Published on Wednesday, March 22, 2006 by OneWorld.net
Groups Demand Water Rights, Cite Millions of Deaths
by Niko Kyriakou
CARACAS - The right to safe water must be enshrined in international law and policed by the United Nations if millions of people are to be spared death from want of water or from water-borne diseases, activists told governments and business at international talks ending Wednesday.
A coalition of groups opposed to efforts to give private enterprise control over water resources and distribution systems called on governments attending the Fourth World Water Forum in Mexico City to agree a formal declaration at the nascent UN Human Rights Council that would stiffen their commitment to ensuring basic water rights.
The groups--including U.S.-based Bread for the World, the Coalition of Mexican Organizations for the Right to Water (COMDA), and the Council of Canadians--defined those rights as the ability to access sufficient and affordable clean water in or near the home, school or workplace.
They blamed violations of those rights for a UN-reported annual toll of three million deaths from diseases related to dirty or unsafe water. The world body also reported that 2.6 billion people--about 40 percent of the world's population--lack access to toilets or latrines.
Activists further pressed governments to establish an international mechanism to monitor countries' efforts to guarantee the right to water. Possibilities included a UN Special Rapporteur or advisor to the UN Secretary General.
Such measures are necessary because ''billions of people are unable to hold governments, corporations and international organizations accountable when they deliberately neglect the poor, such as people living in informal settlements, and when they violate the right of water users to participate in decision making on how their services are managed, as has been seen in many enforced privatizations of water services,'' said Scott Leckie, executive director of the Geneva-based Center on Housing Rights and Evictions, a coalition member.
The right to water already is enshrined in international covenants and UN resolutions but the United States, Canada, and other influential countries have shunned the documents, activists said, adding that in recent years, rather than strengthen public provision of water, numerous governments have favored efforts to privatize water systems.
That has proven controversial. Popular protest and government pressure in Argentina, Uruguay, and Bolivia, have pushed out private owners of water distribution facilities widely viewed as inhibiting public access to water by charging too much for the resource.
Delegates at the weeklong talks in Mexico City got a demonstration of the intensity of opposition to privatization when activists mobilized massive street protests.
Several advocacy groups urged stepped up grassroots efforts to wrest control over water.
''There is a silent holocaust occurring around the world caused by lack of water and sanitation. People are dying because the international aid community and national governments are not listening to the poor or looking at the overwhelming evidence,'' said Barbara Frost, chief executive of international charity WaterAid.
''Pressure must continue on donor and recipient governments, but we also need to encourage bottom-up solutions. If service providers are not held to account, the poor and the socially excluded will never achieve their water and sanitation rights. The groundwork has been laid. Citizens' action needs to become a movement,'' Frost added.
According to her organization, such a movement would prove essential in achieving the UN Millennium Development Goal of halving, by 2015, the number of people without sustainable access to safe drinking water and basic sanitation.
WaterAid, in a report released at the conference, touted several community projects it carried out with partners in Africa and Asia that it said succeeded in increasing public access to clean water. Citizen pressure in Kathmandu, Nepal, forced authorities there to reduce water charges and to cut the connection tariff by 84 percent, for example.
As part of a WaterAid project in Kampala, Uganda, community members in impoverished areas mapped rubbish dumps, water points, drainage channels, and latrines in a bid to help the government there carry out projects to improve water supply and sanitation.
The March 16-22 forum in Mexico City attracted some 11,000 participants from more than 100 countries, said organizers at the World Water Council, a France-based umbrella group for multinational water companies and other businesses, universities, and non-governmental organizations.
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