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Inter Press Service

Murky Future for Rights Treaty on Water

A proposed international treaty to guarantee water as a basic human right has received mixed reviews from experts, environmentalists and political activists.

Thalif Deen

"If someone thinks that a global convention on water as a human right will solve the world's drinking water problem, I have to say that person is living in cloud cuckooland," Professor Asit K. Biswas, president of the Mexico-based Third World Centre for Water Management, told IPS.

He pointed out that food has been declared a human right for decades, yet hundreds of millions of people are still hungry.0831 02 1

Furthermore, "Anyone who has even marginally followed the discussions at the U.N. on human rights knows that the possibility of getting a convention approved and ratified on water as a human right, in the foreseeable future, is zero," said Biswas, winner of the 2006 international Water Prize, a prestigious award given by the Stockholm International Water Institute.

He pointed out that the main problem today is not water scarcity, but poor water management. "Even if a convention on water as a human right is approved and ratified by an absolute miracle, it will at best improve access to water only marginally. This is not the solution as claimed. At best, it may help a little bit," he added.

The global campaign for a new U.N. treaty on water has been led by Mikhail Gorbachev, the former president of the now-defunct Soviet Union, and currently president of the non-governmental environmental organisation Green Cross International.

As the world faces new threats of water scarcities, Gorbachev says that "severe conflicts" over water can be resolved only with an international convention governing water as a basic human right for all the world's peoples.

Since any proposal for an international convention has to be sponsored by a U.N. member state, Gorbachev says he has already written to about 40 countries seeking their support for the proposed treaty.

Addressing the 17th annual World Water Week in mid-September, the executive director of the Stockholm International Water Institute, Anders Berntell, warned that 1.4 billion people now live in regions where there is a real, physical water scarcity, and an additional 1.1 billion live in regions where there is water stress due to over-consumption.

"Clearly, these figures will increase in the future due to population growth, intensified agriculture and climate change," he told a meeting of over 2,000 water professionals, technicians, scientists and policymakers.

Sunita Narain, director of the New Delhi-based Centre for Science and Environment, says she has mixed feelings about the proposal for an international water treaty.

"I do believe that water is a basic human right. But I don't think it is a good idea for the United Nations to come up with an international convention on it," Narain told IPS.

"The reason is that human rights as an issue at the U.N. has been so politicised and so misused it often becomes a way to undermine the work that is happening in countries," she added.

She said she believes the human rights issue has never been dealt with fairly and well at the United Nations.

"If human rights were such a concern, then the United States is the biggest offender. But as nobody can say anything about the United States, so it becomes a way to say that good governance applies and you selectively use human rights as a tool, wherever it suits you," said Narain, the winner of the 2006 Stockholm Water Prize.

"And so I think the United Nations has essentially, to my mind, denigrated the processes of human rights. And I would not like to see the United Nations involved in something like water, which is so desperately needed," she added.

She said that "in our part of the world, our governments accept water as a human right".

"But the minute the U.N. says it is a human right, everybody will back off," said Narain, who is also director of the Society for Environmental Communications in India. "It will be politicised and it will derail the process. So, I think it is a well-meaning move, but poorly conceptualised," she added.


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Dr. Ger Bergkamp, head of the water programme at the IUCN World Conservation Union, told IPS the idea to develop a convention on the right to water "seems attractive on first sight."

"Who does not believe that people should live in dignity and have access to water and sanitation?" he asked.

Much has been achieved in recent years to bring the right to water more to the foreground. This attention has resulted in changes in legislation or donor priorities in some countries, he added.

"As such the promotion of the concept has contributed to promoting its implementation at national level. Now, will another international convention really accelerate this?"

He pointed out that the existing human rights treaties provide already a wide arsenal of arguments supporting the human right to water.

Bergkamp also said that it would be a distraction "to develop an additional treaty, if the aim should be the adoption and translation of the ideas in practical action."

"A convention would only add anything if it would already be rather specific it its intent and clauses," he said. "This will be very difficult to achieve."

He said if the convention text is broad and unspecific, "decades are likely to pass without much progress on the ground (and) being directly driven by this convention process."

Dr. Marius Claassen, manager for Water Resources at the Pretoria-based Council for Science and Industrial Research, said any effort to provide water and water services to the poor and the most vulnerable is commendable.

"Whether the drafting of a convention to promote water as a human right should be seen as a step forward depends on its successful implementation," Claassen told IPS. "Will it actually make a difference in people's lives?"

He said this depends on a few key factors: the process of drafting the convention must be inclusive, credible, and transparent; the treaty must be based on agreed principles, clear in its objectives and enable action; and the treaty should be effective in its implementation.

Biswas of the Third World Centre for Water Management challenged the view that water would be a dominant factor in future conflicts.

"I can predict that there will not be a war between two countries because of physical water scarcity. If two countries go to war, the 15th reason may be water but not the first 14. In the entire human history, no two countries have ever gone to war over water," he added.

He said any person who claims tensions can be reduced by laying firm principles on the management of trans-boundary rivers does not know what is happening in the real world, "or has third-rate advisors."

Almost a decade ago, the U.N. General Assembly passed such a resolution overwhelmingly, with only three negative votes. However, the treaty has not been ratified by even half the number of countries needed to make it an established convention.

In fact, during the past five years, not even a single country has ratified it. Thus, the chance of this convention on water being ratified is close to zero, Biswas said.

© 2007 Inter Press Service

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