An Update on Water Politics

April, 2009

How much should water for personal and household needs and sanitation cost? How should these services be provided?  These questions are fundamental to a woman’s ability to provide clean, sufficient and affordable water for her family. When water is considered a commodity with the price set by the market, only those that can afford water at any price will have access. 

In the developing world, millions of women and young girls must spend hours collecting and carrying water that often is unsafe and insufficient for personal and household needs. Even more time is often spent to collect fuel to boil water for drinking, cooking and personal hygiene. Such essential daily chores restrict their choices and opportunities for education and work, most often to supplement meager family incomes. 

In the U.S., many communities, especially communities of color and poor communities have on-going problems with quality water and sanitation. Over the past few years in Detroit with a majority of poor African-American residents, there have been water shut-offs as documented in the movie FLOW in South Africa. Now Detroit residents are organizing to pass a law that the City must make water affordable and stop shutting off the water of low-income people.

Water a Human Need – Provided by For-Profit Corporations? On March 22, the Ministers or representatives of the more than 100 countries attending the World Water Forum in Istanbul, Turkey, released their final statement saying: “We recognize that access to safe drinking water and sanitation is a basic human need.”  This non-binding statement was agreed to even though representatives from France, Spain and some Latin American countries and tried to change the text, but were blocked by China, India, Brazil and the United States. At the same time, the Ministers or their representatives of more than 20 countries signed a Declaration of Government for the Human Right to Water in opposition to the World Water Forum’s Ministerial Declaration that water is a human need stating: We recognize that access to water and sanitation is a human right and we are committed to all necessary actions for the progressive implementation of this right.

In addition, sixteen countries signed a statement calling on states to develop a global water forum within the context of the United Nations based on the principles of democracy, full participation, equity, transparency and social inclusion.”  Switzerland and Norway may sign following their own parliamentary processes, and the African Union, made up of 53 countries, has indicated support.  Many states that signed, particularly in Latin America and Africa, had first-had experienced of privatization by multinational water corporations with large rate increases, poor service and water quality, and water shut-offs.  As we reported earlier (link to Peace and Freedom, Fall 2007, Vol. 67, No. 2: “Water Justice and Democracy: From Dream to Reality,” p. 4ff). Uruguay, Bolivia, and now Ecuador, in particular, have enshrined water as a right in their constitution.

Water a Human Right – Provided as a Non-Profit Public Service?
On March 19, 2009, the global water justice movement held a one-day People’s Water Forum where Parliamentarians and Ministers of governments spoke alongside global activists.
Father Miguel d’Escoto, President of the 63rd UN General Assembly, was blocked from reading his statement to the 5th World Water Forum when his request to speak was ignored by Forum organizers. Maude Barlow, senior advisor to Father d’Escoto, read his statement to the People’s Water Forum criticizing the World Water Council and the World Water Forum and calling upon the UN member states to implement a process leading to a legitimate global water forum under UN auspices. This statement had a huge impact on governments and on the forum itself.

On March 22, World Water Day, the People’s Water Forum Declaration was released declaring water a human right and a central component of the global commons. The statement continues: we reject all forms of privatization and declare that the management and control of water must be public, social, cooperative, participatory, equitable, and not for profit.

Take Action: Please sign WILPF’s On-line Petition endorsing the “Human Right to Water.”

By Nancy Price, WILPF Save the Water Committee

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