Mar 22 2009
ISTANBUL, March 22 – The leaders of the World Water Forum decided once again not to declare that access to water is an inalienable human right.
As the fifth of the triennial Forums of government officials, business leaders and members of non-governmental organizations closed here Sunday, the water organization said it would continue to debate the pros and cons of the human rights issue.
More than 25,000 people from more than 190 countries attended the week-long conference. Maude Barlow, a water advocate from Canada and others, held an alternative conference across town and condemned the World Water Forum as being closely aligned with business, to the detriment of the poor. Officials of the Forum did not respond and Ms. Barlow remained on the sidelines.
One World Water Forum official said that the human rights issue, which has been on the agenda since the first Forum in 1997, had gained momentum this year, but not enough to put it over the top.
“A large majority of participants recognize the right to water as a human right,” the official said. “However several countries refused to give water that status” again this year.
In addition, most of the business people at the Forum continued to be against the issue.
Water experts say that businesses and most countries around the world have been working to prevent water from being endorsed as a human right by groups like the World Water Forum and from becoming a part of international law.
“If water is a human right the countries have to provide it,” said one United Nations official. “The private sector wants to make business. But if water were a human right, businesses would be limited in how much they could charge.”
Governments and business contend that they are working hard to get water and toilets to people who do not have them. But neither wants to sign a written agreement on water that might make them vulnerable to legal claims from people who could contend that they had not received adequate water. South Africa’s constitution asserts that water is a human right and diplomats here said several lawsuits over water have been filed against the Pretoria government.
About one billion people around the world do not have regular access to clean drinking water and 2.5 billion have no toilets. Corporations contend that only they have the money to take on substantial water projects. Critics of business, however, say the private water companies often price water beyond the reach of the poorest people.
The United States and Canada are among the countries contending that recognizing water as a human right could possibly pose requirements that they could not fulfill. About 30 countries favor recognizing water as a human right, including Germany, Britain, Uruguay, Bolivia and several other Latin American countries.
In one of the main wrap up sessions Sunday, Jack Moss of Business Action for Water, a group of international businesses dealing in water, said that his members had been “pleased to have participated in the rich debate” on water and human rights and added: “It is clear the debate must go on.”
In their final declaration, the leaders of the World Water Forum steered clear of controversy. Instead, they appealed “to all national governments, international organizations and other stakeholders to generate a common vision and framework to develop and manage water resources in a sustainable manner and to guarantee access to safe water and sanitation for all.” Their declaration, of course, was non-binding and imposed none of the legal requirements that would be imposed if access to water were ever legally recognized as an inalienable human right. #