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Why the Right to Water Is Under Attack

World leaders are trying to roll back momentum that would instill the right to water as an essential human right.
 
 
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Last week, even as the world celebrated  World Water Day, some countries at the United Nations were trying to remove the reference to the “right to water” from a document that will guide the international development path in the coming decade.  

It was less than two years ago, in the summer of 2010, that the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) adopted a  resolution recognizing water as a human right. This was followed by the United Nations Human Rights Council (UN HRC) adopting a  resolution on “human rights and access to safe drinking water and sanitation,” which made these rights legally binding. The recognition of the right to water at these U.N. bodies, and the developments since, such as the appointment of a Special Rapporteur on right to water and the  resolution by the World Health Assembly recognizing right to water, have helped place water rights on the global agenda.

These successes were partly the result of collective efforts of water justice activists over the last 10 years. IATP's own advocacy on right to water was a direct response to the reference to water as a “need” [instead of a right], in the Ministerial Declaration of the 2nd World Water Forum in 2000.

But these efforts have been met with consistent pushback. The efforts to undermine the recognition of the right to water have been most visible at the triennial World Water Forum. Starting with the second World Water Forum in 2000, it has steadfastly refused to recognize the right to water. This was the case at the third World Water Forum in 2003 (which followed the U.N. General Comment in 2002 on right to water), at the fourth World Water Forum in 2006 (where several governments led by Bolivia asked that the Ministerial recognize water as a human right) and at the fifth World Water Forum (to which the UNGA president sent a letter affirming the need to recognize water as a human right, and at which 24 governments came out with counter-declaration recognizing water as a human right).

And yet again, in the lead up to the sixth World Water Forum earlier this month (March 12–17, 2012), the draft ministerial declaration did not clearly affirm the right to water despite the fact that it has now been recognized by both by the U.N. General Assembly and by the U.N. Human Rights Commission. Expressing her surprise, the Special Rapporteur on right to water  warned that “the outcome of the World Water Forum may result in ‘solutions’ built on faulty foundations.” This is surely a pointed reference to the slogan of the sixth forum that "It’s time for solutions and commitments.”

Instead of unequivocally reaffirming the “the human right to safe drinking water and sanitation,” and explicitly committing to the full implementation of the same, the draft ministerial declaration only committed to accelerate the full implementation of “human right obligations relating to access to safe drinking water and sanitation.” The issue of whether access to safe drinking water and sanitation is a human right was left open for interpretation.

To many groups in civil society it was clear that the draft Ministerial Declaration fell short of commitments that virtually all UN Member States had already made in multiple fora. Over 40 international and national networks and organizations issued a joint  call to the 6th World Water Forum asking that “human right obligations relating to access to safe drinking water and sanitation” be replaced by “the human right to safe drinking water and sanitation,” or failing that they abstain from endorsing the declaration.

Unfortunately the Ministerial Declaration of the World Water Forum that came out on March 13 neither took account of these suggestions nor paid attention to the  warning by civil society groups that “a Ministerial Declaration containing retrogressive language on the right to safe drinking water and sanitation would still set a negative precedent, which a small number of States will use to try to undermine progress on the right to safe drinking water and sanitation at the United Nations level and in other international processes.”