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Access to Water: A Human Right or a Human Need?
ISTANBUL, Turkey, March 27, 2009 (ENS) - Twenty countries have officially challenged the Ministerial Declaration released Sunday at the close of the week-long World Water Forum because it defines water as a human need rather than as a human right.

Latin American states played a key role in gathering signatures on a counter-declaration that recognizes access to water and sanitation as a human right and commits to all necessary action for the progressive implementation of this right.

Countries that signed the counter-declaration are: Bangladesh, Benin, Bolivia, Chad, Chile, Cuba, Ecuador, Ethiopia, Guatemala, Honduras, Morocco, Namibia, Niger, Panama, Paraguay, South Africa, Spain, Sri Lanka, Uruguay and Venezuela. Switzerland has declared its support although a formal signature is expected to take months to finalize.

The U.S. delegation, led by Daniel Reifsnyder, deputy assistant secretary of state for environment and sustainable development, took the position that "there is at present no internationally agreed right to water or human right to water, and there is no consensus on what such a right would encompass," according to State Department spokesman Andy Laine.

Dan Reifsnyder has served in the State Department under both Bush administrations. (Photo courtesy ENB)

The Ministerial Declaration was not open to negotiation at the World Water Forum as negotiations on the statement were concluded at a preparatory meeting held in Paris on March 3 and 4.

Laine told ENS that during the preparatory process the United States did oppose language that would have recognized water as a human right.

"The United States does not oppose any government adopting a national right to water or sanitation as part of its own domestic policy. We do, however, have concerns with a statement that would require all countries to adopt a national right to water or sanitation or would establish an international right to water or sanitation," Laine said.

"Establishing an international right to anything raises a number of complicated issues regarding the nature of that right, how that right would be enforced, and which parties would bear responsibility for ensuring these rights are met," said Laine. "To date, there have been no formal intergovernmental discussions on these issues. It would therefore be premature to agree to such a right."

Other governments supporting the principle of water as a human need, rather than are human right, are Brazil, Canada, Egypt and the European Union.

Nongovernmental organizations and the United Nations have mounted a campaign to lobby governments to recognize water as a human right.

In Istanbul last Friday, Philipp Terhorst of Transnational Institute, speaking for the European Water Network, criticized the recent EU Parliament’s resolution that fails to recognize the human right to water.

The Washington, DC-based NGO Food and Water Watch asked its members to send emails to their Congressional representatives urging them to support water as a human right. Their appeal counters the State Department position, saying, "While it has been argued that there is no international consensus on the existence of a right to water and sanitation, such rights have been enshrined in two ministerial-level declarations of the United Nations."

Maude Barlow (Photo credit unknown)

Maude Barlow, a Canadian national who serves as senior advisor on water to UN General Assembly President Miguel D’Escoto, delivered a statement from him in Istanbul. D’Escoto was clear, “Water is a public trust, a common heritage of people and nature, and a fundamental human right. ... We must challenge the notion that water is a commodity to be bought and sold on the open market. Those who are committed to the privatization of water ... are denying people a human right as basic as the air we breathe.”

"We must work quickly to guarantee that access to drinking water constitutes a fundamental right of all peoples," said D'Escoto.

The UN president also questioned the legitimacy of the forum itself. His speech stated, "The forum's orientation is profoundly influenced by private water companies. This is evident by the fact that both the president of the World Water Council and the alternate president are deeply involved with provision of private, for-profit, water services."

He added that future forums should, "conduct their deliberations under the auspices of the United Nations."

The Forum is staged by the World Water Council, a French-based organization whose funding comes in part from the water industry.

Barlow, who is also the national chairperson of the Council of Canadians, delivered the president's message to the People's Water Forum, a counter-forum held by hundreds of civil society members from nearly 70 countries whose voices have not been at the formal World Water Forum. The speech was later released to the World Water Forum, which was attended by 25,000 delegates from 150 countries.

At Jiftlik on the West Bank, Oxfam plans to build a reservoir connected to this four inch-pipe to increase the amount of water reaching the village's 800 households. (Photo by Sarah-Eve Hammond courtesy Oxfam)

"This is a victory for all our groups who have been working for over 15 years for water to be recognized as a human right," said Barlow.

Pope Benedict XVI last July called for recognition of the right to water. In his message to the international exposition on Water and Sustainable Development Spain, the pontiff said, "The use of water, which is regarded as a universal and inalienable right, is related to the growing and urgent needs of people who live in destitution, taking into account the fact that limited access to potable water has repercussions on the wellbeing of an enormous number of people and is often the cause of illnesses, sufferings, conflicts, poverty and even death."

Some 880 million people do not have access to clean drinking water, while 2.5 billion people do not have access to sanitation, the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development said in a report last week.

The World Business Council for Sustainable Development, which represented major corporations in Istanbul, said Thursday that the linkages between water, energy and climate change, as well as their connections with food were important topics of discussion at the Forum and they must be addressed immediately.

"There was much more business representation, participation and collaboration in Istanbul than at the previous World Water Forum in Mexico in 2006, which is encouraging," said ITT Corporation's Björn von Euler, WBCSD Water Project co-chair. "Now the time has come to translate all this interest into action."

While avoiding the subject of water as a human right, business spokespeople advised policymakers to integrate water, energy food and climate change policies.

James Griffiths, managing director of water, forests and ecosystems at the WBCSD, said, "It is time to link water, energy, food and climate change in global climate negotiations, for governments and other groups to engage with business and tap into its expertise; and for public-private partnerships to be set up to solve some of the world's most pressing water problems."

The Ministerial Declaration listed a set of non-binding recommendations, including greater cooperation to ease disputes over water, measures to address floods and water scarcity, better management of resources and curbing pollution of rivers, lakes and aquifers.

The World Water Forum is held every three years - the next meeting is scheduled for 2012.

Copyright Environment News Service (ENS) 2009. All rights reserved.

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