A Human Right Canada Rejects: Access to Clean Water

On June 17, Pablo Solon, the Bolivian ambassador to the United Nations, presented a draft resolution declaring the human right to "available, safe, acceptable, accessible and affordable water and sanitation" to a closed-door consultation at the UN General Assembly that will be dealt with over the next several weeks. This is the first time the General Assembly has been asked directly to deal with this issue and it presents a huge test for the world and for Canada.

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.

Nearly 2 billion people live in water-stressed areas of the world and 3 billion have no running water within a kilometre of their homes. Every eight seconds, a child dies of water-borne disease, in every case preventable if their parents had money to pay for water.

And it is getting worse as the world runs out of clean water. A new World Bank report says that by 2030, global demand for water will exceed supply by 40 per cent, a shocking prediction that foretells of terrible suffering.

For several years, international and local community groups fighting for water justice have been calling for a binding UN convention that clarifies once and for all that no one should be denied water for life because of an inability to pay, especially in light of the water markets now being set up that allow the wealthy to appropriate dwindling water supplies for private profit.

The fact that water is not now an enforceable human right has allowed decision-making over water policy to shift from the UN and governments to institutions such as the World Bank, the World Water Council and the World Trade Organization that favour a market future for water.

Support for the right to water has been steadily growing in recent years but, strangely, Canada has emerged as the leading opponent.

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 Harper government knows it.

No UN rights convention obliges one country to provide those rights to another country. Canada signed the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights and is under no obligation to provide housing, jobs, pensions or health care to everyone in the world, only to its own citizens. A rights convention obliges every country, to the best of its ability, to take steps to ensure the realization of this new right to its own citizens and to report these steps to the UN.

In Canada, that would mean principally that the government would have to clean up its act in First Nations communities where water quality is often substandard. In poorer countries, where there are deep access inequities, a right to water convention would give local communities a tool to demand water justice, challenge the existing privilege of the rich and demand public not private water services.

Far more dangerous to this country's water are the provisions of NAFTA, which give American companies rights to Canada's water, and the proposed Canada-E.U. Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement (CETA), which will give water corporations the right to challenge local public control of water services.

The truth is that a right to water convention at the UN 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.

The events of the next few weeks will tell if the UN will adopt this historic resolution. What will Canada do?

Will it stand with those who say no one should be denied water for life?

Or will this wealthy nation yet again take a position that would deny this most basic right to the billions without it now?

The whole world is watching.

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