All States Must Acknowledge the UN's Recognition of Water as a Human Right

It is crucial now that we use this opportunity to hold governments accountable to the international commitment to recognize water and sanitation as human rights.


In an impassioned speech to the UN General Assembly on July 28, Bolivian Ambassador to the UN, Pablo Salon highlighted the dire situation of the global water crisis by snapping his fingers three times to indicate that a child dies every three and a half seconds from drinking dirty water. He urged the world take action by voting in favour of a resolution presented by Bolivia and co-sponsored by 35 states calling on the General Assembly to recognize the human right to water and sanitation.

Representatives of powerful states more inclined to call the shots had their noses out of joint due to the fact that such a significant resolution had been introduced by 35 countries from the global south. Despite opposition from the U.S., the U.K. and their allies, the resolution passed with the support of 122 countries representing more than 5 billion of the world's population.


To have water and sanitation recognized as a universal human right by the highest international authority was nothing short of a coup for global water justice activists who have worked together for over a decade in the face of water shortages, corporate takeover of community water resources, privatization of services leading to rate hikes and cut offs for the poor. It was a momentous occassion for environmental advocates, small farmers, indigenous communities, labour activists, anti-poverty groups and others who had been calling for a global solution to the water crisis.

Last year one of them, Canadian water activist and author Maude Barlow, was asked to serve as senior advisor on water to the 63rd President of the UN General Assembly, Miguel D'Escoto. D'Escoto, a former Sandinista revolutionary, was keen on shaking things up. Barlow spent her year raising awareness on the global water crisis and demanding justice for more than one billion people without access to safe clean drinking water and nearly 2.5 billion without access to sanitation. She urged for recognition of the human right to water and sanitation as an important first step.

Her work was acknowledged on the floor of the General Assembly as countries supporting the resolution declared they would no longer sit idly by as water scarcity and the lack of adequate infrastructure took the lives of millions.

The United States, the United Kingdom, Australia, New Zealand and Canada were among those states that decided to sit out during this crucial moment in human history. Asked to take an important step towards a solution for the three billion people without running water within a kilometre of their homes, the world's wealthiest and most powerful countries chose to abstain.

Sadly, considering a past record of actively obstructing the recognition of the rights to water and sanitation at key UN meetings, this was actually a step forward for countries like the U.S. and Canada. It was in fact a relief that they did not put forward motions to change the language, delay the vote or demand that the decision be made by consensus.

Even they did not dare tell the world they did not consider water - the essence of all life - to be a fundamental right. Instead they pointed to inadequacies in the process and other technical details to justify their failure to support the resolution.

According to inside sources, the coporate lobby had worked hard to derail the process and failed.

It was no coincidence that the effort was led by Bolivia. Ten years ago, Bechtel, an American water corporation was forced to abandon its operations in Cochabamba, Bolivia after massive city-wide protests against the corporation's astronomic rate hikes had left many without access to drinking water. The battle became a model for communities struggling to regain control of water services around the world.

On July 28, Bolivia took that victory one step further.

At a time when the rights of corporations are deeply entrenched in trade treaties and predatory lending mechanisms have prevented governments from the global south from building and maintaining public infrastructure and social safety nets, it was a colossal step forward.

But this is only the beginning.

There are still those who will chose to ignore the significance of this vote. It is crucial now that communities around the world use this opportunity to hold governments accountable to the international commitment to recognize water and sanitation as human rights. States that abstained must be reminded that their abstention does not absolve them of their responsibilities.

Don't let big tech control what news you see. Get more stories like this in your inbox, every day.

Meera Karunananthan is the national water campaigner at the Council of Canadians -- a Canadian social justice organization working with communities around the world for water, trade and climate justice.