Water Is a Right. So Why Are So Many without It?

A member of the Kalahari San community strikes a traditional pose. The San used the UN resolution on the right to water to regain access to their water supply when their government smashed their bore wells in an attempt to move them out of the desert. (Photo: Dan Kitwood / Getty)

Water Is a Right. So Why Are So Many without It?

It’s within the power of the world’s governments to fulfil the United Nations goal of water for all. It’s just a matter of priorities.

On July 28, 2010, the United Nations General Assembly adopted a resolution recognizing the human rights to clean drinking water and sanitation as "essential for the full enjoyment of the right to life." Two months later, the UN Human Rights Council laid out the obligations these new rights conferred on governments around the world.

With these actions, the UN affirmed that no one should have to watch their children die because they do not have enough money to buy clean water, and humanity took an evolutionary step forward.

This Human Rights Day, Dec. 10, presents an opportunity to ask the question: how have we fulfilled the UN mandate on the human rights to water and sanitation?

In some ways, very well. All governments -- even ones like Canada and the United States that initially opposed recognizing these rights -- have now affirmed their commitment to the rights to water and sanitation.

In the last decade, almost four dozen countries have either enshrined the right to water within their national constitutions or provided this right in new law. All are now required to come up with a plan of action on how they will deliver on their obligation to provide water and sanitation to their citizens, put the most vulnerable at the centre of water policy, and prevent third parties from contaminating local drinking water sources.

The courts have also been enlisted to promote these new rights. The Bombay High Court ruled that the city's government is duty bound to supply water to illegal slums. Courts in France and Michigan ruled it is unconstitutional to cut off water to those unable to afford the water rates. The Kalahari San People used the UN resolution to regain access to their water supply when their government smashed their bore wells in an attempt to move them out of the desert.

Communities have enlisted the moral authority of the right to water in their struggle against water privatization. In the last 15 years, 235 municipalities around the world -- including Paris and Berlin -- have remunicipalized their previously privatized water systems. As well, activists are now gearing up to use the right to water against water-contaminating extractive mining and fracking operations.

As a result of UN and government action, the World Health Organization reports that since 1990, nearly 2 billion people have gained access to improved drinking water. This is good news indeed.

However, many problems remain. At least 780 million people still have no access to clean drinking water and almost 2 billion people are forced to use a source of drinking water that is contaminated. Two and a half billion people do not have access to basic sanitation. In fact, the UN admits that its water targets are the least on-track of all the 2000 Millennium Development Goals.

Further, since 2010, the world has witnessed a largely new development: water cut-offs in cities in Europe and the United States. The "perfect storm" of high water rates and growing poverty is impacting the global North as well as the global South.

Why is this goal of water for all so difficult? Largely because most governments have other priorities. Global military spending now stands at $1.76 trillion annually, a sum that towers over the estimated $10 to $30 billion a year the UN estimates it would take to provide minimum water services to all.

Governments and international institutions are also committed to unlimited growth as well as trade and investment agreements such as NAFTA, CETA and TPP that give corporations the right to sue for financial compensation if governments introduce laws to protect their water or the human rights of their citizens.

The global water crisis is making the fight for water justice harder. Many governments, faced with seriously dwindling water supplies, are allocating water to industrial development over the needs of their people.

In Canada, a country blessed with water, we have an obligation to help realize the human rights to water and sanitation around the world and here at home on the hundreds of First Nations communities that live with sub-standard water services. To our collective shame, First Nations people are 90 per cent more likely not to have access to clean drinking water and sanitation than other Canadians.

On this Human Rights Day, this must be our commitment.

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