Global Trends by Martin Khor

Monday, 26 July 2010

Water soon to be a human right?

A resolution before the United Nations General Assembly this week seeks to declare the right to water and sanitation as a human right -- a move that should give a push to address the severe and increasing global water crisis. 


There is almost nothing more important to human beings than water.   We cannot live without water for three days or so. 

Some people have been reported to survive two months without food.

Perhaps only air is more crucial for life.  One might die after three or four minutes without air or the oxygen in it.

While the importance of food has been recognised by its being made a human right, the access to clean water is not officially a human right. 

This omission may hopefully be rectified this week.  A resolution to declare access to water and sanitation as the right of every human being will be discussed at the United Nations' General Assembly.

The resolution is led by Bolivia and co-sponsored by 33 countries, with many others expected to support it. However, it appears that some developed countries are not happy with the resolution.  A vote may thus be called for.

The resolution expresses deep concern that 884 million people lack access to safe drinking water and that over 2.6 billion do not have access to basic sanitation.  It also expresses alarm that 1.5 million children under 5 years of age die and 443 million school days are lost each year from water and sanitation related diseases,

It also recalls the commitment by the world's political leaders through the Millennium Development Goals to halve, by 2015, the proportion of people unable to reach or afford safe drinking water, and to halve the proportion of people without access to basic sanitation, as agreed in the Johannesburg Plan of Action,

The draft resolution then “declares the right to safe and clean drinking water and sanitation as a human right that is essential for the full enjoyment of the right to life.”

It also calls upon states and international organizations to cooperate internationally to provide funds and technology to developing countries to “scale up efforts to provide safe, clean, accessible and affordable water and sanitation for all”

 It is not surprising that Bolivia's Ambassador Pablo Solon is leading the move at the General Assembly.  The present government of Bolivian President Evo Moales swept to power several years ago partly on the basis of a public protest against the previous government's move to privatise water services to a foreign company.

The public outcry was due to fears that this move would lead to increases in water charges and that people would have less access to water.

The water issue touches the lives of billions every day and the world needs a clear signal that water is an issue of the highest priority, said .Maude Barlow, chair of the Council of Canadians and a senior advisor on water to the previous President of the UN General Assembly

“When the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights was written, no one could foresee a day when water would be a contested area,” said Barlow, a passionate campaigner for what she calls “water justice”.

“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 two billion people live in water-stressed areas and three billion have no running water within a kilometre of their homes. Every eight seconds a child dies of a water-borne disease, in every case preventable if their parents had access to clean water and if adequate sanitation was available.”

The situation is getting worse as the world runs out of clean water.   A new World Bank reports says that by 2030, global demand for water will exceed supply by 40%.  This, said Barlow, is “a shocking prediction that foretells of terrible suffering.”

The move to make water a human right is thus very timely.  More than a third of the world’s population is already facing water scarcity.  Two billion people live in countries that are water-stressed and by 2025, two-thirds of the world population may suffer water stress, unless current trends alter.

Moreover there will be more conflicts over water as this resource gets more and more scarce.

Water scarcity has several causes.  The chopping of trees at hillsides and forests has damaged watersheds and caused soil erosion that clogs up the rivers.

Groundwater is severely depleted as water is taken up for agriculture and industry.  This has caused the water-table to drop in parts of many countries including India and China, West Asia, Russia and the United States.

Agriculture uses 70% of water because industrial agriculture requires large amounts of water. It takes 3 cubic metres of water to produce a kilo of cereals, and 15 cubic metres of water to produce a kilo of beef because of the grain fed to the cows.

A lot of surface water is also polluted and thus not available for human use, or if it is used, the polluted water causes health problems. Five million people die from water-borne diseases annually.

Water supplies are also being affected by climate change. Global warming is causing an accelerated melting of the glaciers and there will be less glaciers in the future.

If the UN does adopt the resolution, it should give a stronger push to policy makers to address all the factors that have led to this world water crisis.