The Right to Water

The right to
water was affirmed by the UN General Assembly today. 122 countries
voted in favor, none against, and 41, including the United States
and Canada abstaining.

Over two billion people live in water-stressed regions, and more
than one billion live without safe supplies of drinking water.
Unfortunately for them the UN vote may not have much practical
meaning. And while the inclusion of the right to clean water in the
Universal Declaration of Human Rights has no legal standing;
 it is  an important political step forward in the
resolution of a growing global issue, the access to clean safe
drinking water.  

The 192-nation body approved a resolution put forward by Bolivia
and signed by 33 other states to add access to water to its human
rights declaration.

Humanitarian and political dimensions of the right to water
issue dominated pre-vote discussions and lobbying, but there are
important business dimensions at stake as well.

A report issued in November last years by the 2030 Water
Resources Group shows that one-third of the world’s population
would have a 50% deficit in water supply by 2030 if no action is
taken, but that growing water scarcity can be mitigated affordably
and sustainably if action is taken now.

The report states that the growing competition for scarce water
resources represents a growing business risk, a major economic
threat, and a challenge for the sustainability of communities and
the ecosystems upon which they rely. It is an issue that has
serious implications for the stability of countries in which
businesses operate, and for industries whose value chains are
exposed to water scarcity.

The humanitarian dimensions of the right to water issue were
highlighted recently by former Soviet Union President Mikhail
Gorbachev. In an opinion piece published in the New York Times he
stated “Water, the basic ingredient of life, is among the world’s
most prolific killers. At least 4,000 children die every day from
water-related diseases. In fact, more lives have been lost after
World War II due to contaminated water than from all forms of
violence and war.”

Gorbachev singled out the United States and Canada as among the
very few developed nations that had not formally embraced the right
to safe water, and urged U.S. President Barack Obama to extend his
championship of human rights and sustainable development around the
world into support for access to water as a human right.

Maude Barlow, National Chairperson of the Council of Canadians
and former advisor to the UN on water issues noted “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.”

An in-depth analysis of the world’s water resources published by
target=”_blank”>UN Water, a special United Nations initiative
identifies water as the primary medium through which climate change
influences the Earth’s ecosystem and thus the livelihood and
well-being of societies.

Higher temperatures and changes in extreme weather conditions
are projected to affect availability and distribution of rainfall,
snowmelt, river flows and groundwater, and further deteriorate
water quality, it notes.

Water stress is already high, particularly in many developing
countries; improved management is critical to ensure sustainable
development. Water resources management affects almost all aspects
of the economy, in particular health, food production and security;
domestic water supply and sanitation; energy and industry; and
environmental sustainability. If addressed inadequately, management
of water resources will jeopardize progress on poverty reduction
targets and sustainable development in all economic, social and
environmental dimensions.

The href=””
target=”_blank”>resolution on water as a basic human right as
drafted by Bolivia says internationally endorsed water rights would
‘entitle everyone to available, safe, acceptable, accessible and
affordable water and sanitation.’ It declares that countries unable
to deliver water to their populations - despite their best efforts
- should be helped through ‘international co-operation and

This is a clear signal for increased aid to the Third World for
water development initiatives from more developed economies.

One of the economic dimensions motivating the Bolivian draft was
that country’s disastrous experiment with the privatization of
water services. 

Two concessions for the control of water to private companies
 in Bolivia - part of a condition of a World Bank loan of
US$20 million to the Bolivian government in 1997 - were rejected
through popular uprisings. Protests escalated to the point that the
Bolivian government declared a state of martial law, and eventually
the companies involved were forced to abandon their operations.

Notwithstanding that economic and social factors such as
political corruption and in the case of Bolivia a pre-existing
public anti-privatization sentiment that contributed to the failure
of water privatization in that country, the pricing of water in the
developing world is recognized as a critical factor in realizing
the UN’s Millennium Development Goals pertaining to water.

The href=””
target=”_blank”>UN Water report stresses five key requirements
that the global community will have to address in the years

1. Planning and applying new
investments (for example, reservoirs, irrigation systems, capacity
expansions, levees, water supply, wastewater treatments, ecosystem

2. Adjusting operation, monitoring
and regulation practices of existing systems to accommodate new
uses or conditions (for example, ecology, pollution control,
climate change, population growth).

3. Working on maintenance, major
rehabilitation and re-engineering of existing systems (for example,
dams, barrages, irrigation systems, canals, pumps, rivers,

4. Making modifications to processes
and demands for existing systems and water users (for example,
rainwater harvesting, water conservation, pricing, regulation,
legislation, basin planning, funding for ecosystem services,
stakeholder participation, consumer education and awareness).

5. Introducing new efficient
technologies (for example, desalination, biotechnology, drip
irrigation, wastewater reuse, recycling, solar panels).

The overall cost to address these challenges is staggering. The
2030 Water Resources Group report suggests that closing the future
“water gap” will cost $50 billion to $60 billion per year of
investment by expanding measures already being taken in some
communities to boost efficiency, augment supply, or lessen the
water-intensity of the economy.

But it too noted that in the world of water resources, economic
data is insufficient, management is often opaque, and stakeholders
are insufficiently linked. As a result, many countries struggle to
shape implementable, fact-based water policies, and water resources
face inefficient allocation and poor investment patterns because
investors lack a consistent basis for economically rational

Indeed the question of pricing what in many cases has been a
free good is fraught with complexity and is looked at with dread by
politicians the world over.

Water will be a key topic of discussion at the GLOBE 2012
Conference, scheduled for March 14th to 16th 2012 in Vancouver


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