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September-October 2011

Vol. 35, No. 5

Water, sanitation as human rights

On July 28, NGOs and member states of the United Nations were invited to attend a roundtable discussion regarding the human right to water and sanitation. The invitation would have been difficult to resist since it featured Bolivia's newly installed ambassador to the UN, Rafael Archonda, and Maude Barlow, renowned global advocate for the right to water. The occasion marked the commemoration of the first anniversary of the UN General Assembly Resolution of the Human Right to Water and Sanitation. MOGC staff member Sr. Ann Braudis, MM attended the discussion and wrote this report.

Bolivia, known for its indigenous character and its poverty, now is becoming known for persuasively presenting to the UN issues of fundamental importance to the entire global community. These same issues, such as water and sanitation as human rights, are ordinarily inseparable from questions of poverty and injustice.

Everyone would agree that water is a need but it must be declared a universal right in order to obligate governments to ensure that all of their citizens have water that is clean and safe. This follows the traditional thrust of the UN: To labor tirelessly toward building a world in which all that is required for the well-being of human life is articulated with clarity, where methods of implementation are established, and governments are chased into compliance.

Sadly however, as was clearly pointed out during the July 28 discussion, the passage of the water and sanitation resolution by the UN General Assembly was not a guarantee that nations would hurry to enact policies and legislation that would guarantee its implementation. A year later, only the governments of Bolivia, Ecuador and Uruguay have amended their constitutions to this effect.

This raises two questions: Why haven't wealthy and industrialized countries moved quickly to embrace public policy enshrining these rights? What weakness at the UN is hindering implementation?

According to participants at the roundtable discussion, the major obstacle jeopardizing implementation is the dominant economic model of unlimited growth. While it would appear to be obvious that the planet cannot support unlimited growth, according to Ambassador Archonda, there is practically no sense of corresponding global conscience. Clearly formulated ethical principles lag behind the obvious; institutions such as universities, think tanks and churches that would be expected to take the lead in this regard are weak or under the influence of national governments aimed at increasing gross national product as a measure of economic stability and general well-being.

Examples of the misuse of water abound: Water for tourism, water for display and entertainment, water for massive irrigation projects to support agriculture in dessert areas, large quantities of water for industrial purposes, and fresh water rendered unsafe through extractive technologies to release underground deposits of difficult to surface materials. Another fast developing abuse of water is the privatization of water distribution. One must be careful in the choice of words used to describe availability of water; access is not synonymous with having water. Access may exist without people having the means to actually have the water if the cost is determined by private suppliers on a for-profit basis.

What is hampering the UN's ability to fast track implementation? Surprisingly, in part the answer to this question has to do with the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), which include water access. While the MDGs are laudable, measuring their success is subject to misleading statistical information. In Our right to water Maude Barlow states, "One of the chief measurements for access to drinking water used by the UN is to count the number of pipes installed in a country. But just because there is a pipe does not mean there is clean water coming out of it and even if it is, it may be very far away."

This writer has witnessed this sort of perversity: In northern Philippines, in the indigenous community of Ucab, Itogon, the large-scale gold mining corporation that destroyed the area's natural and abundant water source through its operations, donated a water tank to the community by way of compensation. It even had painted on it that it was a donation to the community by the company's foundation. However, the tank was empty as there was still no water.

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