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Should Water Be Legislated as a Human Right?

Inter Press Service -The growing commercialisation 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 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 issues.

“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 basis.

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 water 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 services. 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 public 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.

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