News / 9 November 2009

Climate Change and the Right to Water

Take yourself on a trip back in time. Go to Mar del Plata, Argentina, in the year 1977. A high profile international conference is taking place under the auspices of the United Nations, full of hope and burdened with lofty aims. In that year, only 20% of the world's rural population in developing countries had access to safe drinking water.


At the conference, the world is relatively united around the importance of providing safe drinking water to the world's population, not only for its own sake, but also because 80% of all common diseases known to the world are water borne, and improving access to safe water will significantly boost global health and economic productivity. As a result of the Mar Del Plata declaration, the International Drinking Water Supply and Sanitation decade is announced, which intends to provide safe water and sanitation for everyone by 1990.

Zipping through time, let us go to 1990. An incredible 1.2 billion people have been provided with drinking water and 770 million people have been provided with sanitation. These achievements are being celebrated, but it is also recognised that population growth is proceeding at such a rate that this has not had much effect on the number of people without drinking water or sanitation. The global coverage rate of water services for instance increased from 75% in 1980 to 85% in 1990. However, many of the services provided during this period have broken down or are breaking down. Researchers are in the process of demonstrating that connecting a tap is not the same as having a service: investing in the people who manage a service, collect funds and maintain systems is crucially important. Internationally, commitment is being made to provide 'some for all' rather than 'all for some'.


Let's try again. Go to 2000, to the Millennium Declaration. More than 147 countries have agreed to commit to halving the number of people without access to safe water and sanitation by 2015. Clearly, the goals being set are much more sober than they were in 1977. At least the machine is up and running again and water and sanitation services are being delivered. But by now, it is becoming clear that neither states nor donors are making much progress in actually reaching the poor. 2.4 billion people still do not have access to adequate sanitation, and 1.2 billion do not have access to safe drinking water. Where services are provided, it is the low hanging fruit that is prioritised: periurban areas and small towns where people are easily reached help to boost the statistics that donors and states collect about their own progress. Also, it is emerging that the water sector is highly corrupt, and that funds are locked into all manner of complex bureaucratic processes but do not flow down to the local level where they are needed.


What is needed is non-discrimination, transparency and accountability on public and donor spending, so that those for whom the funds are intended have a say about how money is being spent and can participate in the planning of projects which are intended for no one other than themselves.


By 2002, this process has started to move. The International Committee on Economic Social and Cultural Rights has ruled that the right to life, which is a universal human right, includes the right to water. From this moment on, one country after another is officially recognising the right to water and takes steps to introduce the principles of non-discrimination, transparency, accountability and participation into national law. This is a huge step forward for civil society, as it is possible to push not only for pro-poor spending, but also to give the poor a voice in the shaping, monitoring and investigating of programmes developed on their behalf.


In 2009, a new problem is emerging. Climate change and widespread environmental destruction is unravelling the stability of the water cycle, resulting in regular droughts in some areas and excessive flooding in others. Plantation economies geared towards the export of water hungry crops to the rich west are claiming huge amounts of water for irrigation and polluting groundwater with pesticides. The security of access to water is being threatened from a new quarter, which is the fundamental way in which we interact with nature itself. Therefore, in the run up to Copenhagen, Both ENDs and its partners are lobbying for climate change to be included in the right to water. In every catchment area, enough water should be reserved to secure basic human needs, before the needs of the economy at large are satisfied, otherwise this would infringe on the basic human right to life. South Africa has already done this, and so has Indonesia. It is absolutely imperative that this concept of the basic needs reserve be written into the laws of all water scarce countries in order to protect the basic human right of human beings to water from being undermined from another direction.


For more information please contact our senior policy officer on the right to water and sanitation: Tobias Schmitz.


Photograph by: Hypergurl - Tanya


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