World Water Day 2012: does water count as a human right?

Access to safe water and sanitation was declared a human right by the UN’s General Assembly in July 2010. A surprising eighteen EU Member States abstained from voting. The main problem faced by governments is that a large proportion of the water supplies are privately owned; some in public-private partnerships, and some solely private. The private ownership of water suggests that it is ok to make a profit out of the resource. However, if water access to water is a human right, then it should not lead to a private profit.

Abstaining and (by implication) rejecting access to safe water and sanitation as a human right seems incredible. The declaration of Human Rights, which states that human rights involve the ‘recognition of the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family…’ was signed by all members of the UN, and therefore to ignore what surely should have been included as a human right initially is ridiculous. There are droughts across the world, and Europe is no exception. In December of last year, there was not enough water in the Danube to meet the cooling requirements of power plants, causing a significant reduction in its power output. Large regions of England are currently in the midst of a drought as are Spain, Portugal and France.

The decision to label water as a need, instead of a right, is purely an economic one, allowing water to be treated as a commodity, allowing private water companies to take control over pricing.

The most extreme example of privatisation led to the 2000 Cochabambawater wars in Bolivia. The World Bank had refused to renew a $25 million loan unless the water was privatised, which led to a price hike by 35 per cent – those earning $100 per month were paying $20 for water. This led to the protests which shut down the city’s economy.  The Bolivian government declared a state of emergency.  Finally, the government terminated their contract with Aguas de Tunari (the consortium led by Italian-owned International Water Limited, and US-based Bechtel Enterprise Holdings) and returned to public ownership. The water wars claimed several lives, including that of Victor Hugo Daza, who was shot by a military sharpshooter in civilian clothing.

The case of the Cochabamba water wars is an extreme example of the problems of privatisation of water, making it a ‘need’ not a ‘right’. Within the EU, the situation may not cause protests, but privatisation is a growing issue, with big companies profiting, while consumers absorb the cost of a rapidly crumbling infrastructure, excessive leaks, and unaccountable management.

The EU is currently attempting to remove the references to water as a human right from the Rio +20 Zero Draft text in line with a European Parliament vote rejecting  a motion stating that ‘…water…should not be a source of profit and that access to water should constitute a fundamental and universal right’.  The text below shows a leaked copy of an EU proposal for an amendment to the Rio +20 Zero Sum draft. The strike through is text removed and the text in bold are the insertions planned by the EU.

‘[Water]
67.       We underline the importance of the right universal access to safe and clean drinking water and sanitation as a human right that is essential for the full enjoyment of life and all human rights. We commit to achieving universal access to safe drinking water and basic sanitation by 2030. Furthermore, we highlight the critical importance of integrated water resources management for sustainable development, including poverty and hunger eradication, public health, food security, hydropower, energy, agriculture and, rural development as well as for maintaining biodiversity and ecosystem services.’

Not all of the proposed changes are negative, however the concerning element is the removal of the references to human rights.

The part of the amendments which we are concerned about is the removal of references to access to safe water being a human right as this essentially detracts from the UN declaration that access to safe drinking water and sanitation is a human right. This highlights the European attitude to liberalisation and prompts worrying questions over the control of water in Europe. With the European Commission investigating price fixing by three French water companies, it is clear that Europe is not safe from water worries.

Overall, it is incredible that one of the most developed economic blocs in the world is unable to consider a basic requirement to human life as a human right. Water is not included in either the European Convention on Human Rights or the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union. With the threat of droughts becoming an increasingly serious reality, Europe cannot afford to have its water supply controlled by corporations. World Water Day could not come at a more embarrassing time for the EU.

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About Isabel Skrine

Isabel started as a Programme Assistant on Sustainable Energy Security for the Quaker Council for European Affairs in October 2011.
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