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Citizen-Led Groups Leading the Way for New Water Policy

From Latin America to Africa, a growing moving is helping to ensure water is a human right.

With the onset of climate change deepening the world water crisis, discussions about how to manage our water systems, which once seemed wonky, are suddenly attracting increased public attention.

"Unlike oil, there's no substitute for fresh water," says Maude Barlow, senior advisor on water to the president of the United Nations General Assembly. "We all need it." This dawning recognition of the indispensability of water has raised the profile of a number of groups arguing that we should treat water as a common good. Put simply, this idea means that water is no one's property -- and everyone's. It is part of the commons, rightfully belonging to all of humanity, nature and to the earth itself.

Across Latin America and Africa, consumer, human rights, and environmental organizations have campaigned successfully for constitutional amendments and laws enshrining water as a human right. At the recent World Water Forum in Instanbul, 25 countries signed a declaration affirming that same right (the official declaration weakly suggested that it was simply a human need). Here in the United States, a bi-partisan group of Vermont legislators working with the citizen's group, Vermont Natural Resources Council, enacted legislation to protect the state's groundwater. The 2008 law declares groundwater a public trust and requires industries to acquire permits for withdrawals of more than 56,000 gallons a day.

Yet it remains an uphill battle to shift policies and public consciousness to ensure that water is managed as a commons that belongs to everyone. This work is made more difficult by the fact that the principal venue for global water policy discussions is not the United Nations but the World Water Forum, a mostly pro-privatization, tri-annual gathering of government delegations, non-governmental organizations, international financial institutions, and private industry representatives. It is convened by the World Water Council, a French non-profit whose board of governors is dominated by the powerful water industry.

At the latest World Water Forum meeting March 16 to 22 in Istanbul, the dominant view of water-management issues prevailed. Whether discussing the Parisian water system or problems in South African townships, the prescription was the same: full cost recovery, which means that agencies, even public ones, that provide water must recover the full costs associated with delivering the service. This leaves the door wide open for privatization of our water. Increasingly pro-water-privatization development agencies, such as the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), are insisting that consumers pay more for water.

Full cost recovery policy is immoral, claim organizers of the People's Water Forum -- an alternative to the World Water Forum advocating that water to be managed as a commons for all rather than a commodity for the profit of a few. Water commons activists point out that the full cost recovery strategy is applied only selectively. Poor users who consume the least amount of water bear a disproportionate burden of the cost. A better system would use progressive taxation programs to support public water systems just as they do public schools.

Consider the example of the Finnish company Botnia, operating in Uruguay. Its production of cellulose products consumes 80 million liters of water per day, using a large percentage of the daily output of Uruguay's public utilities at a low, subsidized price. Similar regressive anti-conservation subsidies are found throughout the world -- especially in the United States -- where irrigation water is priced far below cost, a boon for water intensive agribusinesses and a blow to family farmers.

Unlike air, it costs money to deliver clean water, so it's necessary to put a price on its management while taking care not to turn the water itself into a commodity. But the largest users -- and the wealthiest ones -- should pay their fair share and subsidize water use by the world's poorest families.

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