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U.N. Declares Water and Sanitation a Basic Human Right

Thalif Deen

UNITED NATIONS, Jul 28 2010 (IPS) - When the United Nations General Assembly adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) back in December 1948, 58 member states voted for a historic document covering political, economic, social and cultural rights.

A young girl in Côte d'Ivoire fills a family water clay pot from a nearby well refurbished by UNICEF to make clean water accessible to villagers. Credit: UN Photo/Ky Chung

A young girl in Côte d'Ivoire fills a family water clay pot from a nearby well refurbished by UNICEF to make clean water accessible to villagers. Credit: UN Photo/Ky Chung

On Wednesday, nearly 62 years later, a widely-expanded 192- member General Assembly adopted another memorable resolution: this time recognising water and sanitation as a basic human right.

The resolution proved politically divisive, with 122 countries voting for it and 41 abstaining, but with no negative votes.

Still, it fell short of a North-South divide: a rich-versus- poor split, as originally expected.

The United States abstained, as did some of the European and industrialised countries, including Britain, Australia, Austria, Canada, Greece, Sweden, Japan, Israel, South Korea, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Denmark, and Ireland.

But several developing nations, mostly from Africa, also abstained on the vote, siding with rich industrial countries. These included Botswana, Ethiopia, Kenya, Lesotho, Zambia, Guyana, and Trinidad and Tobago.

Ambassador Pablo Solon of Bolivia, representing a country that spearheaded the resolution, said human rights were not born as fully developed concepts, but are built on reality and experience.

The human rights to education and work, included in the UDHR, evolved over time with the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights.

“The same will occur with the human right to water and sanitation,” he predicted in a statement to the General Assembly Wednesday.

Speaking on behalf of the United States, John Sammis told delegates his country had hoped to negotiate and ultimately join consensus on a text that would uphold and support the international process on water and sanitation currently underway in the Human Rights Council in Geneva.

“Instead, we have here a resolution that falls far short of enjoying the unanimous support of member states and may even undermine the work underway in Geneva,” he cautioned.

“This resolution described the right to water and sanitation in a way that is not reflective of existing international law; as there is no ‘right to water and sanitation’ in an international legal sense as described by this resolution,” he said.

In a statement released after the vote, Maude Barlow, board chair of Food and Water Watch, and Wenonah Hauter, the group’s executive director, said: “Our network of allies have been fighting for over 10 years towards achieving a legally binding recognition of the human right to water at the United Nations.”

While the resolution is non-binding, it is a crucial first step to providing clean water and sanitation to all, the statement added.

Barlow and Hauter described the final vote “as an amazing and surprising victory for water justice”.

According to the United Nations, nearly two billion people live in water-stressed areas of the world and three billion have no running water within a kilometre of their homes.

Sahana Singh, editor of Asian Water, a leading monthly magazine on water and wastewater, told IPS: “I think the concept of water as a human right is enshrined within the right to life itself.”

“We all know that there is no life without water. No more time should be wasted on drafting new laws and resolutions,” Singh said.

In developing countries, where implementation of laws is already such a big problem, it makes little sense to push for more laws which will only be relegated to dusty files, said Singh, who has closely followed the water sector in the Asian region for the past 10 years.

An engineer turned editor, Singh pointed out that unless clearly specified upfront, the right to water could be taken to mean that water should be free or nearly free.

In fact, many argue that it is the improper pricing of water which has led to the whole problem of this life-giving liquid being under-valued, wasted and polluted.

“It has led to a situation where millions of litres of water are lost daily due to leakages from pipe networks. Would such a situation be allowed to exist with oil pipelines?” she asked.

The point to note is that the governmental authorities of Singapore, Manila, Phnom Penh and others, which understand the benefits of providing water and sanitation to all their citizens, are working hard to do so even without water being declared a human right.

On the other hand, the irresponsible governments which have done little for existing rights, such as the right to equality or the right against exploitation, are certainly not going to implement any more new rights, she warned.

“What we need to focus on is how to make the mostly public water utilities of the world function in an effective and transparent manner,” Singh said.

The utilities need proper management, financial autonomy, training and support from peer groups, she argued. And they need to be allowed to charge appropriate tariffs in order to recover their costs and plow the money back into improving their services.

They need to have their performance benchmarked against other well-performing utilities so that they know where they need to improve. All this cannot happen just by declaring water as a human right, Singh declared.

Anil Naidoo, of the Canada-based Blue Planet Project, which was at the forefront of the campaign, told IPS Wednesday’s resolution had the overwhelming support of a strong majority of countries, despite a handful of powerful opponents.

“It must now be followed up with a renewed push for water justice. We are calling for actions on the ground in communities around the world to ensure that the rights to water and sanitation are implemented,” Naidoo said.

Governments, aid agencies and the United Nations must take their responsibilities seriously, he declared.

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  • Alain Bastien

    Our country Human Right Commission (Mauritius) does not recognise Water as a human right despite our representative voted for

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