Not any more

Point: Water is a fundamental right

In Canada on August 5, 2010 at 05:46

Last week, the United Nations General Assembly voted overwhelmingly, for the first time, to adopt a resolution recognizing the human right to drinking water and sanitation. One hundred and twenty-two countries voted in favour of the resolution, none opposed and 41 abstained. The General Assembly also voted to call for member states to provide financial resources and technology to help realize this right in poorer countries.

Water was not included in the 1948 Universal Declaration on Human Rights. At the time, as no one could imagine it would ever be a problem. Decades later, when it became clear that the combination of poverty, dirty water and water depletion in the global South was killing untold millions of people, many human rights and development groups started demanding that access to water be added to the list of fundamental rights.

However, by then it had become clear that the growing demand for water was rendering it a potentially valuable global commodity, and a strong set of adversaries came together to oppose any language of rights at the UN. These forces included the World Bank, which was promoting a program of water privatization in the developing world; the big water utility companies benefiting from this program; and the aid agencies of some big northern countries whose governments had bought into a market model of development. Canada led the opposition to any progress on the right to water at the UN, even weakening the mandate of the independent expert appointed by the Human Rights Council two years ago to study and report on the situation.

Fed up with the delay and obfuscation, a number of countries from the global South (led by Bolivia, whose glaciers are melting due to climate change) decided to put a clear up or down vote to the General Assembly and force every country in the world to say where it stands on this most basic of rights. To its shame, Canada was one of the countries, along with the United States, Britain, Australia and New Zealand, that led the opposition to the resolution. Some tried to get the sponsoring countries to dilute the resolution by removing sanitation or adding the words “access to” water and sanitation, which would have meant that governments only had to provide access to these services, not the services themselves, to those without means. Others, including Canada, proposed a “consensus” resolution that would have just restated the status quo and the need to wait for the report of the independent expert. When it was clear they could not get the support for their alternatives, the big five simply abstained.

This vote marked a historic landmark in the fight for water justice in several ways. Countries representing 5.4 billion people – the vast majority of the population on Earth – voted in favour of the human right to water and sanitation. The language of the resolution itself set the gold standard for all future deliberations on the right to water. While a resolution is not binding, it does nevertheless demonstrate the intent of the General Assembly, and when the time comes for a more binding declaration or convention, the clear and unequivocal wording of this resolution will serve as the template.

Finally, it was important because there was a clear split in the powerful countries of the global North. Many broke with the naysayers and voted for the resolution, including Germany, Spain and France. Most emerging powerhouse countries, including China, India, Russia and Brazil, also voted in favour. This demonstrates a global shift in influence away from the once-dominant Anglo powers and their model of development.

When Pablo Solon, Bolivian ambassador to the UN, stood up to introduce the resolution, he referred to a new report on diarrhea showing that every 3.5 seconds, a child dies in the global South from dirty water. Then he held up his fingers and counted – 1, 2, 3. As he paused, the great hall went dead quiet. Then, the General Assembly voted.

Maude Barlow is national chair of the Council of Canadians. She served as senior adviser on water to the 63rd president of the UN General Assembly.


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