Legislating water as a Human Right
United Nations, 15 August The growing commercialization of water -
and the widespread influence of the bottling industry worldwide - is
triggering a rising demand for the legal classification of one of the
basic necessities of human life as a human right.
"We definitely need a covenant or [an international] treaty on the
right to water so as to establish once and for all that no one on earth
must be denied water because of inability to pay," says Maude Barlow, a
senior adviser to the President of the U.N. General Assembly, on water
"We've got to protect water as a human right," she said, pointing out
that the U.N. Human Rights Commission in Geneva would be the most likely
venue to propose such a covenant.
But it would be best, she added, if it were ratified by the
192-member General Assembly, currently presided over by Fr. Miguel
D'Escoto Brockmann, a former Foreign Minister of Nicaragua.
"We need at the United Nations more than a human rights remedy,"
Barlow told IPS. "We need a plan of action for the General Assembly."
The U.N. says that close to 880 million people - mostly in the
developing world - lack adequate access to clean water. By 2030, close
to 4 billion people could be living in areas suffering severe water
stress, mostly in South Asia and China.
A study commissioned by the U.N. Environment Programme (UNEP),
released in March, said the global market for water supply, sanitation
and water efficiency is worth over 250 billion dollars - and is likely
to grow to nearly 660 billion dollars by 2020.
Barlow said the Council of Canadians, which she heads, is working
with countries promoting the right to water constitutionally.
A plebiscite in Uruguay, held four years ago, led to a referendum
resulting in a constitutional amendment singling out water as both a
human right and a public service to be delivered on a not-for-profit
A Colombian group called Ecofundo has collected two million
signatures in a plebiscite that is expected to lead to a referendum on
the right to water.
Patricia Jones, an expert on water and manager of the Environmental
Justice Programme at the Unitarian Universalist Service Committee, told
IPS that the U.S. negotiated against the appointment of a special U.N.
rapporteur on the human right to water during a vote at the Human Rights
Commission in March 2008.
Still, an independent expert was appointed, with a three-year
mandate, to assist member states to identify the scope and content of
the human right to 0Awater and sanitation.
"The opposition to the human right to water, of the previous U.S.
administration, is changing," Jones said.
She quoted U.S. President Barack Obama as saying in his inaugural
address early this year: "to the people of poor nations, we pledge to
work alongside you to make your farms flourish and let clean waters
flow." For the U.S., she pointed out, the economic stimulus package, and
other funding, is going to address water availability issues within the
U.S. "We do not have a comprehensive water policy at the national level;
water is a devolved power of the states, with regulation through the
Clean Water Act and the Safe Drinking Water Quality Act." But Jones said
the U.S. State Department staff participated in recent consultations on
the human right to water and sanitation.
Barlow, the senior U.N. adviser on water issues, said: "We are
winning some of the battle against the global corporate theft of water."
"In my country (Canada), for instance, 53 municipalities - some of them
big cities such as Vancouver and Toronto - have banned bottled water,
and bottled water sales have dropped dramatically globally." Many
municipalities worldwide are reversing the privatisation of their water
The City of Paris, for example, is bringing its water services into
the public sphere for the first time ever.
"We are also successfully introducing the notion of water as a p
ublic trust in political jurisdictions, asserting public control over
this vital resource," Barlow said. However, she noted, "we must be ever
vigilant as new forms of private control are being advanced: water
markets, water banking, water trading and water speculation are all on
the horizon for those who would impose a market model of water
allocation in the place of the public trust doctrine." Barlow said a
recent example was the sale of privately traded water rights in
Australia (which were introduced as a way to move water use toward
sustainability) to a big American investment fund.
This means that not only is this water not in public control, it is
not even in the hands of Australians any more, she added.
Asked how investors can help solve the world's water problems, Jones
told IPS that investors can ensure that the water services investments
they make would bring about the human right to water.
The U.N. Development Programme (UNDP) termed the existing priorities
in global water services as "water apartheid," reporting that there was
enough water and financial resources to meet the current needs.
Still, it suggested that fully implementing existing legal
obligations on the human right to water would go a long way to adjusting
funding priorities toward water for the poor.
Some companies, such as Connecticut Water and PepsiCo have adopted a
human right to water policy, Jones said.Barlow said the international
community should be watching the "superpowers" who are now looking
outside their borders for water supplies - as they did for oil.
She said China is already constructing a pipeline to funnel water
from the Tibetan Himalayas.
(Inter Press Service)