at the outskirts of towns or in completely segregated settlements, are often treated differently by local authorities. If their houses are built on land with unclear ownershipor they lack a construction permit or any other paperwork, local authorities refuse to connect them to public water pipes. Many Romani settlements and neighbourhoods, especially in the Western Balkans, managed to build their water supply only through funds made available by international donors. In Slovakia, several Roma settlements were able to construct adequate wells thanks to special funds distributed by the Roma Plenipotentiary Office in the early 2000s. Without these funds, these Roma would remain ignored by authorities and would be struggling without water.

Even when their houses are legalisedand there is municipality infrastructure available, Roma often cannot afford to connect their houses as the cost can be several hundred euros. Furthermore, as a consequence of increasing water prices many low-income Romani families cannot afford to pay for water services and end up disconnected from the supplies. Sometimes the municipality cuts a Roma household from the water supply due to otherdebts, which are often completely unrelated to water consumption (waste management tax, pet tax, etc.).

In 2014 the ERRC launched a comparative research project in seven selected countries – Slovakia, Hungary, France, Macedonia, Montenegro, Albania and Moldova– to collect evidence on access to safe and affordable drinking water and sanitationin Romani communities. The research has focused on analysing factors contributing to the access, affordability and quality of drinking water resources and sanitation.ERRC research consultants conducted field research with the identified Romani neighbourhoods in all seven countries. They discussed the problems with local Roma, Roma activists, public authorities, civil society and social care workers. Final results of this project will soon be available.

Furthermore, the research also reviewed the domestic and international legal and policy frameworks in order to examine the possibility ofusing legal tools against those responsible authorities which have been denying Roma their right to water.Should they refuse to improve the situation after our intervention, we may use courts to make them comply with domestic and international laws obliging them to provide access to water. Through advocacy and litigation strategies we would like to make sure that Roma can enjoy the right to water without discrimination. For us, celebrating World Water Day should then serve as a reminder to authorities that access to water cannot be compromised!


Marek Szilvasi, ERRC
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