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Raise the alarm: Iceland’s dreaded Water Act

For those of us who care about our country and its future, by far the most pressing current issue is the implementation of the Water Act from 2006, due to take effect on 1 July — in just over two weeks.

The Act, the implementation of which has been postponed twice, would allow the owners of any land in Iceland to have full control of all the water within that land’s boundaries, including groundwater, drinking water, geothermal water, power-generating water, salmon fishing rivers, and so on.

It should come as no surprise to anyone that in the past decade or so, Icelandic land has increasingly been snapped up by various tycoons and other wealthy individuals, who are clearly after the extra resources that come with the land, not least the water. A report on Channel 2 from last year, which Lára Hanna publishes on her website, reveals that the largest landowner in Iceland is now a single private enterprise owned by numerous wealthy individuals and, as it happens, Landsbanki. They own 72 pieces of land throughout the country, with related resources.

The 2006 laws are a travesty, and extremely dangerous for the Icelandic public. Predictably those who favour privatization [*cough* IP and Progressives *cough*] argue that the resources inherent in the land would be better taken care of by private individuals [after all, everything else smacks of communism]. The two coalition parties, however, along with The Movement, want the Act abolished and a new one drawn up, as does parliament’s Industry Committee, which has sent forth a resolution that the Act be abolished immediately to send a clear message that its inherent premise will not be supported.

The Independence and Progressive Parties, however, have threatened to employ their best stalling tactics to ensure that the Act is not abolished before the summer recess, which is set to be any day now [parliament is actually in overtime and should have recessed for the summer a few days ago]. So it looks like the best we can hope for is for the implementation of the Act to be postponed once again, and for it to be abolished when parliament reconvenes.

Meanwhile, a Facebook event has been set up to urge everyone to send a letter to MPs. In English translation:

Dear MP

Water is our most precious resource. Water is invaluable. No one owns water, yet it is our collective responsibility to protect and preserve it. If we contaminate the water, we will see the end of civilization as we know it.

History reveals that every time someone has tried to take possession of water, this gift of life to mankind and all living things, it has ended in terror, chaos and bloodshed. Water is our collective property in the sense that we must all take responsibility for it.

Do not privatize the water. Stop the new Water Act. You are the people’s representatives. Take a stand on behalf of the people you are working for. It will be the most grave mistake ever made if this Act is implemented.

Respectfully,

[name]

We can only hope and pray that common sense will prevail, and that Icelanders have learned something about the dangers of privatization.

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  • Jeff Garland June 13, 2010, 2:45 pm

    I had a nightmare about this back in February after watching Maude Barlow: Looming Global Water Crisis. http://tinyurl.com/2dnmmhy

    Thanks for the correct translation of the letter to Parliament 😉
    http://tinyurl.com/2azvnmq

  • Michael Schulz June 13, 2010, 2:49 pm

    Unfortunately hopes have been betrayed before. Prayers are opium for the people (said who?). Letters might go unanswered.
    But agree this Water Act is as insane as are its creators. Wish I knew a civil society organization that could afford to take out an add in DV and RUV and …. (?) and explain what is at stake to the general public. As the media owe the people a great deal for their past failings they might take it up for free? This has to be fought vigorously.
    Cheers,
    Michael

  • alda June 13, 2010, 6:22 pm

    I’ve received two responses to emails sent out this morning. One from an MP for the Social Democrats who assures me that the laws will not be implemented — they will be abolished, and a new, comprehensive law covering all of Iceland’s resources will be put in their place.

    Let’s hope that stands. If not, we’ll have to start taking some vigorous action. However, nothing will happen before the summer break. We’ll just have to be really alert when parliament reconvenes in the fall.

  • Michael Schulz June 13, 2010, 7:58 pm

    Sounds good but also familiar: first one side cooks it then the other and in the end it tastes spoiled. Shouldn’t this be about res publica like in republic? Nothing convinces me more than a public discourse.
    Cheers,
    Michael

  • rod June 13, 2010, 10:56 pm

    Let us hope the air above the land is not privatized too.

  • sylvia hikins June 13, 2010, 11:13 pm

    If you think that privatisation of water supplies is a good thing, just look at the situation in Africa. Every four minutes a child dies from a preventable, water bourne disease. In many African counties, the very poorest who live in the most deprived conditions cannot afford to purchase clean drinking water. I’m sure if it was possible to store the air we breathe, some freaking company would want to own it and sell it on. Keep your precious water source in public ownership. Time to get the pots and pans out again?
    sylvia from viking wirral

  • Douglas June 13, 2010, 11:53 pm

    Thank you for drawing public attention to this issue.
    This is indeed a most vital issue; the overwhelming public apathy to all matters political may _not_ be allowed to prevail.

  • Easy June 14, 2010, 1:33 am

    “Raise the alarm”???
    You can blow a trumpet in their ears, people here won’t do a thing!!
    Somethimes I think they have some very thick oil in their vains instead of blood. You just give us a comedian as mayor and we feel we have achived something.

  • Gudrun Hreggvidsdottir Crosbie June 14, 2010, 3:06 am

    Our water like our minerals and mountains and glaciers are our birth right. No government should be able to sell what is ours, even by democratic process.
    Even leasing water stretches should be abolished and owners should only charge for road access to our water. A couple of meters from each bank should be common land to all.

  • Michael Gordon June 14, 2010, 5:37 am

    I am dismayed to see Island even considering such a thing. Hopefully you can learn from the experiences, still ongoing, about endless battles in court and sometimes out of court over water ownership in the western United States.

    Water laws are extremely complex in the western states but if I remember right, generally speaking you cannot impede water — use it then put it back, basically. If you are not putting in back, as in for irrigation, then one must own water shares which is sort of a common stock among all users of a particular water source. While the water itself cannot be owned, water shares become a commodity entitling a person to a portion of the resource.

    If this is not done, then it becomes a scramble to grab as much as possible. Alternatives that might work in Iceland, for example a committee to allocate water, will not work very well in the western United States because of dishonesty, nepotism, cr0nyism and that sort of thing.

    In other words, while your water act appears to be a very bad thing, to have no laws at all might also become a bad thing.

  • D_Boone June 14, 2010, 9:02 am

    I come from a very different background and think this proposed law is asinine. Land ownership is sensible because most things on it either don’t move or in the case of animals can be contained, hence can be “managed” by the owner. Water and fish cannot be contained and typically flow/move into and out of some arbitrary parcel of land. Management of water rights have to be done on a catchment basis to optimize both the social and economic outcomes for the country. Iceland probably has so much water per person that the stupidity of this law is not fully obvious. You will regret it. Actually similar comments relate to minerals below ground (including geothermal water) as well. Wells now-a-days don’t need to go straight down. Too many geothermal bores on private properties can cause over-exploitation as well to the detriment of their neighbors. See

    http://www.nzherald.co.nz/environment/news/article.cfm?c_id=39&objectid=9004081

    This is a case of “externalities” in an economic sense or the “tragedy of the commons” not being fully appreciated. I find this surprising from that a country that prides itself on managing its fish stocks. This is essentially the same problem. Nobody sells patches of ocean…. and expects to own the fish that swim through it.

  • Chris June 14, 2010, 12:21 pm

    Some questions about the topic: This is a very serious issue and this is obviously imminent for quite some time. Why was the act halted (or paused) in the last years? And is this topic in the discussion in the public?

  • Michael Lewis June 14, 2010, 2:33 pm

    “Even leasing water stretches should be abolished and owners should only charge for road access to our water. A couple of meters from each bank should be common land to all.”

    This is effectively the case in New Zealand – google “Queens chain”. So one can fish there (you still have to buy a license, run by a state sponsored body) – freely, and nobody can ‘own’ beats.
    Iceland is -similar- to the UK, in that fishing rights are typically private. So you pay a person or organisation representing a colleciton of people.

    In Iceland, incidentally, some owners prefer foreign fishermen on the rivers: as we’re more likely to fish catch-and-release of Salmon/Trout. Icelanders like to kill their fish apparently. (Not my words just in case the censor takes the hump).

  • alda June 14, 2010, 6:25 pm

    Chris — I suspect it was put on hold because these laws are highly controversial and there was great opposition. Also because I suspect Icelandic MPs had their hands full with other issues in the last few years and probably just hadn’t got to this particular issue. But I’m just speculating — I don’t really know.

    But yes, this is very much in the public eye at the moment. It’s being discussed at length on blogs and on Facebook and the public is all of a sudden very aware of it.

  • Joerg June 14, 2010, 7:41 pm

    It appears like a zombie law from a very different past. There is no surprise that the privatisation junkies are keen on this, but the public awareness and discussions are at least giving some hope.

    I can’t really imagine, how the rights to control water resources can be bound to a particular piece of land. After all, the water has to come from somewhere and will eventually go somewhere else. Particularly drilling for ground and geothermal water will have influence on neighbouring land as well.

  • Chris June 15, 2010, 10:15 am

    @Alda: Thanks for the information.