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Water as Human Right Threatens to Split World Body

by Thalif Deen

UNITED NATIONS - A long outstanding proposal to recognize the right to water as a basic universal human right is threatening to split the world's rich and poor nations.

A long outstanding proposal to recognise the right to water as a basic universal human right is threatening to split the world's rich and poor nations. (photo by Flickr user Gary Edenfield) Opposition to the proposal is coming mostly from Western nations, says Maude Barlow, a global water advocate and a founder of the Canada-based Blue Planet Project.

"Canada is the worst. But Australia, the United States and Great Britain are also holding up the process," she said.

"I am loath to see this as a North-South issue, but it is beginning to look like it," Barlow told IPS.

If the draft resolution is eventually adopted by the 192- member U.N. General Assembly, "it would be one of the most important things the United Nations has done since the Universal Declaration of Human Rights," she said.

The two-page draft, described as "historic", recognizes "the human right to water and sanitation," and is being initiated by Bolivia.

A final text of the draft, currently under discussions, is expected to be presented to the president of the General Assembly, Ali Abdussalam Treki, by the end of July - if it clears the political hurdles.

Speaking off-the-record, a diplomatic source told IPS: "This is something very dear to developing countries."

It is true that there is actually no legal basis for declaring the right to water and sanitation as a basic universal human right, and issues like definitions and scope have to be worked out. He said the argument being made is there is already an ongoing process in Geneva that is meant to work on this, and that the General Assembly "is jumping the gun".

"Overall, water and sanitation are such critical issues that we must work towards consensus on this resolution. Anything less than consensus would undermine the very importance we attach to them," he warned.

Barlow pointed out that nearly two billion people live in water-stressed areas of the world and three billion have no running water within a kilometer of their homes.

In a letter sent to all 192 U.N. ambassadors, she said that when the 1948 Universal Declaration on Human Rights was written, no one could foresee a day when water would be a contested area.

"But in 2010, it is not an exaggeration to say that the lack of access to clean water is the greatest human rights violation in the world," said Barlow, who once served as Senior Adviser on Water to the 63rd President of the U.N. General Assembly in 2008-2009.

She said Canada has blocked even the most modest steps toward international recognition of the right to water and has worked behind the scenes to derail advancement toward a binding instrument.

Government officials have not explained their position except to say that such a convention might force Canada to share its water with the United States.

However, this is a complete "red herring" and the Stephen Harper government knows it, she added.

The truth is that a right to water convention at the U.N. would act as a counterweight to those who want to sell Canada's water for profit and is a more likely explanation of Canada's continued opposition, Barlow said.

Ann-Mari Karlsson of the Stockholm International Water Institute (SIWI) told IPS her organization supports the human right to water and sanitation.

"But we concur with the views of the U.N. independent expert that the right to water and sanitation are components of the rights to an adequate standard of living and that these rights are protected under Article 11 of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights," Karlsson said.

She said it is important that a U.N. resolution on the right to water and sanitation should state this clearly, "which as far as we can see, the current draft does not".

What is more, the importance of sanitation in this context cannot be underestimated.

Karlsson said water and sanitation are closely linked, and the world is more off track to reach the Millennium Development Goals on access to sanitation than it is for access to water.

"There should be an adequate reflection of this in the resolution," she added.

Anil Naidoo, also of the Blue Planet Project, has already briefed China and the 130-member Group of 77 developing countries in promoting the draft resolution.

"International and local community groups fighting for water justice have long been calling for leadership from the U.N. in clearly recognizing that water and sanitation are human rights," said Naidoo.

"As this moves forward we are demanding that the language of the resolution remain strong and leave no doubt that water and sanitation are human rights," he added.

Andersson of SIWI told IPS: "We are not against privatization on principle. Our main concern is that the state should take its responsibility to regulate and monitor activities by private actors so that everyone has access to affordable drinking and household water and sanitation."

Whether the provision of water and sanitation is carried out by public or private actors is not relevant to the status of water and sanitation as a human right, she declared.

Meanwhile, a coalition of international non-governmental organizations (NGOs), including the Council of Canadians, Food and Water Europe, Corporate Europe Observatory and the Blue Planet Project, has appealed to members of the European Parliament seeking their political support.

"In light of the European Union's recognition of water as a human right, it will be crucial that the EU play a key role in promoting this key resolution at the United Nations," says the letter.

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