Referendum on compliance of water law with EU directive divides Slovenia

Referendum on compliance of water law with EU directive divides Slovenia
Credit: Ministry of the Environment and Spatial Planning, Slovenia

The recent Water Act introduced by the government of Slovenia divides the country and is subject to a referendum today.

According to NGOs campaigning against the legislation, the amended act will threaten the quality of water, curtail public access to water, and destroy Slovenia’s coastline and lake shores. The Slovenian authorities reject the criticism.

At a time when Slovenia has taken over the EU Presidency, campaigners believe that the amendment contravenes the EU Water Framework Directive under which member states are not allowed to build on water areas except in exceptional circumstances. Critics claim the new law which was passed last March was adopted in an unconstitutional manner with insufficient public consultation.

In fact, in November 2016, Slovenia became the second state in the EU to include the right to water into its constitution and its water protections were copied by other EU member states. It declares water a public good and prevents its commercialization. Until now, it has been forbidden to build next to the water in Slovenia.

Developments could not be built on a 15-metre strip of land closest to major rivers and lakes in urban settlements, or the  40 metres strip of land closest to major rivers and lakes in rural areas.

In the centre of the dispute is Article 37 in the amended Water Act as it introduces controversial changes that may pave the way for construction project on water and coastal areas, such as restaurants, tourist accommodations, shops, and parking lots.

Those opposing the amendment fear that development of coastal areas could limit people’s access to lakes, rivers and the sea and increase the risk of pollution of surface and groundwater by creating large amounts of waste water, thereby endangering the quality of drinking water.

“According to the existing Water Law, interventions on water and coastal lands are only possible in exceptional circumstances,” Geology Professor Barbara Čenčur Curk at the University of Ljubljana told The Brussels Times. “The amendment to the law abolishes the restriction that interventions on coastal land are possible only on existing building land in an existing settlement.”

This will open the door construction outside a settlement, in nature, along the entire watercourse, from the water source to the outflow, she says.

Moreover, the amendment allows construction on water land and coastal land of the sea, which has not been allowed until now. The two exceptions for construction are construction of simple facilities and construction of facilities in public use. She adds that such constructions that does not require building permits might worsen the ecological condition of surface water.

The Slovenian Ministry of the Environment and Spatial Planning deplores the need for a referendum and claims that the Water Act's new rules provide greater protection of waterside land and ensure the necessary funds for watercourse maintenance and flood control.

The amended Water Act completely prohibits the construction of private and potentially dangerous buildings near water, the ministry explains. Construction on waterside land will now only be possible for buildings for public use, such as recreational facilities, playgrounds, etc. The construction of industrial facilities on waterside land will no longer be permitted under any condition.

“We are now limiting these possibilities: from buildings for private and public use to only buildings for public use,” commented Andrej Vizjak, minister of Environment and Spatial Planning. “That is what the Act says, regardless of certain interpretations."

Professor Curk is not convinced. “The real threat – which this law opens up - is that  unrestrained development of hotels, restaurants and car parks- can destroy some of Slovenia’s well-preserved natural environment.”

In Slovenia, referendums are seen as a form of direct democracy and regulated in its constitution (article 90). A legislative referendum requires 40,000 certified voter signatures. A law is rejected in a referendum if a majority of voters who have cast valid votes vote against the law, provided at least one fifth of all qualified voters have voted against the law.

Update: After almost all votes had been counted on Sunday evening (11 July), unofficial results showed that 86.6 % had voted no to the changes in the Water Act (674,000 voters). Voter turnout was ca 46 %.

The following was the question to the voters in the referendum: Do you agree with enacting the Act Amending the Water Act (ZV-1G), which was adopted by the National Assembly at its session on 31 March 2021?

M. Apelblat

The Brussels Times

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