Is there a right to water?
Friday, December 26, 2008
The umbrella notion of human rights covers a wide range – religion, political choice and personal liberties, to name a few – but does it include the right to water?
The United Nations is considering the idea, one that comes loaded with controversy because it touches on globalized business, privatization, and poverty. Nothing looks simpler than cool, clear water. But it’s also a $300 billion industry, and 1 billion people have no regular supply.
Enshrining water as a right sounds innocent. But it carries multiple implications. On one level, such a right would put nations on notice to upgrade water systems to make sure all their citizens have access. It’s an inarguable ideal for a human necessity.
But it also carries a political undercurrent. Such a right would be a powerful signal to international water companies such Veolia, Suez and RWE (all based in Europe) that their attentions are unwelcome in developing countries. These poor nations are prime targets as their leaders wrestle with the costs and engineering needs to improve outdated pipes, dams and spigots. In this setting, water shifts from a everyday need to an economic issue.
Poor nations, the real audience for the water-as-a-right campaign, have experienced a confusing spin cycle of rich-country ideas. First, foreign aid failed to improve water deliveries, as weak governments weren’t up to the task of rebuilding. Then a new wave of aid from the World Bank and the United Nations came with a condition: Here’s the money, but it needs to be handled by private companies with the management and experience to pull off an infrastructure rebuild.
This overture fell apart when rates jumped and governments failed to anticipate or explain the changes. Bolivia kicked out the San Francisco-based engineering giant Bechtel after riots in 2000 over a rise in water rates. Other protests took place in Mali, Uruguay, Argentina and South Africa.
This sour experience has led to the U.N. showdown in the General Assembly, whose president has named Maude Barlow as a senior adviser on water policy. She is a Canadian anti-globalization activist and longtime opponent of privatizing water systems.
With this recent history before the United Nations, the stage is set for a bruising fight. Or the debate could curve in a more practical direction. Private ownership of water supplies does not need to be an all or nothing proposition.
Globalized business is here to stay, and major corporations with experienced staffs should be tapped – under the right circumstances. There could be terms and conditions that modify and oversee operations, allowing outside operators a stake while home countries keep control over a vital resource that can’t be left solely to the marketplace.
Chasing off private operators is self-defeating. Disease from bad water, dried out farmlands, and prospects for business growth will all worsen unless more “blue gold” is found for life and prosperity.
As the United Nations studies making water a human right, it should avoid ideological extremes. Privatization isn’t the enemy in making the water flow.
This article appeared on page B – 8 of the San Francisco Chronicle