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Presentation to Catarina de Albuquerque, Independent Expert on Human Rights Obligations Related to Access to Safe Drinking Water and Sanitation

Presentation to Catarina de Albuquerque, Independent Expert on Human Rights Obligations Related to Access to Safe Drinking Water and Sanitation

By Ruth Caplan, National Coordinator,

Defending Water for Life Campaign

Alliance for Democracy

Washington DC, February 23, 2011

Before presenting specific examples in E below of how communities in the United States, with which we work, have acted to protect their right to water, I would like to set out what we believe are the underlying principles relating to the right to water which guide our work.

A. Fundamental rights

  • The human right to water needs to be viewed as a community right so that one person’s right cannot overshadow another person’s right and the protection of the right is for the welfare of the whole community.
  • The human right to clean and sufficient water is inseparable from the right to water for ecosystems because if ecosystems lose their ability to retain and cleanse water, their ability to protect and provide water for human use will be diminished or lost.
  • The right to water for ecosystems is not just derivative of the human right to water: there is an inherent right to water for all life as part of the rights of nature as has been clearly set forth in the statement on “The Rights of Mother Earth” promulgated at the World People’s Summit on Climate Change and the Rights of Mother Earth last April in Cochabamba, Bolivia.
  • A prerequisite for recognizing these rights is that water is not commodified, that neither private nor public entities profit from the sale of water by selling at the market price.

B. Role of corporations

  • It is inherent in the corporate structure to pursue profitability. (Here I am not discussing corporations which are specifically established as non-profit entities. ) When corporations become involved in directly “providing” water to individuals and communities through the sale of bulk or bottled water, they do so in order to make a profit. Thus commodification of water is inherent in private sector involvement in the direct provision of water.
  • When the provision of water services is through private-public partnerships between a municipality and a private corporation, the price may be regulated by the municipality, but the price must include the corporate profit. The human right to water must include public water provision at the lowest possible cost. Our experience in the U.S. is that public/private partnerships have caused water rates to increase. This is quite adequately documented by Food and Water Watch’s 2009 report “Money Down the Drain.”

C. Confluence of municipal privatization and bottled water commodification

  • While multinational corporations like Suez and Véolia focus on municipal water/sewer systems in the U.S. and multinational corporations like Nestle, Pepsico and CocaCola focus on the bottled water industry, there is a confluence of their impacts which threatens the fundamental right to water.
  • Corporate control of water/sewer systems puts these systems in private hands where profit, not service, is the fundamental corporate objective.
  • The bottled water industry commodifies drinking water by selling water at a price determined by the marketplace. It also creates a private water distribution system for drinking water.
  • These converge toward the corporate control of water even in a country like the U.S. with a proud history of public water systems. Federal support for public systems has already dramatically decreased. Public support for funding municipal systems erodes as corporate advertising instills the idea that drinking water comes from bottles.
  • Once this corporate control reaches a critical point, government will have little control over the price of water which will then be free to increase dramatically, creating a serious impediment to the right to water for the poor.

D. UN & water corporations

  • Given this confluence of corporate power, the Alliance is concerned about the ability of corporations working through the UN to undermine the fundamental right to water at the same time they present themselves as helping to ensure that individuals and communities have access to water.
  • We are skeptical that the voluntary CEO Water Mandate, developed as part of the UN Global Compact, is any more than green washing since there is no enforceable way to hold corporations accountable.
  • Holding corporations accountable needs to be part of the UN mission in relation to the right to water, not a responsibility simply shifted to states and communities which often lack the resources to hold corporations accountable.
  • Here is just one example of the problems that arise when the UN partners with water corporations:
    • In 2007, UN-Habitat entered into a partnership with Coca-Cola India to support water and sanitation initiatives in India and Nepal. (Source: Polaris Institute, October 2009 report)
    • At the same time Coca Cola’s 40 acre bottling operation in Plachimada, in the state of Kerala, was devastating small farmers due to loss of water and causing local wells to dry up and become polluted. (Source: IATP letter to Catarina de Albuquerque March 26, 2010)

E. United States: Community Ordinances and the Right to Water for People and Nature

  • The fundamental rights laid out in A above are embedded in local laws which have been adopted by 6 rural communities in New England, 4 in New Hampshire and 2 in Maine, in response to the threats from corporations like Nestle to mine local water for bottling. The first ordinance was passed in Barnstead NH in April 2006.
  • These laws were passed by the voters in local town meetings when it became clear that the states were siding with corporate interests in allowing spring water to be mined for bottling by corporations. (In Maine alone, Nestle mines so much spring water for its Poland Spring brand that Poland Spring is now the third largest bottled water brand in the whole country, surpassed only by CocaCola and Pepsico which bottle municipal water.)
  • The town laws declare: “we have the duty to safeguard the water both on and beneath the Earth’s surface, and in the process, safeguard the rights of people within the community of (Barnstead et al) and of the natural ecosystems of which they are a part.”
  • The towns forbid corporations from extracting water in the town or buying/selling water extracted in the town without the express consent of the town.
  • Before passing these ordinances, the towns delved deeply into the history of the exercise of corporate power in the U.S. As a result, they realized they could not protect their right to water without addressing the extraordinary power of corporations to deny their rights and to influence the writing of laws and regulations regarding mining of groundwater.
  • In the U.S. this corporate power partly arises from the legal construct of “corporate personhood.” Corporations use the 14th Amendment, which was passed to secure the rights of freed slaves, to assert their corporate rights as persons and thus be protected by the Constitution, including our Bill of Rights.
  • Therefore these town laws remove the ability of corporations to assert Constitutional rights which abrogate the rights of the people in the community.

F. Conclusion

  • The Alliance for Democracy greatly appreciates your work as the Independent Expert in moving the human right to water into the implementation phase.
  • Towns in the U.S. are beginning to act courageously to protect the right to water for people and nature. We hope that the examples of these towns will be instructive as the UN seeks to implement the human right to water.
  • As these towns have learned, the right to water cannot be addressed separately from the legal structure which grants corporations more power than “we, the people.” It is with this perspective that we voice our concern about the influence of corporations in the UN and their potential for weakening the implementation of the General Assembly’s resolution [A/RES/64/292] that formally recognizes the human right to water and sanitation.

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