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Multiple crises highlight need for international law to protect the water commons

Humanity is at a critical moment in our relationship to the planet. After decades of mass consumption of resources, with little thought to the sustainability of our actions, we are now facing multiple crises. Climate change highlights our inability to responsibly manage the commons, but just as concerning is the global water crisis or our inability to protect dwindling freshwater supplies and allocate them equitably and responsibly.

Unequal allocation and lack of access to clean water has created a crisis of sanitation. The raw numbers are shocking, further pointing to a profound impact on overall human dignity and suffering. The UN estimates that 1.4 billion people have no access to clean water. While 2.6 billion people in the world live without toilets and bathrooms and are often forced to defecate in waters from which they retrieve water for drinking. It is little wonder that 2.2 million people, mostly children under 5, die every year from diarrhoeal diseases.

The humanitarian crisis around water also directly relates to a concurrent environmental crisis. Drought, desertification and pollution are dominant threats in many parts of the world. These pre-date climate change, but are also exacerbated by its impact. Massive lakes such as Lake Chad and the Aral Sea have all but disappeared. Major rivers, such as the Yellow, Rio Grande, Amu Dary, Syr Darya, Jordan, Tigris and Euphrates struggle to reach the ocean. Groundwater is hidden but fully exposed to these same degradations and exploitation as the major fossil aquifers in the world are depleted yet cannot be replenished.

Despite the need for good water governance, in the face of the crisis, there is no overarching homogenous water policy, legislation or laws to protect the water commons. This is apparent in the lack of a global water convention and many countries, with Canada at the forefront, still continue to deny a human right to water. It is also apparent in the subtle takeover of the good offices of our UN agencies by private corporate actors and also of the World Water Forum being run by these same private interests. There is a growing movement challenging this undue and dangerous influence by those who would exploit our water commons for profit. This movement is known as the Global Water Justice Movement.

This movement is promoting solutions to these seemingly unassailable challenges. These solutions pre-date many of the false solutions being promoted and are living examples in communities most affected by lack of access to clean water. To find out more about these there is a case studies document highlighting the commons available on the Blue Planet Project website. These show many countless examples of systems which to ensure equal access and sustainability of water resources through informal governance structures, often based on indigenous or traditional systems. We must pay more attention to these examples than our current focus on market-based means of dealing with allocation issues. From the Acequia system in Mexico and the Southern US, to the River Parliament and rainwater harvesting in Rajasthan, India, people and communities are showing the way forward to a sustainable and just future.

If we allow what amounts to a modern enclosure of the commons through mechanisms such as water markets, privatization, unfettered water takings from aquifers and other mechanisms which take control of our common heritage from our hands, then we are dooming future generations and ecosystems to have their fates subject to those who ‘own’ our common resources. The reality is that we all own our water and no one owns our water, but to have the kind of future we know must exist we must all take responsibility for our water commons.

Anil Naidoo, Council of Canadians Blue Planet Project Organizer
Tommy Kane, co-editor of the Water Portal @ Spinprofiles.org