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Canada must acknowledge international recognition of right to water

New York City — In an impassioned speech to the UN General Assembly today, Bolivian Ambassador to the UN, Pablo Salon highlighted the dire situation of the global water crisis by snapping his fingers three times to indicate that a child dies every three and a half seconds from drinking dirty water. He urged the world take action by voting in favour of a resolution presented by Bolivia and co-sponsored by 35 states calling on the UN General Assembly to recognize water as a human right.

Canada decided to sit this crucial moment in human history out. Asked to take an important step towards justice for the three billion people without running water within a kilometre of their homes, Canada –one of the world’s wealthiest countries with one of the largest supplies of freshwater — chose to abstain.

Sadly, considering its record of actively obstructing the recognition of the rights to water and sanitation at key UN meetings, this was actually a step forward for Canada. It was in fact a relief that Canada had chosen not to put forward motions to change the language, delay the vote or demand that the decision be made by consensus – all options we had heard were being discussed by a handful of countries opposing the resolution.

Fortunately, Canada was in the minority. 124 countries voted in favour of the resolution.

It was an honour to share the moment with colleagues Maude Barlow and Anil Naidoo. Maude has made the right to water her life’s work having written two books on the issue and having served as senior advisor to the 63rd president of the UN General Assembly. During her term she worked tirelessly to convince governments like Bolivia to take this step. Anil Naidoo has played a key role in coordinating the efforts of a global network of water justice activists. Along with other water justice activists, he spent the weeks leading up to the vote urging governments to support the resolution.

The three of us sat in the balcony of the General Assembly, our hearts pounding as we watched history being made.

We are aware that the coporate lobby had worked hard to derail the process and failed. At a time when the rights of corporations are deeply entrenched in trade treaties and predatory loan conditionalities have prevented governments from the global south from building and maintaining public infrastructure and social safety nets, this is a key victory. Despite opposition from powerful governments including Canada, the U.S., the U.K and Australia, the majority of UN member states, primarily from the global south forged ahead to have drinking water and sanitation officially recognized as human rights at the UN.

It is not the be all and end all for water justice in the world, but it does represent an international commitment to address the failure of governments to provide safe clean drinking water and sanitation to such large segments of the world’s population.

But this is only the beginning. There are still those states, Canada included, who will chose to ignore the significance of this vote. In fact Canada would rather see water as a commodity or a tradable good as it is defined in the North American Free Trade Agreement. Canada is currently negotiating a trade agreement with the European Union in which it is peddling access to water and sanitation services for European corporations as an incentive. Alberta is poised to deregulate its water allocation system by creating a market where water licenses can be bought and sold with little public oversight granting oil corporations greater access to water resources to the detriment of Alberta’s growing population.

It is crucial now that communities in Canada use this opportunity to hold our government accountable to the international commitment to recognize water and sanitation as human rights. We must demand legislation at home to ensure that these rights are enjoyed by all peoples of Canada without discrimination. It is time for Canada to do something about the deplorable condition on First Nations reserves that have lacked access to safe drinking water and adequate sanitation for generations.

Canada may have abstained but that does not absolve it of its responsibilities. As water justice activists, this is an opportunity for us to highlight these responsibilities and demand that our government fulfill them.

Blog post written by Meera Karunananthan, National Water Campaigner, Council of Canadians