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Is Access to Clean Water a Basic Human Right?

By Yigal Schleifer
The Christian Science Monitor
March 19, 2009

Istanbul, Turkey - With fresh water resources becoming scarcer
worldwide due to population growth and climate change, a
growing movement is working to make access to clean water a
basic universal human right.

But it's a contentious issue, experts say. Especially
difficult is how to safely mesh public-sector interests with
public ownership of resources and determine the legal and
economic ramifications of enshrining the right to water by law.

"It's an issue that is snowballing," says Tobias Schmitz, a
water-resources expert with Both Ends, a Dutch environmental
and development organization. Some 30 countries have a
constitutional or legal provision ensuring individuals' access
to water, up from a handful a few years ago, he says.

"Everybody is grappling with the issue, knowing that we need
to secure this right. But the question now is over the
practical application of this right," Dr. Schmitz says.

Government officials and leaders of numerous nongovernmental
organizations and companies working on the water issue are
meeting this week in Istanbul as part of the World Water
Forum, which takes place every three years in a bid to shape
global water policy.

One of the thorniest issues governmental officials at the
forum have struggled with has been this question of the right
to water. A declaration to be signed by the ministers of some
120 countries attending the forum is expected to refer to
access to water as a "basic need," rather than a right.

The United States along with Canada, China, and several
other nations has so far refused to recognize the human
right to water.

There are concerns among some countries based on a
misconception, experts say that enshrining a universal right
to water would force them to share their water resources with
other nations.

China, for instance, is struggling just to provide its rising
population with enough water. Rapid industrial growth and
urbanization have taken a toll on the country's water supply,
with underground sources quickly drying up.

Water usage in the country has quintupled over the past 50
years, forcing China to turn to massive and environmentally
unfriendly engineering projects such as diverting water from
rivers in order to meet demand.

An estimated 1 billion people worldwide lack access to safe
drinking water and United Nations officials warn that the
situation could get worse if current patterns of water use continue.

"Unless we change our water consumption behaviors, we will
face a major crisis in fresh water," Koichiro Matsura,
director-general of the UN Educational, Scientific and
Cultural Organization (UNESCO), said at the forum, following
the launch of a new UN report on the global water situation.
Experts in water issues say that providing citizens of a
country with a legal right to what is deemed to be a minimally
adequate amount of safe water would be an important way of
mitigating the effect of any looming water crises.

"This is not a semantic issue. If we can determine that water
is a right, it gives citizens a tool they can use against
their governments," says Maude Barlow, a senior adviser on
water issues to the president of the UN General Assembly.
"If you believe it is a human right, then you believe that you
can't refuse to give it to someone because they can't afford
it," she says.

In South Africa, for example, the 1996 Constitution guarantees
access to "sufficient clean water" as a basic right, which has
allowed individuals to take legal action when their water has
been cut off.

A landmark 2006 ruling determined that inability to pay is not
a good enough reason to cut someone's water off. The South
African courts have also determined that every household must
be provided with a minimum of 6,000 liters (1,585 gallons) of
water per month, even if they can't afford it.

"You have pressures on both sides, between those who are
pro-poor and those who are pro-development, but that has
forced us to be innovative," says Rosalie Auriel Manning, a
former board member of two large public water providers in
Durban and Johannesburg. "It's a balancing act; you have to be clever."

Even the private sector, whose involvement in supplying water
in certain parts of the world has proved to be both
controversial and poorly received, is now embracing the
concept of a human right to water.

"There is absolutely no conflict between the right to water
and the private sector. Our industry supports the right to
water," says Gerard Payen, president of AquaFed, an
international federation of some 200 private water operators
operating in over 30 countries.

"But we are practitioners, and as practitioners, we know that
proclaiming the right to water is not enough," he adds. "Our
job is to deliver water to people."

Delivering that water is certainly big business. Worldwide
annual water-related investments are estimated at $400 billion
to $500 billion.

Critics of the private sector say they are not opposed to its
involvement in delivering water, as long as control of
resources remains in public hands.

In some countries, like India, rights to water resources have
been sold outright to private companies, which use them for
their own needs or sell the water to individual users.

"There's a huge role for the private sector to help us secure
our water future, but it has to be within this notion that
water is a public trust," says Ms. Barlow, of the UN. "It's
not the market that should decide who has access to water. It
should be a public trust and a public right."



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