Why Can't the U.S. Guarantee the Most Basic of Human Rights -- the Right to Clean Water?


The prime obstacle to guaranteeing a human right to water in international law has been the U.S. federal government, which also, by the way, opposes human rights to food and housing.

It is this somewhat surprising political dynamic that makes AB 1242 by California Assemblymen Ira Ruskin, D-Los Altos, so significant. The legislation, which establishes the right of every Californian to have clean water for basic human needs, passed a key state Senate committee in early July and may just be heading toward Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's desk this fall.

The concept of a human right to water is a hot topic at the United Nations and in international circles. Multinational companies are beginning to endorse the concept, with PepsiCo making a proclamation supporting the human right to water this past March.

What does a human right to water really mean? AB 1242 is a great first step, but the one-page bill is short on specifics.

"The language included in AB 1242 is typical of that used by organizations and campaigns around the world declaring a legal human right to water," said Jeff Conant, International Research and Communications Coordinator for Food and Water Watch, one of the sponsors of the state legislation. It is up to state and local agencies to figure out how to "operationalize" this compelling concept.

"In a capitalist system, scarcity creates value," Conant explained. "But when it comes to water, scarcity causes death." He went on to say "the market is good for allocating some things, but it is not good for others. We are not anti-corporate per se but are just trying to balance out the market fundamentalists."

Society appears to be facing a global crisis in water supply as 1 in 6 people -- more than 1 billion humans -- do not have adequate potable water to meet their most basic survival needs. These facts have spurred efforts to enshrine the human right to water at the United Nations and in the national constitutions of South Africa and Ecuador.

Jonathan Kaledin, director of the Nature Conservancy's global freshwater program, observed that the "human right" to water was a hot topic at the World Water Forum held In Turkey this past spring. "Personally, I think it is a fundamental right -- we can't live without it. But how we get there is a Rubik's Cube."

Water may become the next oil, but is even more important since it is our most basic and needed resource, he said. Due to government subsidies over the past few decades, the U.S. has a first-rate water infrastructure. Because of grants for waste-water projects, these services were priced artificially low. Kaledin noted that when gasoline prices are above $4, people buy hybrids. When the price is low, they buy SUVs. "Water is undervalued and priced incorrectly. We need to reach a balance in order to send the right market signals, but also include safety nets to address social-equity issues," he concluded.

A Crisis in California

The California legislation was introduced in response to conditions in the Central Valley that are much more common in the developing world. Here, where undocumented Latino farmworkers make up a large share of the population, safe, affordable and clean water is hardly a given. In these communities, more than 90 percent of drinking water is sucked from contaminated groundwater.

In Delano in Kern County, the water is undrinkable altogether, yet poor residents pay between $20 and $45 per month for it. All told, more than 150,000 California residents lack safe water for drinking, bathing and washing dishes; even more have water service disconnected because they cannot afford to pay their water bills.

The question of how to implement such a human right to water policy is a good one; there is no agreed-upon checklist for recognition of implied or new human rights in international law. The prime opponents of AB 1242 -- California public water agencies and municipal utilities -- worry that they will come up short on the revenue side if this law requires them to provide water for free.

Many environmental activists, such as the Natural Resources Defense Council, and even the federal Environmental Protection Agency, support the notion of charging market prices for water in order to provide incentives for conservation. But the dilemma is this: the more water that is conserved, the less revenue for public water providers.

On top of that, California does not have a universal statewide lifeline water rate or allocation -- similar to our lifeline rates for energy and phone service -- so when costs become excessive, families cannot pay their bills and, thereby, they risk losing water service entirely.

While the arid West -- including California -- has always suffered from more severe water challenges than the rest of the U.S., experts say 36 other U.S. states will experience local or regional water shortages over the next five years. Californians and many other states will likely face escalating water bills to pay for facilities to treat contamination and to upgrade aging infrastructure.

Many supporters of AB 1242 are concerned about the cost implications for disenfranchised citizens, particularly California's low-income Central Valley residents.

AB 1242 does not delve into any of these water-pricing issues. And if the truth be told, most public water systems do provide safe, clean and affordable water. The issues facing the Central Valley are much more common in the developing world and China, where, oddly enough, multinationals can be better at cleaning up their acts than local governments or local businesses.

International Debate Rages On

On the international stage, much of the discussion about a human right to water is wrapped up in the legal mechanics of treaties and policies at the United Nations. Patricia Jones, program manager for Environmental Justice of Unitarian Universalist Service Committee, favors the concept of an "International Bill of Human Rights" that would be composed of direct obligations and treaties that would make the human right to water both explicit and implicit.

Jones was intimately involved with persuading PepsiCo to endorse a human right to water earlier this year. The operations of beverage companies, including Coca-Cola and Nestle Waters, have become a lightning rod for activists pushing the rights of local citizens to safe, clean water, worrying that their water rights might be trumped by profit-seeking corporations.

"We are Unitarians," Jones said, "and one of our core teachings is to speak truth to power, and that's why we are working with the economic power structure. It is really important to work with the private sector."

And while the human-right-to-water movement gains momentum in the public and private sectors, another water-related conundrum looms.

"Water is the sexy topic, but the real crisis is in sanitation," said Thorsten Kiefer, a human rights expert with Bread for the World, a 50-year-old German nonprofit organization. According to his figures, 2.5 billion people do not have adequate sanitation services, and roughly half of these unfortunate souls "have no place to go to the bathroom," which means they go on roadsides, railroad tracks and other public places.

On top of that, roughly the half of the world's population that lacks decent sanitation services get sick regularly, limiting attendance at school, hampering education, and what we in the West consider normal lives. Because this issue is so taboo, nothing gets done.

"There is no great PR if a politician announces a new latrine," Kiefer said.

It may be that the litigious nature of the U.S. is a cultural factor explaining this nation's opposition to a human right to water, and as well as sanitation and even human rights for children. Many have said that the election of Barack Obama has, so far, not had a major impact on the perspective of U.S. representatives on the international stage. And that since these human rights are not explicitly referenced in our Constitution -- which is more focused on civil rights like free speech and the right to bear arms -- adopting such a policy at the U.N. may not have much real impact. Others, such as supporters of AB 1242, strongly disagree.

"As fresh-water supplies reach a crisis point, activists, water agencies and corporations may appear to be on a collision course," said Bill Shireman, president of the San Francisco-based Future 500, which specializes in stakeholder engagement. "Once you move beyond some of the rhetoric, it appears to me the divisions on issues such as pricing and lifeline rates are not irresolvable. I believe key stakeholders are within reach of one another on many principles and practices."

Shireman may be an optimist. AB 1242's general affirmation of the human right to water is intended to address a specific challenge regarding groundwater contamination and access to affordable water in Central California. But it is also part of a much larger conversation, exposing the U.S. as a major laggard when it comes to legal endorsements of human rights.

Will California help the U.S. change course and join the parade?

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