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Right to Water Still a Political Mirage

Thalif Deen

UNITED NATIONS, Jul 23 2011 (IPS) - When the international community commemorates the first anniversary of a historic General Assembly resolution recognising the right to water and sanitation as a basic human right, there will be no joyous celebrations in the corridors of the United Nations, come Jul. 28.

“I think member states have been slow to react,” complains a highly- disappointed Maude Barlow, national chairperson of the Council of Canadians, one of Canada’s largest citizens’ organisations promoting social and economic justice.

“I know my own government has still not endorsed it, and still says – incorrectly – that the General Assembly resolution was not binding,” Barlow told IPS.

The landmark resolution was adopted by the 192-member General Assembly on Jul. 28 last year, and two months later, was endorsed by the 47-member Human Rights Council in Geneva.

Barlow, a former senior U.N. adviser on water and who chairs the Washington-based Food and Water Watch, said, “I think the most significant progress was the adoption of a second resolution by the Human Rights Council.”

Not only did the second resolution lay out the responsibilities of governments to realise this newly recognised right, because it was based on two existing international treaties, but it also clarified that the General Assembly resolution is now binding, she added.

“The human right to water and sanitation is now as binding as any other (resolution) ever adopted by the United Nations,” Barlow noted.

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

The United States abstained and so did some of the European, as well as 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.

Fleur Anderson, international campaign coordinator for the London- based End Water Poverty, told IPS that despite the U.N. resolution, the water and sanitation crisis has continued for another long year.

“And the problem is not water scarcity or climate change but choices by governments not to fund water and sanitation provision for every community,” she said.

She said millions of ordinary people around the world could have life-changing water services by next year, “and we keep pushing our governments to treat this as the emergency situation which it is.”

Anderson said campaigners for End Water Poverty welcomed the recognition of the right to water and sanitation, and this has led to an increasing number of ordinary people around the world wanting to speak out and claim their right.

But the sanitation Millennium Development Goal (MDG), to reduce by 50 percent the number of people without access to adequate sanitation by 2015, is from being reached so far, she noted.

And governments need to take far more bold action and increase spending on sanitation to one percent of gross domestic product (GDP).

Otherwise these rights will remain meaningless for the parents of the 4,000 children who die every day from diarrhoea caused by lack of sanitation, said Anderson.

The ‘Sanitation and Water For All‘ partnership has the potential to prove a leadership by governments and civil society in providing the increased funding, coordination and better planning needed, but governments and member states need to step up to this challenge.

“If the ‘business as usual’ approach to sanitation continues, the sanitation MDG won’t be met for another 200 years, and this makes a mockery of the fine commitments to the right to water and sanitation,” she added.

John Sauer of Water for People told IPS that from the U.S. perspective, there has been a step forward in the appointment of a Global Water Coordinator, Christian Holmes.

Also they took another step by signing the Memoradum of Understanding (MOU) with the World Bank on World Water Day. These are two good steps, he said.

Sauer said while certainly more progress is needed, some countries have taken this forward.

For example, in Liberia, they’ve done a base line survey of all of their rural water points. The government of Liberia and the World Bank’s Water and Sanitation Programme used a monitoring and evaluation platform called FLOW, which Water For People helped to create as a part of this base line survey process.

This has helped feed into a national plan that is right now before the President of Liberia, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, Africa’s first woman president and a former assistant administrator of the U.N. Development Programme (UNDP).

“All of this has been supported by the new coalition Sanitation and Water for All, which I think is where you should look to ask and see progress of the implementation on the Human Right to Water,” Sauer said.

It is particularly important that Liberia has taken all of these steps given that the president of Liberia is head of the African Water Ministers Council. She is certainly trying to set a good example, said Sauer.

Asked what civil society plans to do in ensuring the implementation of the U.N. resolution, Barlow told IPS, “Our global water justice community has been working hard on the next steps.”

“Essentially we are working to create a domestic plan of action in as many countries as we can and most will include lobbying their governments to write its plan of action for submission to the U.N. Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights and for this plan to clearly spell out how the government will meet the three required obligations (to respect, to protect, and to fulfil),” she said.

The Council of Canadians also plans to campaign governments to adopt the right to water and sanitation into their own constitutions, thereby removing this fundamental right from the whims of changing political parties.

Additionally, the Council seeks to enlarge the traditional view of a human right from the individually-centred one, currently used at the United Nations, to one that is more inclusive of cultural and collective realities.

“We also want the right to water and sanitation to include the rights of water itself and the rights of watersheds to be protected from extractive industries and corporate and government pollution,” Barlow said.

The Council will also target women and indigenous peoples, as well as the most marginalised, for priority services.

It will campaign globally for the wealthy governments of the North to increase their foreign aid and target it to water and wastewater infrastructure investment in the global South and continue to promote water and wastewater delivery systems that are public and not-for- profit.

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