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Canada Turns Its Back on Thirsty World

by Iain Hunter

March 22 was World Water Day. But who knew?

No, it wasn't a day that owners of even- or odd-numbered houses might have thought allowed them to turn the sprinklers on their lawns.

In fact, March 22 was the date set aside this year to observe the goal adopted by the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development in Rio de Janeiro in 1992 -- the same one that precipitated us into that Kyoto madness five years later -- to halve the number of people in the world living without basic sanitation by 2015.

Fat chance. People who claim to know these things say that the way things are going 2.1 billion people will still be wallowing in filth by that date. Those poor souls in sub-Saharan Africa won't reach that goal until 2076, they say.

I don't remember being urged not to flush that Saturday, but I did notice a news item last week that put Canada in what must have been rather a bad light for the world sanitationists among us.

Canada, reportedly the lone dissenting voice at a session of the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva, succeeded in derailing a resolution that would have recognized water as a basic human right.

It's odd to try to make access to water a universally recognized basic right, so that fewer people die of thirst or disease, when the UN hasn't got around to giving the same attention to people who are dying of hunger.

When we talk about basic human rights we tend to think of things like free speech or the right to vote. But those can hardly be viewed as basic to the millions around the world whose very survival is at risk from the lack of things like food, water, sanitation, shelter and health care and a glut of things like bombs and bullets and improvised explosive devices.

Another UN agency -- the Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights -- declared in 2002: "The human right to water is indispensable for leading a life in human dignity. It is a prerequisite for the realization of other human rights."

Yet only two years earlier, the World Water Forum in The Hague said water was a salable commodity and not necessarily a basic right.

That seems to be the official position of Canada still.

It worries the Council of Canadians and others wary of what's being discussed in secret talks between Canadians and Americans under the guise of the Security and Prosperity Partnership and of what might happen if the North American Free Trade Agreement were reopened, as the leading Democratic candidates in the U.S. presidential election campaign suggest is likely.

Maude Barlow, the council's chairwoman, has suggested Canada was acting as stalking horse for the U.S. in Geneva, noting the U.S.

doesn't have a seat on the UN rights body.

The official explanation from Ottawa is that "the right to water is not explicitly recognized as a fundamental human right under international human rights law."

It notes that the consensus forced by Canada resulted in an agreement to examine obligations "related to access to safe drinking water and sanitation under international human rights instruments." That must be a little disheartening to those living in expanding deserts and rapidly drying gulches.

What are the obligations of the rest of the world when, as Allen Meyer of the Union of Concerned Scientists asked last week, Peru and Chile, and later, China and India, are faced with serious water problems?

And what are the obligations of Canada in the face of mounting complaints of water shortages in parts of the U.S.?

I share Barlow's concern that what Canada has done is make it easier to turn water resources over to private concerns for profit.

She says it's "fantastical" to believe that declaring water access a basic human right would force nations to export water to regions of drought.

UN declarations are not noted for "forcing" very much. But they can remind people that they have obligations as human beings to do what they can for others in dire straits.

For my part, I'd have no problem with providing clean drinking water to American desert dwellers.

But I'd be inclined to draw the line at keeping the golf courses green in Arizona, swimming pools full in Texas or the vulgar fountains playing in Las Vegas.

--Iain Hunter

© Times Colonist (Victoria) 2008

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