Does the UN’s recognition of the right to water change anything ?

Two international resolutions

On 24th September 2010, the Council for Human Rights adopted the wording of a resolution that affirms that the fundamental right to drinking water and sanitation follows naturally from the right to a sufficient standard of living.  This followed a non-binding resolution voted by the UN General Assembly in July 2010 that affirms that the right to clean, healthy drinking water is an inalienable human right.  By these two texts, the right to water and sanitation is recognised politically and in law as a right deriving from another, but not as a right in itself. 

Symbolic progress

The members of the UN now recognise the right to clean, healthy drinking water.  The Council for Human Rights has anchored this right in the international conventions that relate to human rights.  However, these are not binding and the investments necessary to provide drinking water that is healthy, clean, accessible and affordable to all are the responsibility of the states – and this at a time when they are required to reduce their public expenditure and when poor governance is handicapping public services.

The contradiction of water provision being seen as a public good and as a tradable commodity is visible in the final wording of the Council’s resolution.  The states are free to organise the distribution of water and so can delegate it.  There are numerous states that delegate the management and distribution of water to external agents. These may be working groups of citizens who organise the distribution and billing of water in their district, but more often we are talking about multinationals who have turned this service into a profit-bearing exercise that brings with it the well-known disavantages of privatisation.

Nevertheless, article 9 of the resolution of Human rights Council requires states to ensure that the agent does not contravene the right to water and sanitation. In other words, this is not the duty of the private enterprise.  The trouble is that many states do not have the means to carry out this check.  Even more significant is the fact that the multinationals hold a strong position politically and influence (too weak a word) the governments.  

The battle is not over

The measures and means to apply this human right are in play right now, not just at a local level but also in the partnerships between Africa and the EU and the aid for climate adaptation. When the World Water Forum takes place in Marseilles, France, in March 2012 it will be the first time since the UN recognised this right.  Among those meeting there will be representatives of the UN, of states, of private enterprises - and the latter will control the financial reins, the organisation, and  consequently the orientations.

The grassroots reality

Guaranteeing the right to drinking water goes beyond its distribution. The vast majority of African urban populations use underground water from wells (70% in Liberia, 59% in Nigeria). The International Institute for the Environment and Development estimates that a third of African citizens depend on private wells.  In the country, the battle against the increasing rarity of surface and underground water sources also requires battle against land-grabbing and industrial scale agriculture, that are dangerously reducing the availability of clean drinking water.

As from now, it is vital to plan water management and to think of water as a common public good.  According to some statistics in 25 years’ time, nearly one African in two will be living in a country faced with water penury or stress because of the rapidity of population growth, economic development and climate change.

C. Fouarge

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