GENEVA - The United Nations Committee on Economic, Cultural and Social Rights
issued a statement Wednesday declaring access to water a human right and stating
that water is a social and cultural good, not merely an economic commodity.
The Committee stressed that the 145 countries that have ratified the International
Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights are now obligated to progressively
ensure access to clean water, "equitably and without discrimination".
Wednesday's declaration by the Committee took the form of a "General Comment",
which is the mechanism for providing interpretation of the Covenant.
Prior to the adoption of the document, representatives from the public sector,
private enterprise and independent institutions engaged in debate that focused
on ownership of water resources and the appropriateness of privatizing production
and distribution systems.
The final version of the General Comment omitted opinions on privatization
because the members of the Committee agreed "not to politicize the issue," said
one of its members, speaking on condition of anonymity.
However, the statement does clearly define the public nature of water as "a
limited natural resource and a public commodity fundamental to life and health."
Shortly after the UN Committee on Economic, Cultural and Social Rights announced
its decision Wednesday, the World Health Organization (WHO) issued its own statement,
calling the General Comment "an unprecedented step".
WHO director-general Gro Harlem Brundtland said the declaration of water as
a human right "is a major boost in efforts to achieve the (UN General Assembly's)
Millennium Development Goals of halving the number of people without access to
water and sanitation by 2015 -- two pre-requisites for health."
"The human right to water entitles everyone to sufficient, affordable, physically
accessible, safe and acceptable water for personal and domestic uses," states
the Committee document.
"While uses vary between cultures, an adequate amount of safe water is necessary
to prevent death from dehydration, to reduce the risk of water-related disease
and to provide for consumption, cooking, personal and domestic hygienic requirements."
The Committee is made up of 18 human rights experts who are designated by
the member governments but act in an independent capacity.
The announcement comes ahead of the 2003 celebration of the International
Year of Freshwater, declared by the UN.
The Committee's General Comment will be presented to the third World Water
Forum and Ministerial Conference to take place in March in the Japanese city of
Eibe Riedel, a German national, serving as the Committee's rapporteur on water,
said analysis of the issue generally has been conducted from the perspective of
individual consequences, without attending to the role of government.
Nor were transnational waters or irrigation regulations considered, he said.
Among the figures cited in the Committee debate were that 1.1 billion people
in the world do not have regular access to clean water and some 2.4 billion do
not have adequate sanitation or sewerage.
By 2025, some 3.0 billion people will suffer the effects of water shortages,
predicts El-Hadji Guissé, special rapporteur on water rights for the UN Subcommission
on the Protection and Promotion of Human Rights.
Guissé laments that water has become a commodity that is "sold to the highest
bidder," and the way water is managed, he said, is subject "to the laws of corruption."
In his country, Senegal, water services were privatized and are now owned
by a French consortium. Now, says Guissé, the country has less water available
and it is of worse quality than before.
The same situation has emerged in other African nations, where transnational
corporations have acquired water reservoirs, motivated only by profit, he says.
Jean Ziegler, the UN Commission on Human Rights special rapporteur for the
right to food, noted the experience of the Bolivian city of Cochabamba, where
water service rates doubled after privatization
Massive protests in 1999 in the streets of Cochabamba forced the government
to revise its policy on ownership of water distribution services, stressed Ziegler.
In contrast, Jack Moss, representing the private firm Suez, which specializes
in the exploitation of water services, said during the debate, according to the
UN, that "measures to privatize water services could be considered a 'mass salvation
against want of water'."
Simon Walker, an expert from the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human
Rights, noted the tendency of some governments "to put pressure on others to privatize
some of their public sectors."
These states party to international agreements have no obligation to do so,
Mireille Cosy, spokeswoman for the World Trade Organization (WTO), clarified
that the body's Agreement on Trade in Services does not require privatization
or deregulation of any water service activities.
The UN Committee on Economic, Cultural and Social Rights consists of Eibe
Riedel (Germany), Mahmoud Samir Ahmed (Egypt), Clement Atanga (Cameroon), Rocio
Barahona Riera (Costa Rica) Virginia Bonoan-Dandan (Philippines - current Chair),
Dumitru Ceausu (Romania), Abdessatar Grissa (Tunisia), Paul Hunt (New Zealand),
Yuri Kolosov (Russia), Giorgio Malinverni (Switzerland) and Jaime Marchán Romero
Rounding out the list are Sergei Martynov (Belarus), Ariranga Govindasamy
Pillay (Mauricio), Kenneth Osborne Rattray (Jamaica), Walid M. Sa'di (Jordan),
Philippe Texier (France), Nutan Thapalia (Nepal), and Javier Wimer Zambrano (Mexico).
According to the General Comment, "realization of the right (to water) should
be feasible and practicable, since all states parties exercise control over a
broad range of resources, including water, technology, financial resources and
international assistance, as with all other rights in the Covenant."
Copyright © 2002 IPS-Inter Press Service