Right to water

The Netherlands disconnects children from water at home

In 2016, 7500 Dutch households were cut off from the water supply due to non-payment, after a peak of more than 10,000 disconnections in 2015. The water companies do not check whether they also cut off children, but this does certainly occur. Since their parents did not pay the bills, these children lost access to drinking water and cooked food at home. They are unable to wash themselves or flush the toilet and cleaning becomes practically impossible.

How is this possible? Access to water is a basic necessity and a human right.

Harmful impact

Water is a basic and essential need for children to be able to live and develop healthily. This is also confirmed by the World Health Organization, which states that 50 to 100 litres of water per person per day are needed to meet basic needs and prevent very serious health problems. Restricted access to water for consumption and hygiene, and thus also a complete disconnection of water at home, can result in various diseases, including diarrhoea and dehydration, as well as infectious diseases. It has also become painfully clear during the coronavirus outbreak that clean water and hygiene measures are vital. In addition, lack of water has an impact on children’s (mental) development through, for example, school drop-out due to illness or shame because the child cannot wash itself.

 

Violation of children’s rights and human rights

Children need extra protection because of their vulnerability. Governments should therefore put the best interests of the child first when making and implementing policies. This follows from the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child. In addition, on the basis of this convention, every child has an unconditional and independent right of access to clean drinking water. This is part of the child’s right to health. The right of children to water is such an important right that governments must ensure that every child has access to clean drinking water, even if their parents cannot pay the bill. If the government does not do so, it is acting in violation of the Convention on the Rights of the Child. It also contstitutes a violation of human rights, as protected by the European Convention on Human Rights. In addition, if children are denied access to clean drinking water because their parents do not pay the bill, this results in unacceptable discrimination according to human rights treaties.

Government’s position

In 2014, Minister Schultz-Van Hagen of Infrastructure and the Environment stated the following in her response to parliamentary questions on the disconnection of water due to non-payment:

“The fact that drinking water is a basic necessity of life is still government policy. The Drinking Water Act therefore gives the right of access to drinking water and the obligation for water companies to prevent the disconnection of a small-scale consumer as much as possible. The fact that drinking water is a human right does not mean that it should be free”.

This position is not correct. Indeed, human rights do not give the right to free drinking water for everyone. However, according to Defence for Children and the NJCM, the consequences of the current regulation – children who do not have access to drinking water at home – do violate children’s rights and human rights. Moreover, the payment and supply of water can be split. Children can be protected and the water company’s claim on the parents remains.

Closure policy and water bag

On 1 July 2018, the amended Small-scale Consumer Disconnection Policy Regulation [Regeling afsluitbeleid voor kleinverbuikers van drinkwater] came into force. On the basis of this regulation, households can be disconnected from the water. Only vulnerable consumers for whom disconnection of water poses serious health risks are exempted from disconnection. Children are not considered vulnerable consumers in the regulation. This regulation therefore still makes it possible to disconnect households with children from water. Since this regulation has been in force, households that are disconnected from water are given a water bag containing 12 litres of water per person for the first four days, but onlly if they so request. In concrete terms, this means that a child who is disconnected from the water has access to 3 litres of water per day. This is well below the 50 to 100 litres of water that, according to the World Health Organization, every person needs per day.

What does the PILP-NJCM do?

Lawsuit

The NJCM and Defence for Children have started a court case against the State and drinking water companies Dunea and PWN,  in which they ask the court to ban water closures in children’s homes.

They are taking legal action against water companies Dunea and PWN because they know these water companies cut off families with children. In addition, they filed suit against the State, because the State allows and facilitates the violation of children’s and human rights by means of the regulation on the disconnection of water. The purpose of the procedure is to prohibit water disconnections when it concerns a household with children. For families with children, cutting off water is drastic and risky and denies the child’s right to water. Children have an independent right to water and should not be denied access to water because their parents cannot pay the bill.

The PILP-NJCM coordinates the procedure. The proceedings are conducted by lawyers employed by the PILP-NJCM and by lawyers of De Brauw.


 

FAQ on lawsuit right to water for children

What’s going on?

Defence for Children and the NJCM have started a court case because disconnecting children from water is in violation of children’s and human rights. They subpoenaed water companies Dunea, PWN and the State on 7 July 2020. The plaintiffs ask the court to prohibit children from being cut off from the water.

How many people in the Netherlands are cut off from water every year?

According to the most recent figures, from research by EenVandaag, dating from 2016, almost 7,500 households were cut off from water in that same year.

How many children are affected annually?

Water companies do not check whether families with children are involved when they cut off households from the water. It is therefore not clear how many families with children are disconnected from the water each year.

Why is it a violation of human and children’s rights to disconnect children from water?

It follows from the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child that the best interests of the child must be a primary consideration when deciding whether or not to disconnect a family with children from water. In addition, on the basis of this convention, every child has an unconditional and independent right of access to clean drinking water. This is part of the child’s right to health. The right of children to water is such an important right that governments must ensure that every child retains access to clean drinking water, even if parents cannot pay the bill. If the government does not do so, it is acting in violation of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child. It is also a violation of human rights, as protected by the European Convention on Human Rights. In addition, if children are denied access to clean drinking water because their parents do not pay the bill, this constitutes unacceptable discrimination according to human rights treaties.

Surely it makes sense for people to be cut off if they don’t pay their bills?

Access to sufficient clean drinking water is a children’s right. Under the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, children may not be disconnected if their parents do not pay the bill. This does indeed mean that the parents are not cut off either. At the same time, the fact that access to sufficient clean drinking water is a child’s right does not mean that water should be free or that the parents’ bill should be waived. Payment and delivery can be split. A possible solution would therefore be to keep the water supply available in the event that children are involved, while the water company’s claim on the parents remains. After all, this already happens to vulnerable consumers with serious health risks that would otherwise be cut off.

Can’t people who are cut off from water just get water at a water point nearby or at the supermarket?

No, there are not enough outside taps in the Netherlands. It is also humiliating and physically very strenuous to have to walk back and forth with water bottles. Buying water is not an option for many families: most families that are cut off are so deeply in debt, or are otherwise so vulnerable, that there is no money to buy separate bottles. Moreover, this is no solution for not being able to shower or flush the toilet.

Surely it’s just a problem of the parents when children are cut off from water?

The right of children to water is such an important right that governments must ensure that every child has access to clean drinking water, even if parents cannot pay the bill. If children are denied access to clean drinking water because their parents cannot pay the bill, this constitutes unacceptable discrimination according to the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child.

What are the health risks for children cut off from water?

Water is a basic need that is essential for children to be able to live and develop healthily. This is also confirmed by the World Health Organization, which states that between 50 and 100 litres of water per person per day are needed to meet basic needs and prevent very serious health problems. If children are cut off from water because their parents do not pay the bill, this will have an undeniable impact on their health and development.

Why is it harmful when children are cut off from water?

In addition to the health risks associated with water disconnection, water closures have other consequences. Children can no longer wash themselves in the house. Washing does not happen unless neighbours lend a helping hand, or it happens on the street or in the homeless shelter. Cooking also becomes difficult, so children can no longer eat cooked food. It will also be almost impossible to clean the house. The toilet can no longer be flushed. So the urine and poop will accumulate. The closure also has social consequences. Children do not take friends home because they are ashamed of their home situation.

Do water companies or municipalities offer an alternative when a family is cut off from water?

On 1 July 2018, the amended Regulation on disconnection policy for small-scale consumers came into force. What is new in the scheme is that households that are disconnected from water will be given a water bag containing 12 litres of water per person if they so request, in order to get through the first four days. In concrete terms, this means that a child who is disconnected from water has access to 3 litres of water per day. According to the World Health Organization, each person needs 50 to 100 litres of water per day to meet basic needs and to prevent very serious health problems.

What are you worried for?

Defence for Children and the NJCM are worried about water cut-offs in households with children and about what this means for children’s health and development. Children need extra protection because of their vulnerability. Governments should therefore put the best interests of the child first when making and implementing policy. Disconnecting families with children from water is a violation of the rights of the child enshrined in the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, in particular the right of access to clean drinking water and the right not to be discriminated against on the basis of the parents’ payment behaviour. It is also a violation of the human rights of children as protected by the European Convention on Human Rights.

What can’t people do without water?

What would you, as a parent, do with a ration of 12 litres of water? Fill a baby bath and bottle feed? Showering your child? Forget it, it’s 60 liters. Flush the toilet? That costs 6 liters of water at a time. After two flushes you have nothing left to make tea (0.5 litres), boil a pan of rice (1 litre) or run a wash (over 14 litres). These usage figures are averages (source: Waternet).

Why a lawsuit?

Defence for Children and the NJCM (hereafter: the plaintiffs) have on several occasions in their contact with the government expressed their concerns about the disconnection of water in the homes of children. Like the Children’s Ombudsman, for example, they have also criticized the lack of protection for children in the new Regulation on the disconnection policy for small-scale consumers. Despite this, the government does nothing to protect children from being cut off and water companies continue to cut off children from the water.

The plaintiffs address the proceedings against water companies Dunea and PWN, because we know these water companies cut off families with children. In addition, they are taking action against the State, because the State allows and makes possible the violation of children’s and human rights through the water regulation. The purpose of the procedure is to prohibit water closures when it concerns a household with children. For families with children, shutting off water is drastic and risky and denies the child’s right to water. Children have an independent right to water and should not be denied access to water because their parents cannot pay the bill.

What can water companies really do about people not paying their bills?

See the answer to “good examples?”

How long are people disconnected from water?

This varies. Some people are ‘only’ cut off for a few hours or a day. However, there are also households that are cut off from water for days, weeks or months. For example, we have had contact with a family with a young baby that has been cut off from the water for three months.

What ought to happen?

Disconnecting families with children from water is drastic and risky. It denies the child’s right to water. That is why we ask the judge to prohibit children from being cut off from water. It is then up to the government and the water companies to arrange that the disconnection of children does not happen again.

Good examples?

The municipality of Capelle aan den IJssel has concluded a covenant with Water Company Evides to limit water disconnection for families with children (2015).

In Arnhem, a similar project was started in 2013 with water company Vitens.

See also the answer to the question ‘How is this regulated in other countries?

What’s the procedure going to entail? What will happen concretely?

This case is being conducted on the basis of the Wet afwikkeling massaschade in collectieve Actie (WAMCA) (Settlement of Mass Claims in Collective Action Act). The summons has now been sent. After the case has been registered in the Central Register of Collective Actions, a waiting period of three months applies. During this waiting period, other interest groups may bring a similar collective claim. The waiting period can be extended by a maximum of three months.

At the end of the waiting period, the case is continued and the court appoints the Exclusive Interests Representative. If several advocates have brought a similar collective action, the court will in principle designate one of them as Exclusive Interest Representative in the proceedings. However, the court may also appoint two or more advocates as Co-Exclusive Interest Representatives.

Subsequently, the State, Dunea and PWN can respond in writing to the summons. Subsequently, a hearing will be scheduled by the court. During the hearing, the court listens to the views of all parties and questions can also be put to the parties by the court. After the hearing, the judge will start thinking about everything that has been written and said. Finally, the verdict will follow.

When can we expect news on this case?

The date of the hearing and the date of the verdict are still undetermined. As soon as they become known, we will announce it on the websites of Defence for Children and the PILP-NJCM.

What happens if you win the lawsuit?

If we win the lawsuit, children can’t be cut off from the water. That means that the government and Dunea and PWN will have to ensure that this no longer occurs. This also means that all other Dutch water companies will have to change their practices so that children are not disconnected from the water.

How is this regulated in other countries?

In neighbouring countries such as England and France it is forbidden to cut off families with children from the water. It is even prohibited for any household, even if there are no children, to be cut off from the water.

Run-up

In 2014, Defence for Children was informed by Mr. J. van Goethem, consultant and former councillor of the municipality of Emmen, about the problems concerning the right to water for children in the Netherlands. Mr. van Goethem also sent a letter to the Minister on this subject.

On 4 June 2015, PILP-NJCM together with Defence for Children, in support of Mr van Goethem, asked the Minister for information about the right to water for children. We also asked the Minister to respond to Mr van Goethem’s earlier letter.

On 22 June of the same year, in a letter to Mr van Goethem, Defence for Children and the PILP-NJCM, the Director of Water and Soil, on behalf of the Minister of Infrastructure and the Environment, indicated that he was considering a possible amendment to the regulation in force at the time.

On 25 May 2017, an internet consultation was published on the draft amendment to the Closure Policy Regulations. On the basis of this amendment, jerrycans or water bags containing 12 litres of water per person should, in short, be provided upon request upon disconnection. Disconnection of children was not prohibited and was not even mentioned in the Minister’s explanation of the draft amendment.

Defence for Children and the NJCM – like the vast majority of the other participants, such as the Children’s Ombudsman – reacted critically to the draft amendment, as it would not substantially change the Dutch practice of water disconnection for children.

In the meantime, a new regulation came into force on 1 July 2018. Because the new regulation still offers insufficient protection, it was decided to start a court case in order to protect the rights of children.

Updates

On July 7, 2020, Defence for Children and NJCM filed a lawsuit against the Dutch State and water companies Dunea and PWN to stop water cut-offs in the homes of children.

On July 1, 2018, the new rule regarding the disconnection policy for small consumers of drinking water took effect.

On August 22, 2017, Member of Parliament Jasper van Dijk asked parliamentary questions about the disconnection of water supply policies to the Minister of Infrastructure and the Environment, and the State Secretary of Social Affairs and Employment. These questions were answered on October 27 of that year.

In February 2017, the Leiden Law Clinic presented their research to, among others, the PILP and Defence for Children during a brainstorm session. The PILP will use their research and the outcome of the brainstorm session to determine the next step.

From October 2016, the Leiden Law Clinic have been helping the PILP by examining to what extent the Dutch water cut-off policy is in accordance with human rights and children’s’ rights obligations. Students of the Law Clinic have researched this topic and wrote a statement of advice on the issue.

On June 22, 2015, on behalf of the Minister of Infrastructure and the Environment, the Director of Water and Soil responded by letter about an ongoing internal legal analysis of the cut-off policy. The PILP has not yet received notice on the outcome of the analysis.

On June 4, 2015, the PILP and Defence for Children sent a letter to the government asking for information regarding the right to water for children, and a response to the letter sent by Mr. J. van Goethem prior to ours.

Students Gabriella Ramdhan, Vyerna Kwakkel and Stina Ihle Amankwah have examined the impact of the water cut-off policy in households with children in light of relevant international human rights treaties. The findings show that Dutch Policy does not have sufficient safeguards for children in accordance with the CRC.