Bohinj Lake, Slovenia

Slovenians overwhelmingly reject amended Water Act in referendum

Slovenians overwhelmingly reject amended Water Act in referendum

Environmentalists claim the proposed changes prioritize private interests over the public good and pose risks for water ecosystems

Just days after their country assumed the rotating presidency of the Council of the EU, Slovenian voters overwhelmingly rejected in a referendum on Sunday the amendments to the Water Act. 674,000 or over 86 percent of those eligible to vote said ‘No’ to the government-backed changes, which according to opponents may damage the quality of drinking water and the environment. For a law to be repealed in a Slovenian referendum, at least 20 percent of all voters must be against it.

Fears of overdevelopment and pollution

The right-wing government of Janez Janša rushed the changes to the Water Act through parliament in late March despite criticism by civil society and experts. Environmentalists claim the amendments prioritize private interests over the public good and pose risks for the water ecosystems in the mountainous country famed for its lakes and having access to the Adriatic Sea.

In April, the Movement for Drinkable Water, a group of NGOs, started collecting signatures for a referendum on the amended law and succeeded in securing more than the required number of 50,000. According to the initiators of the public vote, the new rules loosen construction regulations in coastal areas and lakes and reduce protected zones, permitting the emergence of new manufacturing and tourist facilities, which would increase the risk of environmental pollution and affect water quality and availability.

Campaigners told the Balkan Investigative Reporting Network (BIRN) that the government, under public pressure, had withdrawn one controversial amendment, which would have allowed construction of manufacturing facilities that use hazardous materials in water-protected areas. However, another contentious provision, which greenlights the construction of public utility infrastructure in coastal areas, has not been removed from the bill.

Water - a fundamental right

The Waters Act controversy erupted five years after Slovenia changed its constitution to make access to water a fundamental right. Thus, Slovenia became the second EU member state after Slovakia to enshrine this right in its national charter.

Sunday's referendum had one of the highest turnouts ever, and an RTV Slovenia review shows that there was scarcely a constituency with less than 80 percent objection to the law.

Proof of strong civil society

The result, according to sociologists, proves how sensitive the Slovenian public has become to the topic of water conservation. It also testifies to the strong engagement between civil society and the citizens themselves.

The centre-left opposition sees the result as a vote of no confidence in the government. But Prime Minister Janez Janša downplayed the effect of the referendum on the stability of the ruling four-party coalition.

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