It's Time for the UN to Make Water a Human Right

Editor's Note: Maude Barlow is currently in the U.S. touring for her new book, Blue Covenant: Global Water Crisis and the Coming Battle for the Right to Water. Visit Food and Water Watch to see a list of cities and dates.

All over the world, groups who are fighting for local water rights are championing an international instrument on the right to water. Due to over-development and climate change, fresh water is becoming increasingly scarce. In addition, in many communities across the globe, people cannot get access to whatever clean water does exist without paying private corporations. The global water crisis is evident. We need a global solution in form of a United Nation Covenant on water.

For the past 15 years, the World Bank and the other regional development banks have promoted a private model of water development in the global South. This model has proven to be a failure. High water rates, cut-offs to the poor, reduced services, broken promises and pollution have been the legacy of privatization.

At the March 2006 4th World Water Forum in Mexico City, the UN cited the failure of privatization and called for governments to re-enter the water services arena. Calls for a UN Covenant to re-assert the crucial role of government in supplying water to the poor increased dramatically at the Forum and new impetus was given to this campaign.

Why a UN Covenant?

The fact that water is not now an acknowledged human right has allowed decision-making over water policy to shift from the UN and governments toward institutions and organizations that favour the private water companies and the commodification of water. These institutions include the World Bank and other regional development banks, the World Water Council, the Global Water Partnership and the World Trade Organization.

Not only have these institutions vigorously promoted the interests of the private water companies in the global South, they have ceded much political control over water policy to them. Many nations-state governments have gone along with this trend, allowing creeping privatization with little or no government oversight or pubic debate.

Behind the call for a binding instrument are questions of principle that must be decided soon as the world's water sources become more depleted and fought over:

  • Is access to water a human right or just a need?
  • Is water a common good like air or a commodity like Coca Cola?
  • Who is being given the right or the power to turn the tap on or off -- the people? Governments? Or the invisible hand of the market?
  • Who sets the price for a poor district in Manila or La Paz -- the locally elected water board or the CEO of Suez?

What is the Practical Use of a Covenant?

Would a Covenant on water solve the world's water crisis? Of course not. Almost two billion people now live in water stressed parts of the world and the situation is getting worse, not better. But it would set the framework of water as a social and cultural asset, not an economic commodity. As well, it would establish the indispensable legal groundwork for a just system of distribution.

A Covenant on the right to water would serve as a common, coherent body of rules for all nations and clarify that it is the role of the state to provide clean, affordable water to all of its citizens. Such a Covenant would also safeguard already accepted human rights and environmental principles.

It would also set principles and priorities for water use in a world destroying its water heritage. The Covenant I envisage would include language to protect water rights for the earth and other species and would address the urgent need for reclamation of polluted waters and an end to practices destructive of the world's water sources.

At a practical level, a right to water Covenant gives citizens a tool to hold their governments accountable in their domestic courts and the "court" of public opinion, as well as seeking international redress.

A Covenant could also include specific principles to ensure civil society involvement for conversion into national law and nation action plans. This would give citizens an additional constitutional tool in their fight for water.

Why should activists in the United States care?

No country needs to be held more accountable to this crisis than the United States. Many of the companies privatizing water are based in the United States and the United States is among the chief backers of the privatization strategy through the World Bank and other mechanisms. If we are to stop this crisis, the United States government must become part of the solution, not the problem.

In addition, water privatization is encroaching in U.S. communities, being fought back at every turn by citizens insisting that water is a basic right and should be free for everyone. A UN Covenant will help advance these struggles in the U.S. as well.

More broadly, it is essential that American activists push for greater recognition of international law and treaties in the United States. In the long run, this will not only help advance causes in the United States where the international community is leading and domestic lawmakers are lagging behind, but it will also help shift the political center of gravity away from the U.S. alone. U.S. policies should not be dictating the world's fate. We need robust international standards and communities of action so that the world's diverse peoples may, together, identify key problems and enact viable solutions.

Support among civil society groups around the world is growing rapidly and we are collecting the names of these groups for reference in the near future. For instance, a right to water convention has been adopted by Red Vida, the network of grassroots groups fighting for water justice all through the Americas. To become involved please go to the Blue Plant Project at the Coucnil of Canadian's Web site.

The right to water is an idea whose time has come. Let us make sure no future generation ever again has to suffer from the horrors of living without clean water.

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