27 May 2006

Blue Gold, and the Right to Water

Last Thursday evening, Maude Barlow came to OISE to speak about what is one of the most pressing issues facing our world today, namely the commoditization, and privatization of water. The Canadian Catholic Organization for Development and Peace, in conjunction with the ecumenical organization for justice initiatives, Kairos, is sponsoring a campaign for global access to water. As part of the campaign, they have asked municipalities throughout Canada to sign on to the Water Declaration:
  • Water is a sacred gift that connects all life;
  • Access to clean water is a basic human right;
  • The value of the Earth’s fresh water to the common good takes priority over any possible commercial value;
  • Fresh water is a shared legacy, a public trust and a collective responsibility.
Maude Barlow spoke about the twin issues of the depletion of clean water resources and disruption of the natural hydrologic cycle, the “militarization” of water resources, especially in emerging economies, and the effects of the ideology of the primacy of global capital as it pertains to the most basic of human rights: the right to survive.

Fully two-thirds of the world’s population do not have access to sanitation and clean water. This is not only an ecological crisis, but a crisis of injustice and equity. In many villages, the standpipe that provided the only ready source of potable water has been commercialized – locked out by a meter that requires significant payment (relative to income) to access. Villagers are forced by poverty to either travel great distances for water, or worse, to resort to dirty, disease-ridden sources. Those who cannot pay are cut off, with the resultant rise in sanitation-related diseases, such as cholera and chronic diarrhea. As Barlow describes it, this is not merely a problem for the so-called Third World – there is a First World in the Third World, a tremendously privileged class with an increasing share of an emerging country’s wealth, and a Third World in the First World: last year, over 40,000 people in Detroit, for example, had their water cut off for lack of payment. This subsequently resulted in families having their children abducted by social services agencies for the family’s inability to provide the necessities of life that had been cut off by commercial interests. A crisis of injustice and equity, indeed!

What is perhaps more frightening is the interruption of the natural hydrologic cycle, that results in the permanent loss of fresh water from the planet. Because of the massive, uncontrolled industrialization in emerging countries, combined with lassitude in developed countries’ environmental regulations, both surface water and ground water are becoming polluted at alarming rates. For example, 90% of ground water beneath urban centres in China is polluted. California is said to have less than 20 years of fresh water left in springs and aquifers; New Mexico, a scant 10 years. Here in Canada, the Athabasca Oil Sands project depletes fresh water resources at the rate of one unit of water for every unit of oil produced. And that water is lost to the hydrologic cycle forever.

The bottled water and soft drink industries are taking up ground water at a greater rate than it can be replenished; indigenous water sources that have supplied rural areas for millennia are being diverted to urban areas and commercialized. This has resulted in the so-called militarization of water by companies such as Suez and Vivendi. Snow melt in South America, for instance, is being captured in commercial plants that are built as armed fortresses. Locals are forced to either purchase what has been for all of history, nature’s gift, or succumb to illness and possibly death. Bolivia successfully managed to throw out Suez as the usurper of its water resources (that was initially brought into the country by a previous government as one of the onerous, neo-colonial conditions set by the World Bank). Even when such companies agree to conditions that would nominally alleviate some of the problems by committing to develop projects for the social good, such as sanitation and sewage-treatment plants, they invariably do not fulfil those commitments, and remove millions of dollars from local economies, leaving thousands of people thirsty, sick, and dying.

It has become a strategy of the privileged and powerful to commercialize water globally. What started for Maude Barlow as a special report has now become a book. In it, she calls for the fundamental human right to water, delivered by a government, or governmental agency, not to be denied by a person’s inability to pay:
The right to water is the entitlement of everyone to access to sufficient, affordable, accessible and safe water supplies and sanitation services. It places an obligation on states progressively to realise the right to water for all people without discrimination and on the basis of equality between men and women.

The right to water is a fundamental human right in itself, necessary to fulfil basic needs such as hygiene and sanitation. It is also essential for the realisation of other human rights, including the right to food, the right to health, the right to an adequate standard of living and, perhaps most obviously, the right to life.

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1 comment:

Anonymous said...


I'd like to participate in your June course on organizational theory. Tried your regular email and it didn't go through. Please email me so I can reply.

Pauline Rothstein (from IFI)