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NEWS: UN Special Rapporteur releases report on the right to water in the United States

Catarina de Albuquerque

Catarina de Albuquerque

Between February 22 and March 4 of this year, Catarina de Albuquerque, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Human Right to Water and Sanitation, undertook a fact-finding mission in the United States at the invitation of the U.S. government. Her visit included stops in Washington, Boston, Sacramento, and to the Winnemem Wintu in northern California.

The role of a ‘special rapporteur’ includes conducting fact-finding missions to countries to investigate allegations of human rights violations and assessing and verifying complaints from alleged victims of human rights violations. At the time of her visit, de Albuquerque said, “As a world leader in foreign aid to the water and sanitation sectors, the United States in a unique position to promote these human rights. I will also closely examine the domestic situation, including challenges in access to safe drinking water and sanitation for low-income groups, minority groups, homeless people, and Native American communities. This mission will particularly consider the situation of the most vulnerable groups with a special emphasis on the human rights principles of equality, non-discrimination, participation and accountability.”

On August 2, her report was presented to the United Nations Human Rights Council. Her recommendations include:

1. “The United States needs to develop a national water policy and plan of action guided by the normative content of the rights to water and sanitation.”

2. “A stronger regulatory system should be put in place to prevent pollution of surface and groundwater…”

3. “Adopt a comprehensive federal law on water and sanitation guaranteeing the rights to safe water and sanitation without discrimination and clearly delineating the responsibilities of public officials at the federal, state and local levels. Such a law must prioritize water for personal and domestic use and set affordability standards, among others.”

4. “Ensure that all municipalities provide access to safe drinking water and sanitation to homeless people, including through ensuring the opening and regular maintenance and upkeep of public restrooms, as well as availability of public water fountains, including during the night.”

5. “Enact the necessary legal action to change the status of unrecognized and terminated tribes to enable them to realize their rights to water and sanitation, as well as express religious and cultural rights; Ensure adequate consultation and prior and informed consent of indigenous communities regarding activities affecting their access to water.”

In reference to this last recommendation, rabble.ca has reported that the Kitchenuhmaykoosib Inninuwug First Nations in northwestern Ontario passed a ‘Water Declaration’ this summer in a community referendum that calls for Big Trout Lake and watersheds to be protected from all industrial uses that disrupt, poison, or harm the lands and waters. Chief Donny Morris hopes to take this latest declaration to the United Nations when it convenes in September. And this past February, the Winnipeg Free Press reported, “First Nations leaders from northern Manitoba are taking their water crisis to the United Nations. Manitoba Keewatinowi Okimakanak Grand Chief David Harper (said) the lack of running water in more than 1,000 homes in northern Manitoba is a violation of the United Nations Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous People. MKO plans to ask the UN to investigate the violations of rights imposed by the lack of water.”

The Council of Canadians has expressed support for the Kitchenuhmaykoosib Inninuwug First Nations and the Manitoba Keewatinowi Okimakanak in these efforts at the United Nations. Additionally, in August 2010, the Toronto Star reported, “Maude Barlow, Council of Canadians national chair who fought for the (July 28, 2010) UN resolution (on the right to water and sanitation), urged all First Nations to start using the resolution in their struggles to get the federal government to honour its commitment to provide clean water to aboriginal peoples.” Speaking to the Assembly of First Nations annual meeting this past July, Barlow stated that the UN has now recognized water and sanitation as a human right and that the federal government is obligated under international law to come up with a plan to fulfil that right. We have also highlighted that on the day the UN General Assembly recognized the right to water and sanitation, a water emergency was declared at the Constance Lake First Nation in northern Ontario.

De Albuquerque’s 21-page report can be read at http://www2.ohchr.org/english/bodies/hrcouncil/docs/18session/A-HRC-18-33-Add4_en.pdf. A Council of Canadians blog from March 1 on her visit to the United States can be read at http://canadians.org/blog/?p=5716.