In Spain, water is a common, publically-owned good, the priority use of which is to supply the population. The ownership and responsibility for the urban supply service and the later collection and treatment of waste water is that of the Council, which also owns the infrastructures. It is the public authorities that supervise the various aspects of the service from financial, tariffing, sanitary, water quality, occupational risks to environmental regulations, among others. This is independent of whether the chosen management model is direct (public) or indirect (private or mixed).
Thus, as the owner of the service, the Council is the only organisation that can change the water tariff. Through the social services and in collaboration with the operating company, it also sets the systems necessary to totally or partially cover the costs of the water bills of those members of the public at risk of social exclusion who cannot pay for the service. In Spain, the water supply is not cut off to anyone who cannot pay for it if the person provides accrediting information.
According to survey data from the Water Supply and Sewerage Association (Asociación de Abastecimiento y Saneamiento, AEAS) and the Spanish Association of Water Services Companies (Asociación Española de Empresas de los Servicios del Aguar, AGA), nearly 24 million Spaniards live in municipalities in which there are mechanisms to guarantee the water and sewerage services to those who cannot pay for them for social exclusion reasons. Each case is different – bonuses, tariff structure, solidarity fund or both types – but all seek the same end. Each municipality is responsible for setting the criteria for access to this type of benefit.Having reached this point, talk of the human right to water, so frequently used to demonise private management, makes no sense since the management companies are the first to guarantee it in the terms of the United Nations (UN).
It should be noted that the company managing the service cannot condone the non-payment of a debt since this would be acting beyond its competence as a manager of a public good. For this reason, in many municipalities the operator companies sign agreements with the Councils to create social funds that guarantee water to families without resources. For years, and especially during the economic crisis, Aqualia has had various mechanisms to alleviate the situation of persons at risk of social exclusion.
For example, when persons state in the customer service offices that they have difficulty in paying bills, customised plans are studied so that these users can pay their bills more bearably.
Globally, Aqualia finances deferrals as a write-off to the value of up to €3.5 million a year. In some municipalities such as Barbate (Cádiz), Caravaca de la Cruz (Murcia), Dènia (Alicante), Jaén, Lerida, Molíns de Rei (Barcelona), for example, Aqualia signs an agreement with the Council to create a social solidarity fund that guarantees access to drinking water and sewerage for all members of the public who cannot pay their bills.
Help from the social fund in cases of urgent social economic aid is granted according to the criteria set by the social services in each municipality. It is important that the public knows and requests social measures since in Spain the water supply is not cut off to anyone who cannot pay for it, but for this the management companies must be aware of these situations.
Aware of the lack of information on this and other questions related to the water services, at the start of this year Aqualia set up a campaign based on the micro Web site www.informacionrealdelagua.com. This covers 12 very popular myths (one for each month of the year) among the public concerning the management of the integral water cycle and provides arguments to disprove them.
The sixth myth in this campaign on real information on integral water management concerns the social tariff: who approves it, on what basis and whether or not the operators can condone the non-payment of a debt. It provides an entire battery of data to destroy the myth that operators cut off water “at the first chance”.
The operators working in this sector have the role of collaborators of confidence with the public authorities in the provision of such an essential service as water. Beyond efficiently complying with our technical work, we daily show a high commitment to the millions of people to whom we provide the service, applying the necessary measures within the limits of the concession contracts signed and our ambit of competence.
In companies such as Aqualia there is a team of persons working to improve the quality of life of other persons because in the end what really interests all of us as members of the public is that they offer us an excellent water service at home and for everyone, that they offers security and well-being, respect for the environment and financial sustainability regardless of the management model chosen and who provides the service.