Initiatives for referendum on water act changes gain momentum

Ljubljana- Two initiatives to put recently passed changes to the water act to a referendum have collected over 9,000 and 33,000 signatures, respectively, more than enough for the proposals to move to the next stage of proceedings. The motions were tabled in parliament today, both groups of NGOs said on Tuesday.

The NGOs had seven days to collect the required 2,500 signatures for the proposal to be submitted after the legislation was passed last Tuesday.

During this seven-day period, against the backdrop of the circuit breaker lockdown and Easter holidays, a total of 9,254 people signed the petition, Alenka Kreč Bricelj of the environmental Smetumet NGO told reporters in front of the parliament building today, representing the first group of petitioners which launched the initiative under the banner of the Zapitnovodo.si movement.

Representatives of the NGOs reiterated at the press conference that economic interests should not outweigh public health concerns and efforts.

They noted that the government-sponsored changes had been passed without an appropriate public consultation, warning about certain provisions of the act being hazardous to the environment and health.

Contentious provisions were added to the bill after the public consultation period ended, Aljoša Petek of the Legal-Informational Centre for NGOs said, warning this was against international law, the Aarhus Convention, EU law and Slovenian law.

Uroš Macerl of the Eko Krog NGO pointed to an opinion by Ombudsman Peter Svetina, who had warned that the changing of such important legislation without consulting the public is problematic. Not only environmental experts are against the changes but also the GZS’s chamber of public utilities, he noted.

“We believe that the law that does not enjoy experts’ support and could have a long-term impact on our drinking water is not in the interest of Slovenian citizens,” said Miha Stegel of the Danes NGO.

Before the passage of the changes, NGOs Eko Krog and Danes launched an online petition calling for the removal of a provision allowing construction of some infrastructure in coastal areas. The petition has been signed by almost 54,000 people.

The NGOs believe that the provision poses risk of degradation for the land and water courses in coastal areas and could pollute surface and underground waters.

Meanwhile, another initiative pushing for the referendum also tabled its proposal in parliament today. The Zdrava Družba (Healthy Society) movement collected 33,670 signatures in a week under the slogan No Giving Up Water. It had the required number of signatures to launch the referendum proceedings already after two days of campaigning.

The representatives of the movement highlighted “an extraordinary response by the people despite lockdown and holidays, circumstances that definitely made collecting signatures more difficult”.

They noted that a great number of people who had signed the petition in a week meant a clear message to the authorities, “which ignored our warranted expectations that lockdown would not be exploited for passing contentious laws”.

The movement was critical of both the left and right ends of the political spectrum, saying that they were “becoming two sides of the same coin” due to their disregard for basic human values.

Zdrava Družba will continue to raise awareness about all the areas where the interests of capital aim to jeopardise public health and nature, the movement said.

A proposal for the National Council to veto the amendments was defeated today in a 14:19 vote. The proposal was made by an interest group representing non-economic services which agrees with experts and civil society that the changes are not based on appropriate arguments or efforts to pursue comprehensive water management goals.

Stegel of the first group of petitioners said today that on top of the referendum proposal, the NGOs had urged the National Council to veto the changes. Moreover, they are prepared to challenge the legislation at the Constitutional Court.

The opposition Left and SocDems expressed support for the referendum today, saying it would be right if citizens made a final call on the contentious provision.

The Left backed the first initiative, which has been campaigning under the slogan For Drinking Water, noting that the changes paved the way for water pollution, privatisation of public spaces and restricted access to bodies of water.

The SD said the citizens deserved to get across “whether they agree to efforts to put at risk natural water sources and lower the […] standards of protecting Slovenian water”.

The party said it supported the efforts by civil society to prevent the implementation of the changes and is prepared to provide help in the next stage of proceedings as well where 40,000 signatures are required to be collected.

The Environment Ministry has meanwhile dismissed all the allegations, saying that the changes shorten the list of facilities that can be built in coastal areas and eliminate inconsistencies and red tape.