Civil Society, Development & Aid, Environment, Headlines, Latin America & the Caribbean

LATIN AMERICA: Communities Should Go to Court Over Water

Emilio Godoy

MEXICO CITY, Oct 28 2011 (IPS) - Local communities in Latin America should go to court more often to fight for access to drinking water, regarded as a universal right, and combine legal action with social protests and political lobbying, experts say.

Geomembranes to collect and filter rainwater. Credit: Emilio Godoy/IPS

Geomembranes to collect and filter rainwater. Credit: Emilio Godoy/IPS

“People have already realised that legal action can be used as a last resort, because judges are less tainted by politicisation,” said Javier Gonzaga, a member of the Environmental Conflicts Observatory at the state University of Caldas in Colombia.

“Courts are accepting lawsuits related to water rights, and legal confirmation makes those water rights enforceable,” Gonzaga told IPS during a break in the Third Annual Meeting of the WATERLAT network, made up of researchers in Latin America and the Caribbean studying governance and citizenship in water management and environmental health.

Mexico provides a precedent, as in September a federal court ruled in favour of a resident in the community of Xochitepec in the central state of Morelos, about 100 km south of Mexico City, that had been without water services since the 1980s.

As a result, 100 poor families were able to get access to water in an area where luxury homes exist side by side with waterless neighbourhoods.

“Our first goal was fulfilled, because we wanted to have a judge recognise the right to water,” María Emanuelli, the delegate from the regional office of the Habitat International Coalition (HIC), told IPS. She was attending the Oct. 24-26 meeting in Mexico City on “the struggle against water inequality and injustice in Latin America and the Caribbean.”

“It is one approach that can be used, although not the only one,” she said.

Last year the United Nations General Assembly approved a resolution recognising access to water as a basic human right, which was made binding a month later by the Human Rights Council. Member countries must reform their legislation to be in compliance.

Thirty-four countries in the Americas committed themselves to legislate in accordance with the principles of the declaration.

By 2020, over half the region should have reduced inequality in access to drinking water and doubled the proportion of water that is treated.

Countries like Argentina, Bolivia, Ecuador and Uruguay have already incorporated the universal right of access to water in their constitutions, as well as amendments declaring water resources to be a public good.

“The water crisis is social, political and institutional in nature, not about scarcity or appropriate technology,” the coordinator of WATERLAT, Esteban Castro, told IPS.

“The overall trend in water conflicts is towards demanding water governance and management,” said Castro, a professor in the School of Geography, Politics and Sociology at Newcastle University in the U.K.

In Mexico, 30 percent of households lack piped drinking water, and a further 15 percent are supplied with potable water every three days by other means, according to the National Institute of Statistics and Geography.

In Uruguay, by contrast, there is almost universal access to drinking water, which is enjoyed by 98 percent of the country’s 3.3 million people, according to official figures. And in Ecuador, water is supplied to 96 percent of the urban population and 74 percent of people living in rural areas.

In the southeastern Mexican state of Veracruz, people in eight municipalities have organised a Committee called “Defensa Verde, Naturaleza para Siempre” (Green Defence, Nature Forever) to oppose the construction of the El Naranjal hydroelectric complex, which would involve diverting the Blanco river. The power station is designed to generate between 305 and 360 megawatts, making it the ninth largest in the country.

“The complex would reduce the flow of water in the river by 92 percent,” Beatriz Torres of the University of Veracruz, which supports the Committee, told IPS.

“People are afraid about flooding, the possible break-up of communities and the availability of water,” she said after participating in the Mexico City meeting.

A 1948 decree banned concessions for water use in the Blanco river basin, but this was repealed by the national government in 2006 in order to make way for projects like El Naranjal.

Local people opposing these projects, who are mainly coffee and sugarcane farmers, are hoping to be as successful as the communities affected by the La Parota dam in the southern state of Guerrero, whose protests have managed to block work on the dam since 2009.

The warnings by environmentalists and academics are particularly important because at least seven hydroelectric projects in Mexico are facing local opposition.

“A combination of different strategies, social protests, lawsuits and political action is needed. Demanding a constitutional reform is important,” said Gonzaga. The Mexican Congress rejected a proposal for a referendum to guarantee the right to water.

But a proposal for a constitutional amendment on water rights is pending in Mexico, as well as a reform of the 1992 National Water Law.

“The Water Law should be modified in a year’s time. We hope the spirit of the U.N. declaration (that water is a human right) will permeate the new law,” said Emanuelli.

WATERLAT’s Castro criticised the construction of large infrastructure works that jeopardise people’s right to water.

“The present conflicts are to protect water from pollution, to protest against the imposition of large construction projects and against insufficient protection against risks, and to defend water resources as a common good,” he said.

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