Uncertainty continues in Italian water sector
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A referendum campaign to repeal recent legislation overhauling the Italian water sector is gathering momentum. Some of its advocates are already breaking ranks.
The prospects of Italy developing an efficient water sector run by professional operators now appear increasingly distant, as the country faces a series of challenges to its ongoing efforts to move towards that goal.
A referendum campaign by a grassroots movement advocating "free and public" water was launched on 24 April to annul three recent laws: one paving the way for private operators to play a larger role, one making tenders the preferred award method, and one guaranteeing a profit for operators. The organisers, who need to collect at least 500,000 signatures by 23 July, claimed to have reached the 250,000 mark by early May, and if the campaign is successful, a referendum is likely to be held in 2011.
Disagreements are emerging among the referendum supporters, however. One of the loudest advocates – the Italia dei Valori party led by former Clean Hands public prosecutor Antonio Di Pietro – has now reviewed its position and issued its own referendum petition, which aims to annul the pro-privatisation rules but not those supporting tenders and profits.
This is an important sign that the view consistently put forward by water operators' association Federutility – that ownership is not the crucial point – is starting to gain wider political support. A new law is being drafted by some Italian senators who want to see a change in the rules, but who oppose the referendum. Their emphasis is on an "equitable, sustainable and efficient" water and wastewater service.
Recent data on 2008 water and wastewater tariffs confirm that some of the largest increases have taken place in areas where the services are run by municipalityowned operators. This demonstrates that "the so-called privatisation of water services in Italy is a false problem . . . which has masked the numerous and significant shortcomings of publicly-run services," according to environmental law expert Alberto Muratori.
Meanwhile, as the Italian parliament debates the implementation of a recent reform of public services that would drastically reduce the number of in-house awards, the reform itself is being challenged in the Constitutional Court by regional authorities, which claim their powers in this sector have been unlawfully eroded.