Roma deprived of access to drinking water during heatwave

August 9, 2017

Photo: Index.hu

“Drinking water provided through public wells can be used for household purposes by those inhabitants whose real estate is not connected to the public utility water network or have limited access to drinking water.” – 2013 government decree

“You don’t have to be a scientific researcher or a water expert to see that turning off public wells in any community or settlement during a heatwave and denying the people living there of drinking water anywhere in the world is an inhuman act.” – Jenő Setét, Roma rights activist

Residents of the Roma neighborhoods of Gulács and Onga in eastern Hungary were left without tap water during last week’s heatwave when the daytime temperature daily rose above 35 Celsius (95 Fahrenheit).

In the Roma area of Gulács, most of the residents have no tap water in their homes so they use a nearby artesian well. Although the arm of the well had been removed many years before, the residents managed to fix it with a makeshift steel rod and had been using the well illegally ever since without any retaliation from authorities. According to Index.hu’s reporting, amidst last week’s heatwave workers of the Tisza Regional Waterworks suddenly removed the whole well. According to the company’s official statement, workers detected a huge puddle next to “one of the wells that are officially out of order” and, suspecting a burst pipe, removed the well. Although there is another operational well about 300 meters away, residents – many of whom have small children – complained that the other well is too far away to fetch water on a daily basis and it would not be sufficient in the case of a fire. The removal of the well caused a public outcry.

In a public Facebook post which was shared more than a thousand times, former Gulács resident and teacher Gábor Patak urged Gulács mayor Judit Újvári to restore the well immediately. The online campaign seemed to be very effective as the waterworks restored the well the next afternoon.

Antisemitism and antiziganism (anti-Roma prejudice and discrimination-ed.) researcher Magdalena Marsovszky also contacted the mayor by email and demanded the restoration of the well. In a letter, mayor Újvári stated that “all wells in Gulács that are supposed to operate are operating” and gave numerous examples of the settlement’s social services. Index also contacted the mayor, who insisted that the waterworks in question are competent and refused to explain why the council had ordered the removal of the well’s arm in the first place.

In Onga, 10 kilometers east of the county capital Miskolc, the water pressure of both public wells of the Roma neighborhood was restricted during last week’s heatwave. Marsovszky also contacted the mayor of Onga, Dr. Tibor Madzin, pointing out to him that the right to water is a fundamental human right according to a 2010 UN resolution ratified by Hungary as well. Marsovszky later posted the mayor’s reply on Facebook, according to which

  • the council only requested the reduction of pressure in the wells in contrast to other settlements where the council requested the removal of wells,
  • the request was made months ago and not during the heatwave.

According to mayor Madzin, he contacted the waterworks immediately after he learned of the problem and asked them to restore the pressure in both wells. Rural Roma households often lack both running water and indoor plumbing, including sewer service. Often public artesian wells are the only source of water, the cost of which is borne by city councils. According to a 2013 government decree “drinking water provided through public wells can be used for household purposes by those inhabitants whose real estate is not connected to the public utility water network or have limited access to drinking water”.

Speaking to the Budapest Beacon at a commemoration of the Roma Holocaust, Roma rights activist Jenő Setét said:

“You don’t have to be a scientific researcher or a water expert to see that turning off public wells in any community or settlement during a heatwave and denying the people living there of drinking water anywhere in the world is an inhuman act.  And this is not the first occasion: four years ago the same thing took place in Ózd.  I suspect, by the way, that as parliamentary elections near, crazier and crazier political proposals will be made and gypsies will be used more and more as a means in the political campaign.”