Water as a human right
Yet water is the irreplaceable basis of all life on earth, and therefore the access to water must formally be recognised as a human right. At the end of 2002 an expert commission in the UN formulated this as follows:
Water is a limited natural resource and a public good fundamental for life and health. The human right to water is indispensable for leading a life in human dignity. It is a prerequisite for the realization of other human rights.
The human right to water entitles everyone to sufficient, safe, acceptable, physically accessible and affordable water for personal and domestic uses. An adequate amount of safe water is necessary to prevent death from dehydration, to reduce the risk of water-related disease and to provide for consumption, cooking, personal and domestic hygienic requirements.
The adequacy of water should not be interpreted narrowly, by mere reference to volumetric quantities and technologies. Water should be treated as a social and cultural good, and not primarily as an economic good. The manner of the realization of the right to water must also be sustainable, ensuring that the right can be realized for present and future generations.
(UN, 2002, Economic and Social Council, Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, The right to water (Articles 11 and 12 of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, General Comment No 15 (2002) E/C.12/2002/11).
Meanwhile in Belgium there is a consensus about the fact that the access to water is best insured by considering water as a public good that better remains in the government’s hands. This is best proved by the water resolution "access to water for everyone", accepted on 14 April 2005 by the plenary meeting of the Chamber of People’s Representatives. After a campaign of 11.11.11, the cupola of the Flemish North-South movement, the Flemish municipalities (60 %) and provinces (80 %) too came to support this resolution.
"The right to water for everyone" was not incorporated into the ministers’ final declaration of the World Water Forum in Mexico (March 2006). On the one hand this was due to the fundamentally rejecting attitude of the US, and on the other hand to a number of developing countries who do not wish to have water supplies as a legal obligation in their country, since they cannot realise it anyways because of lack of resources (e.g. South Africa).
Nonetheless the general tendency of the World Water Forum was to consider "water is a right for everyone". Now even the water actors from the private sector declared this so.
Germany and Spain push the most to recognize water as a human right
In November 2006 Germany and Spain encouraged the newly formed Human Rights Council to have the OHCHR (the Office of the United Nation High Commissioner for Human Rights) made a comprehensive study on the recognition of drinking water as a human right.
The High Commissioner has presented his report to the General Assembly of the UN on the 13th of August 2007. Although the commissioner urges the UN to continue its considerations to recognize drinking water and sanitation as a human right, he also points out various, mostly legal issues that need to be clarified, but he also especially calls upon the member states to change the lack of attention for this subject on an international level.
During a “side-event” of the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva on 14 September 07, Germany and Spain further engaged to do something about this topic and to accelerate the recognition of drinking water and sanitation as a human right. They call upon other countries to give the necessary attention to the report, and to effectuate heavy lobbying as well, so that a decision would be made on the next Council’ meeting in March 2008 to start a special procedure for the definitive recognition of drinking water and sanitation as a human right.
According to the spokesman of the German government, Dr. Uschi Eid, “water” and “sanitation” are inextricably connected in this topic. The provision of pure drinking water can not be seen without the draining and treatment of waste water and excrements for the improvement of the general level of hygiene.
Dirt water and insufficient hygiene and sanitation provisions cause 80% of the diseases in developing countries and result in more deaths than Aids.
Therefore 2008 has been declared the “International year of sanitation” by the General Assembly of the UN.
UN Resolution ‘Drinking water is human right”, a step forward - July 28th 2010
The General Assembly of the United Nations adopted on July 28 2010 a resolution declaring clean and safe water and sanitation a human right. Although this resolution is non-binding, it has a significant political meaning. The debate in the international community has in the last 15 years been sometimes quite contentious, and for the first time ever, nobody voted against the proposed resolution to recognise drinking water and basic sanitation as a human right.
Today, 900 million people lack access to safe drinking water in their neighbourhood, and 2.6 billion live without decent sanitary infrastructure. Waterborne diseases like diarrhoea yearly kill more than 3 million people, most of them children under 5 years. These diseases are also prohibiting children from going to school.
The Millennium Development Goal (MDG) to reduce, by 2015, by half the proportion of people lacking access to drinking water will probably be achieved. However, large regional differences do persist: the situation in Sub-Saharan Africa is rather bad.
The predictions for the MDG concerning basic sanitation are looking really bad. This MDG strives as well to reduce by half the proportion of people without basic sanitation, but at the present pace, this target will be missed by 1 billion people.
122 countries voted in favour
The UN resolution was introduced by Bolivia with Yemen as co-sponsor. It was supported by 122 countries, among which China, the Russian Federation, Egypt, France, Spain, Germany and Belgium.
There were no votes against.
41 countries abstained, among which the United States of America, Canada, Turkey, Israel, the United Kingdom and the Netherlands.
A lot of the abstaining countries argued that this resolution could undermine the preparatory work within the Geneva-based UN Human Rights Council. The independent UN expert Catarina de Albuquerque is working on the issue of human rights obligations related to access to water and sanitation. Her report, expected in 2011, should be the basis to come to a binding decision on the right to water and sanitation.
Other abstaining countries said the text of the resolution is too vague, that not enough responsibility is laid with the national governments, and that there is a lack of international laws supporting the right to water.
Germany - within the EU together with Spain the strongest supporter of the right to water – voted in favour of the resolution although they would have preferred a stronger message to all countries stipulating their responsibility in this matter. Germany invited countries to actively support the process going on in the UN Human Rights Council.
Belgium voted in favour, but regretted together with many other countries the fact that consensus could not be reached, necessitating a recorded vote. Belgium regretted as well that some important suggestions by the European Union had not been included in the text. In March 2010, the 27 Member States of the European Union implicitly recognized the right to water.
Although non-binding, the adoption of this resolution sends a strong signal to the international community. Developed countries and international agencies should provide (more) financial and technical support to developing countries, to help them scale up efforts to provide safe and clean water and basic sanitation.
Participants in the debate on the right to water do have hidden agendas… Some rich countries are considering selling their water resources as a commodity, which is rather contradictory in the context of water being a human right. Other countries fear that the resolution would give tools to their own population to use against them.
PROTOS is promoting the recognition of drinking water as human right since its creation. Although everyone in Belgium has access to drinking water, it would be nice to write this right down in the constitution. In this case, Belgium would set an example to other countries.