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Right to Water conference at Syracuse University

I just finished participating in an impressive 2-day conference on the Right to Water at Syracuse University. This was hosted by the Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs, which has been ranked as the number one school on public affairs in the US, since ranking began 15 years ago. Over 250 faculty, students and public attended the events for the 2 days, with presenters from around the world giving speeches and presenting papers. I was very pleased to be asked to contribute as a result of Maude being unable to attend.

I closed the evening plenary and focused on the right to water being a necessary, but not sufficient tool for achieving water justice, as well as expanding the discourse to look at larger paradigm issues and the need to expand how we view the problem.

Certainly, the vital importance of the Human Right to Water cannot be over-stated for the billions who suffer from lack of access to clean water, or live in water scarce areas of the world. Climate change takes an already critical water situation and threatens to turn it into a global catastrophe — but only if we continue with business as usual. It looks very clear that there will be a great deal more suffering and misery from lack of access to water than there would be if we, collectively, tackled this problem with the energy it deserves.

I continue to be a strong advocate, alongside my colleagues, for the human right to water and this will not change. We are seeing amazing movement towards recognition of the right to water and it is an inspiring struggle, but it is also important to recognize the limitations of the human right to water.

Currently the right to water is about individual rights; individual access to a quantity and quality of affordable water in a progressive manner and for personal and domestic consumption. While the right to water must be secured, we must also recognize that it is framed as a snapshot of access without talking about sustainability, control or access for anything that is not human. These are all limitations that are exacerbated by not including collective rights and collective responsibilities with respect to water.

It was something of a doomsday talk, saying that we needed a new paradigm within which to address the current situation.  I pointed to the commons – an idea from the past which lives on – as a possible model in place of a neo-liberal framing of human rights which is far too narrow and needs reform.

The situation is dire, but I pointed out the hope that can be found in the commons, and in community-participation and governance models which exist and have survived for millennia. These can be found in those parts of the world which have not succumbed to the siren song of globalization. Often rural, they have withstood the rigors of time and adversity. But still, these models are not highlighted in discussions of our common water future. Capital markets, privatization and profit are the norm, alongside transparency, accountability and best practices.

I pointed out that applying a narrow, one-size-fits-all, model is not helpful when talking about water. As Rajendra Singh points out, you need to respect geo-cultural diversity when advocating water systems and governance. This means that water in the most arid part of India, which is rural, would be governed much differently than water in urban Manila, but that the overall goals of equity, justice, sustainability, democratic participation and community control must all be respected.

In many ways, we need to look back to move forward — learning lessons from indigenous communities and from more decentralized models of governance, but always within a larger framework of rights and responsibilities, at the state or international level. The point being that when you are talking about water, you are rarely only talking about water. More often it is about power relationships and the broader reach of water issues, be it gender, development, health, economics, human rights etc. Water flows through all aspects of our lives and our respect for water and how we treat water is an indicator of the health of our society. It also is about relationships, those between people and between people and nature.

I denounced our focus on the artificial world and the resources spent to create the artificial, often at the expense of the natural world. The point I made was one that climate justice activists also make: you cannot negotiate with nature. Sustainable, for me, has profound implications, even though we throw it around quite glibly.  Sustainable is the difference between something continuing and stopping. We need to live in and leave a world that is sustainable because our responsibility is not only narrow and immediate, it is profound and infinite.

Finally, one speaker questioned our whole stewardship model and it was an important moment for me; are we stewards of nature, or is nature the steward of life? I think this points to a shift which needs to happen in our relation to water and nature writ large. There is hope, but only if we act quickly… and water, clearly for me, is also the best hope to deal with the climate crisis… but I will write more about this as we move towards Bolivia and the Climate Summit later this month.