From Iceland — Save the Water!

Save the Water!

Published April 7, 2006

Save the Water!

You may have heard of the new water laws that clogged parliament with filibustering and heated debate for days on end. According to the outraged opposition parties, this controversial new bill is fundamentally altering the relationship between the nation and one of its most important birthrights and natural resources. It’s tantamount to treason, they say, to make our water a commodity to be bought and sold by God only knows who in the future. Which side is telling the truth depends entirely on how you vote, it seems.

The issue of who should control Iceland’s famously pure and abundant water resources has smouldered away in the background of Icelandic politics for decades, ready to flare up and burn anyone foolhardy enough to touch it. The last time things truly came to a head, back in 1917, it took delicate manoeuvring through a six-year political crisis to resolve the matter, a process that culminated with the passing of the 1923 Water Laws. Now the water controversy is back and bigger than ever. Hydroelectric power has become one of the most highly charged political issues in the country, and is irreversibly tied to such diverse but important topics as job creation, the environment, property rights and the rising fear Icelanders have of a handful of individuals being able to buy their country out from under them.

Industry’s Enemies

In a time when vociferous political arguments rage over aluminium smelters and the exploitation of natural resources, some opposition figures have found fault with the fact that this new bill would transfer a good deal of authority over the country’s water resources from the Ministry of Agriculture to the Ministry of Industry. How much of this was intentional and how much was a result of shoddy workmanship on the part of those writing the proposal, however, is still being debated.

Still, any involvement by the Ministry of Industry is enough to set off alarm bells for some of the most outspoken critics of the government’s policy of increasing heavy industry in Iceland. This process has been spearheaded by the Ministry of Industry and closely tied to the development of hydroelectric plants and aluminium smelters.

Ögmundur Jónasson of the Leftist-Greens told the Grapevine that while there had been some initial confusion as to the extent of the restructuring of authority inherent in the bill, the very notion of putting the focus on economic exploitation of water was out of sync with the rest of the world.

“The tendency in recent years has been to come to view water as a human right, and the keyword in the international debate on water is ‘conservation’, not ‘exploitation’,” said Jónasson.

To understand why the Minister of Industry is such a deeply unpopular figure amongst the opposition, one has to take into account her frontline position in both economic and environmental issues. The Leftist-Greens, for example, oppose her plans for the privatisation of the country’s energy providers on both counts; being socialists they are against privatisation and being environmentalists they fear such a move could lead to further dam construction and subsequent environmental damage.

The Social Democrats have also frequently clashed with Valgerður Sverrisdóttir, though their focus may be more on ideological than environmental grounds. Recently, though, they have adopted the eco-friendly language of their fellow leftists.

Sverrisdóttir has also not shied away from heated exchanges with her critics in parliament. Accusations of serious misconduct have flown in both directions in the past – the Minister has repeatedly accused the opposition of quoting statements she never made and the Leftist-Greens in turn called her a liar. Ögmundur Jónasson, for example, wrote a statement in which he said: “I have presented evidence to parliament that makes it clear that the Minister’s accusations are based on lies. No minister or member of this parliament, or anyone else for that matter, should be allowed to get away with making up lies about their political opponents.”

Stage is Set

It was thus in a tense atmosphere that the opposition confronted the government over proposed water laws, particularly the Minister of Industry. In response to the initial government proposals, the opposition requested more time, and ultimately tried to delay the adoption of the laws by filibustering the debate for days on end. Speaker after speaker stood and repeated themselves ad nauseam, with the government’s representatives sneaking in the odd proclamation of affected astonishment over the methodology being employed. Shocked. They were truly appalled and astonished.

Guðlaugur Þór Þórðarson of the Independence Party called the delay tactics “violence,” while Progressive MP Birkir Jón Jónsson used the opportunity to compare the opposition to Soviet dictators. Apparently, one of the worst things about life under Stalin was the tedium of listening to his long speeches.

Not wanting to lose out in the battle of the sound bites, Magnús Þór Hafsteinsson of the Liberals shot back with the astonishing revelation that he would sooner give his life than allow the bill to pass, though he specified no date or mode of action for this to take place.

All the debate really needed to turn into pure theatre at this point were stage directions, the props already being present in the form of glasses of water and a couple of volumes of poetry. Yes, they actually read poetry, and one MP spoke so long he had to take the first bathroom break in the history of the Icelandic parliament.

The solution our parliamentarians finally found to this deadlock was an interesting one, and in many ways it’s surprising that it didn’t get more media coverage at the time. The laws were in fact passed at the end, but the catch is that they won’t take effect until right after the next election. The opposition has made it abundantly clear that they would under no circumstances allow this bill to be ratified and passed into law, were it up to them. In fact they tried everything they could to stop it getting this far in the first place. If the opposition were to get into government next year, the nation has more or less been promised that the bill will be thrown out and completely re-written. This adds a new dimension to the upcoming election brawl.

In effect, people will get the chance to take part in a referendum on the adoption of the new water laws, and now have some time to reflect on the cold-hard facts relating to them. Unfortunately, the level of obfuscation employed by both sides in this matter has rendered the facts all but invisible under the thick tapestry of political point scoring that now covers anything remotely connected to it.

The Water Debate—Water Doesn’t Even Enter the Picture

In a vain attempt at making objective sense of the whole mess, the Grapevine tried to canvas the opinion of several MPs regarding the water laws. As always, and for obvious reasons, the response from the opposition was far easier to come by. The government generally views this as a non-issue that was hijacked by the left for political gain. They simply direct people to the text of the old and new laws – effectively challenging opponents to prove the differences are anything other than formalities. The opposition, though, seems more interested in making its case through the media. Leftist-Green MP Kolbrún Halldórsdóttir told us the government’s handling of the laws was typical of its general approach to public debate.

“It has been the government’s strategy in this matter as well as others to separate intrinsically linked issues and deny parliament, and the nation as a whole, the right to see the big picture,” said Halldórsdóttir.

She added that her party had only wanted to re-examine the water laws in conjunction with an anticipated future debate surrounding two upcoming bills on water purity standards and natural resource management. “You can’t separate these three issues,” she said.

Also claiming to look at the bigger picture, Social Democrat Össur Skarphéðinsson told the Grapevine that the new bill was simply about one aspect of what he called the central issue in Icelandic politics. “All politics for the past couple of decades, and indeed quite a bit longer, have been about the issue of private versus public ownership of resources. As a socialist, I have fought my whole life to protect the country’s valuable natural resources from exploitation at the hands of privatised industry,” said Skarphéðinsson.

Asked what alternative approach his party would have taken had they been in power, Skarphéðinsson added: “It doesn’t matter if we’re talking about water, geothermal heat, fish or anything else. The principle is the same, and our policies are consistent: the natural resources of Iceland should belong to everyone in the country and all laws relating to the right of individuals to exploit those resources should be temporary and have a clearly defined sunset clause.”

Skarphéðinsson is far from being alone in his concerns. A conference and resolution entitled Water for Everyone was endorsed by 14 different organisations and associations, including the National Church, the Icelandic Teacher’s Association, the Icelandic Human Rights Office and major labour unions such as ASÍ, SÍB and BSRB.

Of course, the church is working the environmental angle at a time when few of its other policies are likely to garner widespread support or positive attention. And it’s not entirely surprising that a labour union such as BSRB would be opposed to the government on an issue like this, especially because their chairman, Ögmundur Jónasson, also happens to be an MP for the Leftist-Greens.

At the height of the controversy, some felt he and the Leftist-Greens were leading the charge and forcing the issue out into a public debate. Jónasson, though, told the Grapevine he couldn’t take credit. “It was the nation that drove this issue forward. It was the people who wouldn’t let it slide. People woke up and realised the seriousness of what was happening; that our water was being put up for sale. We answered the call for action by filibustering the parliamentary debate, but we did it in a fair, factual and rational way,” said Jónasson.

According to Jónasson, and in fact quite a number of other vocal opponents of the proposed water bill, the government simply isn’t keeping up with the times. While the world around us is abuzz with concepts like conservation and sustainability, they say, exploitation is the order of the day in Iceland.

International Perspective

They have a point about the international community. From its 2002 declaration that water was a human right to the more recent establishment of a much-hyped World Water Forum, the United Nations and related NGOs have both adapted to and helped shape a new worldwide discourse on water as a vital resource. We’ve all heard futuristic speculation about water becoming the new oil, or the ominous prediction that the next world war will be fought over access to water. What not everyone realises is the imminence and inevitability of the water crisis.

According to the United Nations, the availability of clean drinking water will decrease by at least 30 percent in the next two decades. In South America, attempts to privatise water in the face of rising demand and a faltering supply have already resulted in violence and widespread social unrest such as the Cochabamba protests that shook Bolivia for the first four months of the year 2000. There, corrupt officials had effectively sold off the country’s water rights to foreign investors for a pittance, resulting in huge price increases for clean drinking water and a dramatic decline in living standards amongst the poor.

No one is suggesting water prices in Iceland are about to rise to unreasonable levels, or that we as a people wouldn’t be able to shoulder the burden of one more outrageous bill at the end of the month. But worldwide, supplies are already running low while the global population booms. When there are already millions of people out there desperate enough for drinking water to risk life and limb in violent street protests against an authoritarian government and a powerful multinational corporation, it should probably make you pause and think twice before permanently handing over the tap to the highest bidder. If you believe the government, though, we already did that in 1923.

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